Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

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[NOTE: The following is the complete transcript for my discussion on Merrily We Go To Hell, which was shown on the night of April 15, 2010, at the Park Ridge Public Library. We had 71 people in attendance and the audience response was terrific. Thank you to all those who have been supporting our “Forbidden Cinema” pre-Code Hollywood Series.] 

Thank you for coming out on such a beautiful night. I suppose it’s fitting we are playing a movie called Merrily We Go To Hell on Tax Day.

Tonight’s film is the one that inspired me to do this series in the first place. Its title alone I wanted to see in the brochure, and it was an excuse to play another movie with Fredric March—an actor I greatly admire. There is nothing “old time” about his performance in this film. It feels real to us, even after all these years… So this is the film that triggered the pre-Code program. Stronger films were then built around it…

Merrily We Go To HellSafe in HellLaughter in HellThe Mayor of HellLaughing SinnersThe Road to RuinFree LoveThe Devil is DrivingMadam Satan… The studio PR men certainly knew how to hook a theatergoer with movie titles like that! Each one suggesting eight reels of moral anarchy.

I think you will enjoy tonight’s film. Not many people have seen it, and there’s not a lot out there written about it, but it’s films like these that give me the motivation to do programs like this. Since the majority of you in this room haven’t seen the film, I’d rather not go over any plot points in detail. Instead, I’d rather just let the story unfold for you. In short, it’s the story of a newspaperman, Jerry, who, as a rule, prefers the company of men—particularly if they’re bartenders. He is loved by a young society girl, Joan, whose father has millions. It’s important to remember that Joan is a swell girl—I mean, a really swell girl.

Besides the film’s title, which would not have passed the Production Code Administration in 1934, the film’s subject matter dealt with issues that would’ve been forbidden years later… The Production Code stressed the sanctity of marriage, and in this film, characters re-define marriage. There’s no room for the old-fashioned wife. “If being a modern husband gives you privileges, than being a modern wife gives me privileges,” Joan tells her swinging husband. The image of an open marriage was shocking for its time.

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Nineteen-thirty’s The Divorcee was the first film to deal with these kinds of issues in an adult way. Norma Shearer had the star power to push the envelope and make films that were important to women. Shearer excelled in roles that defined the modern woman. Throughout the pre-Code era, there are films that address the woman’s role in society– images that would be far different than those projected post-1934.

What is fascinating is how the characters transform in this film. Joan is a sweet innocent, but by no means a doormat, as her father fears. She grows up fast then tries to re-define herself as though ‘living it up’ were a self-defense mechanism. These changes can’t conceal the sadness and suffering beneath the surface. In an irresponsible, carefree world of drinking orgies, where characters in beautifully-lit art deco settings laugh off the Depression of the real world, there will come an awakening and a sobering up…

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Years before Method Acting came into vogue, there was Fredric March, an actor unique in his intensity and warmth. March plays Jerry, the alcoholic unable to take responsibility for his actions. And for the second week in a row, he’s showing up late and angering the future father-in-law at the announcement party. Merrily We Go To Hell was March’s second film after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could portray anguished souls better than just about anyone in Hollywood as we saw in last week’s film, and he excelled at playing drunks. Think Norman Maine in A Star is Born. Here, he’s drinking through most of the movie. Keep in mind this was in the days of Prohibition when the matter was a delicate subject with local censor boards. This movie serves it to us straight up.

Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel, March was a star of stage, screen, and radio. He was considered by his peers to be the finest actor of his generation. March was an acting craftsman blessed with a wonderful speaking voice and a Barrymore-like profile. Though he was cast in many costume films in the mid to late ’30s, he was equally adept in modern roles. Whether wearing period tights or a snap-brim hat, March could turn in one great performance after another.

Besides his films, he had a distinguished theatrical career that garnered two Tonys. In 1946, he won the very first Tony award for the play “Years Ago.” That same year, he won an Oscar for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. March is the only actor to have won, in a single year, the highest awards of stage and screen.

For those unfamiliar with his work, I’d recommend Les Miserables, A Star is Born, One Foot In Heaven, The Best Years of Our Lives—beating out Laurence Olivier that year for the Oscar— Death of a Salesman, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh. His name is not as well known today because audiences at the time never associated him with an image or onscreen persona. He simply blended into every role he took on. He was an actor first and a star second.

In that documentary I played for you on the making of Grand Hotel, you saw the great movie stars of MGM’s glory years—a studio that knew how to create and build a star. Studios at that time were mainly selling personalities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Joan Crawford may have been one of the greatest “movie stars” of all-time even if her performances were sometimes too mannered. And Greta Garbo, well, she inhabited some other plane entirely. There is no one today even remotely like a Garbo– a mystic Sphinx seemingly staring into Time. But that’s what Hollywood was all about then. Today, Hollywood doesn’t make movies, they make deals. And there are no more movie stars. Just bad haircuts in cheap suits who populate a vehicle which is nothing more than a two-hour trailer for a pop music video. But I digress… Though there were great movie stars, there were few who could be considered great actors, but March was one of them. Watch a film like A Star is Born and it’s his tragic performance as the washed-up actor that the modern viewer remembers– not the Hollywood hokiness of Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett.

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Merrily We Go to Hell co-stars Sylvia Sidney as Joan, who loves Jerry so much that she is always making excuses for him no matter how many times he lets her down. Her sheltered naivete is not tinged with anything other than genuine sweetness, so the hurt she suffers in the film is heartbreaking. In a recent online article on the film, writer Sarahjane Blum said of her: “My God, did they have faces. Sidney, a full figured beauty by the boyish standards popular in the jazz age, possessed a perfectly-complected, heart-shaped marvel of a face, that when innocent looked exactly like a kewpie doll, and when hardened, took on the appearance of someone who had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. She emoted every injury and cruelty with grace…” Sidney’s career in Hollywood would last into the 1990s when she was appearing in films like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! One of her best films of the 1930s was Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once with Henry Fonda—a precursor to the film noir style. She also appeared in Fritz Lang’s Fury as well as Dead End with Humphrey Bogart. In the same year as Merrily We Go To Hell, Sidney starred in Madame Butterfly opposite an actor you’ll see tonight in a small role: Cary Grant.

Of her leading man in this film, Sidney would say,

“Fredric March had the reputation of being a ladies man. We made two pictures together, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Good Dame (1934). But he never laid a hand on me, never made a pass at me! Freddie was happily married. He’d tease me by saying, ‘Look at those boobs!’ or ‘Look at that toosh!’ But it was all in fun.”

In the role of Joan’s father is George Irving—one of those great character actors from the golden age who appeared in hundreds of movies, often playing fathers, judges, or doctors. Coincidentally, he played Norma Shearer’s father in The Divorcee. Adrianne Allen plays Jerry’s ex-flame who returns to star in his play. Around Hollywood, Allen was known as Mrs. Raymond Massey. And in the role of Jerry’s newspaper friend, Buck, vaudeville entertainer Skeets Gallagher. According to one report in Film Daily, comedian Jack Oakie was to appear in the film. It did not say in which role, but I’ll assume it would’ve been as Buck.

The story is based on a novel called I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan, but Paramount– heading towards bankruptcy– changed the title to something a little more attention-getting for bigger box office. Perhaps the title drew some of you in tonight. At the time, The Los Angeles Times refused to print the title of the film in advertisements. It was the only paper that did so… The film was photographed by David Abel, who would later shoot the wonderful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals at RKO in the mid-thirties.

But the most interesting name in this film’s production credits is its director, Dorothy Arzner—the only woman director working in Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system. She once said, “When I went to work in the studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

But not only did she survive in the boy’s club, for fifteen years she excelled in it. In 1936 she would be the first woman in the Directors Guild of America… She was born in 1897 in San Francisco. When she was young she worked as a waitress in her parents’ café in Los Angeles. She wanted to be a doctor but wound up as an ambulance driver. After the First World War she worked at a newspaper. A tour of a motion picture studio inspired her to pursue a film career behind the camera. It was the editing of a movie that fascinated her most. Her big break came when she met William DeMille, brother of Cecil B. DeMille, who put her to work as a secretary at Paramount.

At this time, women in film mostly worked as scenario writers. There were only a couple women directors in the silent era, and in time she would become the only female to become a success in sound film, and the first woman to direct a talkie. Before she got to that plateau, though, she had to work from the bottom up. She toiled as a script girl before moving on to cutting films in the editing room. One of her most famous credits is the 1922 Valentino bullfight epic, Blood and Sand, for which she received the very first screen credit ever for editing. Director James Cruze was impressed with her work, but she was determined to get behind the camera, which she did a short time later when Paramount finally offered her a job. She directed the studio’s first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail, as well as Clara Bow’s first excursion into sound in 1929, The Wild Party—a film that would also feature… Fredric March… As an aside, the “It Girl,” Clara Bow, was terrified of the microphone in her first talkie, and this was in the early days of static filmmaking when the mike was fixed in one spot—usually on a desk or hidden someplace– and the actors acted around it. To help remedy her star’s fears, the director created a mobile, overhead mike affixed to a fishing pole. Arzner is often credited with creating the first ‘boom mike’ in Hollywood. However, I’m pretty sure the first boom mike was actually created by William Wellman for the 1928 Louise Brooks’ film Beggars of Life in which the director rigged a microphone onto a broom. Either way, Dorothy Arzner demonstrated a keen understanding of film, and her filmography reflects this attention to detail.

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She would direct several films with Fredric March, helping to establish him as a star. In the years ahead she would freelance and make films such as RKO’s Christopher Strong with Katherine Hepburn, Craig’s Wife with Rosalind Russell and Dance, Girl, Dance with Lucille Ball. When the Second World War came she made training films for the Women’s Army Corps. In her later years she made documentaries before finally teaching film at UCLA. One of her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She would pass away in 1979… Arzner was an open lesbian who dressed in suits and ties on the set. In later years she would be revived by feminists, but Arzner claimed to be neither a gay director or a woman director. She was simply a Hollywood director who made the women’s melodramas she was assigned by the studios.

Arzner did stamp her films with the trademark of well-defined female characterization, which brings us back to Miss Sylvia Sidney. It’s tough for the viewer to see her hurt in this film, but she really hits home the film’s theme—that loving the wrong person can cheapen you. In a very literal sense, it is Jerry’s alcohol addiction which she marries. ( Note the ‘wedding ring’ in the church scene.) But it’s a film whose themes reach across time as though Arzner is gently tapping the shoulder of the modern girl. How many contemporary marriages and relationships are destroyed because one person has that undying faith in someone who does not deserve it.

Finally, in that same online article I quoted before, writer Sarahjane Blum writes about what this film has to say: “But in this brief moment in Hollywood history, marriage was up for revision. Design For Living became one of the most clever and adult films of the pre-code age by espousing the three-person couple, but today it’s almost impossible to talk about such arrangements without moralizing. Other films championed everything from orgies to the abandonment of marriage altogether. Though Merrily We Go To Hell comes down hard against open marriage, it rejects it because even in twos, people destroy each other way too easily. In Arzner’s eyes, inventing ever more creative sexual partnerships only creates ever more novel cruelties.”

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