There’s a surprising number of early talkies about “modern marriages” gone awry. The husband cheats on his wife and the wife retaliates by sleeping with a man she doesn’t love to hurt her husband. They’re reunited in the end, but not before temporarily making a mess of their lives.
The Divorcée is the best of them, winning Norma Shearer an Oscar and still delighting audiences ninety-two years later.
Director Dorothy Arzner’s contribution to this subgenre was Merrily We Go to Hell, a film with a title so scandalous in 1930 that many newspapers refused to print it.
This time she pairs Fredric March with Sylvia Sidney as a husband and wife whose marriage goes to hell because of his drinking and wandering eye.
Newspaper man Jerry Corbett (March) is drunk when he meets teetotaler Joan Prentice (Sidney) at a party—drunk and hung up on his ex.
After a charming encounter, Joan goes home half in love and Jerry goes home and talks to a portrait of his ex. But Jerry ultimately decides that life married to a sweet girl with a rich father is an improvement over pining for the woman who left him flat.
Jerry is wonderful when he’s sober—the problem is he has trouble staying that way. He repeatedly flakes out on Joan when he’s on a bender, even passing out and missing his own engagement party.
Joan—against the advice of her father, her friends, and good common sense—goes through with the marriage despite this humiliation.
But marriage gets him up on the wagon, and things go well until Jerry reaches a lifelong goal and sells one of the plays he’s written. Joan is over the moon for him, but going to New York to see the play puts Jerry back into the partying and drinking crowd.
And the lead actress in his play?
Jerry’s old flame Claire Hampstead, who wants to pick up right where things left off before she booted him out the last time.
Soon Jerry is partying, drinking, and going to Claire when she calls in the middle of the night. When the party’s finally over, he stumbles home to good wife Joan. In a scene that cuts like a knife, she undresses him, puts his drunken body to bed, and he calls her Claire instead of her own name.
Instead of leaving him, Joan decides that they will have an “open marriage”—he can sleep with Claire or anyone else he likes, and she will do the same.
Jerry’s game, and he seemingly gets the best of both worlds—wild mistress and pretending-to-be-happy wife.
Both Jerry and Joan mask their misery with forced frivolity when they end up at the same party on the arms of others.
(Here we get a brief glimpse of Joan on the arm of twenty-eight year old Cary Grant during his first year in Hollywood.)
“Merrily we go to hell,” Jerry toasts Claire.
Meanwhile, Joan (teetotaler no more) raises a glass at a table full of men and extolls the “holy state of matrimony—single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.”
The situation can’t last, and when Joan finds herself pregnant with her husband’s child, she leaves him and heads home to her father.
It is only once he has lost her that Jerry realizes it was Joan he loved all along.
The final arc of the film chronicles how he wins her back, but he treats her so horribly throughout the film, that I find myself wishing she had turned him away in the end. Certainly, a 2022 remake would have her doing so—or would tone done Jerry’s transgressions.
Even so, Merrily We Go to Hell gives the viewer much to ponder—we’re not the first generation to decide that there might be a better alternative to monogamy, and yet it still seems to be the path to long-lasting romantic happiness, especially in the movies.
Merrily We Go to Hell was exactly the kind of film that enraged the religious and women’s groups that insisted Hollywood clean up its act. More than violence, films depicting a woman of “loose morals” as anything other than a low down tramp who comes to a bad end were anathema to this group.
Two years later, the objectors won and the Production Code was enacted, banning films like Merrily We Go to Hell.
The mature, on-screen conversation about marriage was put on pause for several decades.
It’s a shame, but it’s also what makes these pre-code films so special, little time capsules from the past that remind us we’re not so different from those who came before us.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
- Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema. 1999.
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