Friday, September 25, 2020

Merrily We Go to Hell

When heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) first meets reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) at the start of Dorothy Arzner's Merrily We Go to Hell, she's instantly smitten. They soon get engaged but Joan finds out that Jerry has a drinking problem. Through thick and thin, she stays loyal to him but how far will her devotion go?

Its title makes Merrily We Go to Hell sound like it'll be one of the scandalous pre-Codes of the era. In reality, however, it's more of how codependency isn't the foundation of a strong marriage (Joan bases her role as Jerry's wife on his happiness and little else). And that's not even getting into Jerry's relationship woes before (and since) marrying Joan.

Of course, being a pre-Code, the film neither condones nor condemns Jerry's actions but rather acknowledges that he could stand to change his ways a bit. Joan herself also gets this treatment when she starts to emulate Jerry but -- due to her health -- this phase of hedonism is short-lived. Sometimes a destructive lifestyle harms more than the person imbibing it.

As she would also show with Dance, Girl, Dance, Arzner shows how life can be unfair for women, some begrudgingly making sacrifices to achieve their dreams. In contrast to what Judy O'Brien went through in the later title, what Joan endures is far more demeaning. To watch your husband being flaunted by his lover and have to behave like it doesn't bother doesn't get much crueler than that.

Merrily We Go to Hell is just proof that Arzner should be held in the same regard as her male contemporaries. (Just because she's a woman doesn't lessen her worth.) Her work was rediscovered shortly before her death in 1979; it's high time it gets another one.

My Rating: *****

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