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 you...it 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: *****