Director: Dorothy Arzner
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer
Based on a Story by: Cleo Lucas
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard, Florence Britton
Running Time: 83 min
Watching Mark Cousins’ epic documentary Women Make Film (which I reviewed last year) reminded me how woefully poor my knowledge of female directors was and how few of their films I’d seen. As such, I’ve been trying my best to amend this fact and have been enjoying exploring the work of the likes of Agnes Varda and Larisa Shepitko. One name that came up quite often in Cousins’ film though was Dorothy Arzner.
Arzner was a genuine trailblazer. She grew interested in the film industry and heard that, following WWI, Hollywood was looking for workers, so she headed over. She wasn’t sure which department to try initially but after watching a few shoots, including one with Cecil DeMille behind the camera, she came to the conclusion that “if one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”
Arzner quickly moved up the ranks from typing up scripts to editing, then finally strong-armed her way into directing, her debut being Fashions for Women in 1927 (you should watch the special features on this disc or look Arzner up online for the full story). She became the only female director making studio films in Hollywood during its ‘Golden Age’ of the late-twenties through to the 40s.
She was considered a safe pair of hands too, known to be very good at working with actors and even making some important technical innovations (she reportedly came up with the idea for the first boom mic). She won reasonable critical acclaim and commercial success for most of her films. However, after a severe bout of pneumonia and a decline in success towards the 40s, Arzner retired from filmmaking in 1943, after making First Comes Courage.
It’s a shame her career was cut short this way, as, given another decade or two and some bigger films to her name, she might have helped open the doors to more women in Hollywood. Sadly, this wasn’t the case as we well know. Almost 80-years later, though the balance is gradually being addressed, there’s still a long way to go before we see true equality in the Hollywood studios.
Arzner’s work hasn’t been well-circulated on home entertainment media over the years, in the UK at least, but Criterion are trying to address the issue. After releasing Arzner’s most famous film, Dance, Girl, Dance, on Blu-ray last year, they’re turning their attention to Merrily We Go To Hell, which was originally made in 1932. In a bid to further my female director education, I picked up a copy and my thoughts follow.
Merrily We Go To Hell focuses on the turbulent relationship between Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) and Jerry Corbett (Arzner regular Fredric March). They first meet at a party, where Jerry is drunk but charming and they arrange a dinner date, which Jerry is late for but eventually attends.
Though Jerry’s drunken antics cause concern for Joan, she’s too smitten by him to give up. After they marry, he becomes much better behaved, though they have financial worries whilst he struggles to make a name for himself as a playwright.
When Jerry does get a play sold, it stars his old flame, Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen), and this reunion knocks him off the wagon. He also starts to get romantically involved with Claire again, barely hiding it from Joan in his frequently drunken state.
Joan attempts to stand fast and keep Jerry on the straight and narrow but eventually has enough and attempts to show her husband what pain he’s causing by living a wild and free life herself.
Merrily We Go To Hell has quite an unusual tone. From the title and blurb I’d read, I was expecting a riotous screwball comedy. However, though there is plenty of comedy in the film, it’s countered by quite serious drama. It’s very much a film of two halves in fact, with the first leaning more heavily towards romantic comedy, then the second skewing much closer to drama, ending on a particularly moving note of tragedy.
In the wrong hands, this shift in tone might have been a problem, but Arzner keeps the transition smooth and natural. In fact, it helps strengthen the depiction of the problems the central relationship faces, with Jerry’s alcoholism seeming charming to begin with, before becoming destructive. This mixture of warmth and comedy with cold cynicism makes for a deep and believable depiction of marriage too.
Also helping sell the concept are a pair of great central performances. March plays drunk very well and has enough charisma to prevent his character’s many flaws from turning the audience completely away from him. Sidney is the real star of the show though. Her richly textured performance feels way ahead of its time, with subtle changes in expression belying her breezy, cheerful demeanour. The wedding scene is a particularly strong moment between the pair as their body language and reactions make for a wonderfully awkward atmosphere and add great depth to a scene that’s very straightforward on paper.
The rest of the cast are a bit of a mixed bag, with George Irving a little flat as Joan’s father, for instance, whereas Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher is enjoyable as Jerry’s drunken cohort, Buck. There’s a brief treat among the supporting players though, in the shape of Cary Grant, who features in a very early role.
The script can be a bit hit and miss too. There are some amusingly witty lines but it’s not as sharply written overall as some other classic comedies from the era. The story also ladles on the melodrama towards the end with a final scene that ties things up too simply for my liking.
Visually, Arzner and DOP David Abel do a great job. There’s plenty of camera movement that’s only subtly used for the most part, though there are a couple of quite complicated tracking shots in there too. There’s also a nice use of depth in frame, to keep the film visually interesting.
I didn’t feel the pace was well maintained though. Perhaps it’s because I was expecting more of a screwball comedy, or it’s due to the quieter nature of the early sound era, but the film didn’t feel as ‘punchy’ as it could be.
Overall, however, Merrily We Go To Hell is a sensitive, yet frank and honest examination of a troubled marriage. Its move from comedy to tragedy was unexpected for me and made for an unusual blend, but the transition is well handled. The film isn’t perfect and has some lulls here and there, but some fantastic central performances and assured, intuitive direction make it something special, regardless.
Merrily We Go To Hell is out on 14th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is very good for a film of its age. There’s only the merest fraction of damage and the rich grain looks natural. It’s not mega sharp but looks lovely in motion. Audio is solid too.
There are a few special features included:
– New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a 1983 documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler
– New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne
It’s not one of Criterion’s more stacked releases, in terms of extras, but what we do get is very good.
‘Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women’ is a little overwrought at times when looking at where she lived in her later years, adding quite a flowery voiceover, but the film provides an affectionate and inspirational tribute to Arzner, providing a lot of background to her life and work.
Cari Beauchamp’s essay is similarly biographical and inspirational, focusing largely on Arzner’s life and work again. It also briefly covers some of the other major players in the film though.
I wasn’t sent a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.