Dorothy Arzner’s pre-code classic Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) is more of the zeitgeist now than it was back when it was first released. A home video package of the film from the Criterion Collection has really been instrumental not just in a popular reappraisal or discovery of Arzner but also in helping to popularize what is one of the best Hollywood comedies of the thirties (albeit a particularly dark comedy).
Merrily We Go To Hell deals with issues of alcoholism, domestic abuse, infidelity and polyamory with enough wit to make Dawn Powell envious. Though the style and form of the film will inevitably remind most viewers of much more famous films of the screwball comedy school, Merrily We Go To Hell is rather a subversive exercise. Arzner trains the aesthetic mechanism of screwball (the quick puns, fast dialogue and double entendres) back on the audience, drawing them into the emotional wringer of the character’s lives. Merrily We Go To Hell is a film about cruelty that has disguised itself; a sort of wolf in sheep’s skin.
The escapism that defined the modus operandi of the cinema of the thirties exists only superficially in Merrily We Go To Hell in terms of setting. The difference is that these “rich twits” are facing far more real and relatable crises than say locating a pet leopard. Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March are even denied a storybook ending. Arzner certainly gestures towards a sentimental resolution in the scene at the hospital between her two stars, but she intentionally leaves the moment open ended. With a reconciliation only slightly implied the film fades too black.