Here’s mud in your eye

Sex and dying in high society with ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’

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A still from 'Merrily We Go To Hell'
The Criterion Collection

He’s just so damn handsome. Smooth skin, full head of shiny black hair, snappy dinner clothes, thin as a rail — what girl wouldn’t fall for Jerry Corbett? Coffee heiress Joan Prentice sure does. She falls for his charm and she falls for his wit. She even falls for his passion. He’s a reporter, another ink-stained wretch, but someday he’ll write for the stage. He’s well below her station and they both know it, but Joan doesn’t care. It’s love at first sight, even if it’s a little blurry on Jerry’s end. He’s been overserved, sure, but it’s a high society party. Isn’t everyone?

Trouble is, Jerry lives his life overserved. Joan explains it away: He drinks too much at parties, and they do go to a lot of parties. He drinks when his plays are rejected, and his plays are frequently rejected. Even worse, he’s not the type to get loaded and pick a fight; he’s just charmingly defenseless when he ties one on. That’s death for Joan. She thinks she can fix him. He just wants to fix another drink.

Adapted from Cleo Lucas’ first and only novel, I Jerry Take Thee Joan, 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell is an underrated gem from Hollywood’s pre-Code era. Two years later, the Motion Picture Production Code would be the law of the land, and half of what’s in Merrily We Go to Hell — particularly Jerry and Joan’s open marriage — wouldn’t be allowed on the screen. And no title could use the word “hell.” In the 1930s, Hollywood went awful conservative.

That title, Merrily We Go to Hell, comes courtesy of Jerry’s favorite toast, one that rings close to another drinking salutation: Here’s mud in your eye. A friend of mine, who once drank but now doesn’t, called it an expression of endearment. Only someone close could throw mud in your eye, and you only let the ones you love that close. I think Joan would agree.

Sylvia Sidney plays Joan wide-eyed and effervescent. When she’s happy, cinematographer David Abel makes her face sparkle like Champagne. When she’s sad, your heart falls three floors. Joan is the epitome of vulnerable delicacy, and Sidney is outstanding. So is Fredric March as Jerry, fresh off his Best Acting Oscar performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Five years later, March would play another enchanting self-destructive drunk in A Star is Born. In that movie, his character is all washed up. Here, he can’t get started. Call it personal preference, but this one rings truer.

Good as Sidney and March are, Merrily would play like an after-school special if not for director Dorothy Arzner. Her style isn’t overtly directorial, but the camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and the story beats fall right when you expect them. The lone misstep might be the end, which eschews Lucas’ despondent downbeat for one of hope and affirmation. They don’t call them Hollywood endings for nothing.

And now it looks like Merrily We Go to Hell’s Hollywood ending has come. Well received upon release, Merrily has been overshadowed by Arzner’s more overtly feminist film, 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance, and overlooked by pre-Code enthusiasts for more salacious fare like Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face. That should change thanks to Criterion’s release of Merrily We Go to Hell on Blu-ray and DVD — the new 4K digital restoration practically glows. The set includes a documentary about Arzner, a video essay on Arzner’s career from Cari Beauchamp and a written essay from Judith Mayne.  

ON THE BILL: ‘Merrily we Go to Hell’ is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.