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Review: Dorothy Arzner's 'Merrily We Go To Hell' Upends The Public Norms of a Patriarchal Society

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 11, 2021
Review: Dorothy Arzner's 'Merrily We Go To Hell' Upends The Public Norms of a Patriarchal Society

The world of pre-Code Hollywood filmmaking was rife with projects that offered racier content that broke with the norms, and director Dorothy Arzner was one of the few women able to helm projects during this period. Her "Merrily We Go to Hell" may not be as whip-smart as the Lucille Ball-starrer "Dance, Girl, Dance," but what it has is a whirlwind of tonal shifts that work hard to upend the public norms of that era, while also tearing through the casual deceit inherent in a patriarchal society.

The Criterion Collection brings "Merrily We Go to Hell" to Blu-ray with a 1080p presentation sourced from a 4K restoration of the 35mm composite duplicate negative. The result is, unsurprisingly, stellar. It's actually shocking to see such an old film not even have any surface scratches throughout the presentation. And while the special features are a bit spare, they all shine a light on Arzner's fascinating career in Hollywood. This is a terrific release of a film that rightfully deserves appraisal once again.

Jerry (Fredric March) is a local reporter and aspiring playwright who meets the love of his life in Joan (Sylvia Sidney), an industrial heiress who falls head over heels for him. There's a catch, though: Jerry is a lush, and that causes a lot of friction in their relationship. Joan's commitment to Jerry is tested time and again, all leading to a breaking point. Will their relationship stand the test of Jerry's alcoholism and wandering eye?

"Merrily We Go to Hell" is practically revelatory in its dissection of monogamy and addiction within traditional marriage, and not just for the time in which is was released. Joan feels a responsibility to take care of Jerry and weather his worst moments, but that dogged dedication leads to her own emotional ruin. And the film doesn't pull any punches with Jerry's alcoholism, either, as we constantly see him degrade himself in public without taking away from the humanity he still has buried deep inside. It's a textured portrayal made all the better by Arzner's studious direction. She has a true knack for bringing out the internal turmoil within her performers without it amounting to an awards reel that shows off their talent.

There's a great video essay with historian Cari Beauchamp included with this release that dissects the production and Arzner's career. Add in a terrific booklet essay and an archival documentary on Arzner's career, and you have a well-rounded release of a film that deserves your attention!

"Merrily We Go to Hell" is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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