In the Northern Hemisphere, March is typically thought of as the month when Winter transitions to Spring. We’re movie-obsessed, so March means Fredric March, the actor who transitions from Jekyll to Hyde. This year marks his 125th anniversary, so we’re dedicating March to the versatile leading man.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: One night at a party, intoxicated newspaperman Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) sweeps heiress Joan Prentiss (Sylvia Sidney) off her feet without even trying. She invites him to a party she is throwing the next day, and even though he accepts, he no-shows, and her disappointment is palpable. Her father (George Irving) warns her of putting too much stock into the unreliable young man, but she is thoroughly smitten with him and cannot be reasoned with. The two get married, and it becomes clear early on that Jerry’s drinking is a major problem. He wins every argument by telling Joan how swell she is, but the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever. He runs into an old flame (Adrianne Allen) and the two enter into business when she becomes the leading lady in the show he wrote. Mrs. Corbett decides to live by the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality and embarks in an open marriage with her alcoholic husband.
What's your name, Joan?
ADAM WILLIAMS: It’s clear that Jerry Corbett is a mess right from the start. He attracts Joan Prentice’s attention by flicking a bottle cap at her back, which is roughly equivalent to literally waving a red flag. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste and, as it is in real life, some women fall for disastrous men they think they can fix. I’ll cut her some slack because Fredric March as the stumbling catastrophe is handsome and charming. He’s got some laugh out loud moments, like when he asks Gregory Boleslavsky to identify himself. He responds to the multisyllabic name with a slurred, “Hey now, wait a minute. I asked you a simple question and I expect a simple answer! Wanna drink?”
SG: March is a smart actor. He finds business to keep his hands busy and his scenes interesting. In the car, for example, he fiddles with his hat to show he is anxious. Perhaps he learned those skills when he was playing in a stock company in Dayton, Ohio. He looks best in profile, and we see him from the side a lot.
Sidney is adorable with her dainty smile and bright eyes. She reminds me of a grown-up Marianne Edwards. This is her film, and she exhibits a wide range of emotions from the joy and lightness of new love to disappointment, contentment, resignation, exuberance, and depression.
AW: It’s asking the audience a lot to go along with this dismal story. The charisma of the leads keeps the movie from flatlining.
SG: "You'll be just about ready to swear [they] are the grandest, swellest, most scrumptious team in the movies. How beautifully they work opposite each other in this! Fredric March, gay and charming; Sylvia Sidney wistful and appealing," Movie Mirror's reviewer wrote.
There are shades of The Divorcee in the way Joan tries to remedy her failed relationship. She enters into the open marriage because she would “rather go merrily into hell with you than without.” (Cary Grant in an early role isn't a bad choice for a dalliance.) However, they don’t seem to spend much time together and they’re surprised to each other at the same bar. The arrangement obviously isn't working. Neither of them seem happy.
AW: The title of the film packs a punch, even today. In 1932, it was downright incendiary and another example of Hollywood pushing the limits of what it could display on the marquee. Exhibitors complained that these salacious titles made their theaters seem like a travelling carnival’s midway. “Just imagine the reaction when a reformer sees a title like The Doorway to Hell [the 1930 Warner Bros. gangster picture] over a theatre entrance. It would agree with his opinion exactly,” wrote one Oklahoma theater manager. Coming on the heels of Indecent, Illicit, Her Wedding Night, and Freaks, Merrily We Go to Hell announced itself as more titillation for a jaded public. It wasn’t just the titles that raised Cain; the movies themselves were clashing with middle-American ideals. J.C. Jenkins of The Motion Picture Herald conceded that the title Merrily We Go to Hell “fit the picture like a glove, since the picture began with a drunken debauch and maintained its reputation pretty much throughout its entirety.”
SG: Eliza Dickinson age 12 wrote to New Movie Magazine to complain about the title, stating that her mother wouldn't let her go see it, even though she was a die-hard Sidney fan.
A Harrison's Reports reader was disgusted by the film, complaining about the minister daring to marry a man who was obviously drunk. "To use a corkscrew for a wedding ring is beyond the pale of decency... The whole story is so disgusting with the spineless hero and with his sickening drinking bouts that even if that scene were entertaining the effect of it would have been lost." This reaction screams "This is a pre-code film" and that not all contemporaries ate these movies up the way audiences seem to now.
AW: Harrison’s Reports’ review was equally unamused: “From all appearances it would seem that this picture was produced in an effort to show just how much liquor a person can drink and still live.” They go on to say about the worst thing you can say about a movie: “The picture is uninteresting and drags.”
SG: Some of the cinematography is remarkably beautiful, like in the scene where Sidney notices her father through the mirror watching her from the stairs at her failed engagement party.
AW: The wedding scene—the one that was “beyond the pale of decency”—is a small masterpiece of tragicomedy. It’s preceded by Jerry passing out drunk for the announcement party. Joan is warned, “Any girl would have to be utterly mad about a man to marry him after this.” As she drives away with tears in her eyes, the image dissolves to the image of bells ringing—it’s hard to say if they’re for a wedding or a funeral. What follows is a cascading sequence of human foibles that culminates with the revelation that Jerry had misplaced the ring and the couple was united with the bottle opener end of a screwdriver.
SG: I love the look of weddings from this era. I wanted Joel to wear a cutaway coat at ours, but he flipped the tails back and said he felt like a cartoon piano player. At least I got a bouquet with ribbons and buds tied on the ends.
Skeets Gallagher and Esther Howard are a lot of fun as the comic relief drinking buddies. Why are drunks in movies always singing in four-part harmony? There is an early scene when March and his buddies go in search of a fourth to sing. I can’t say I’ve had many experiences with drunken friends bursting into song outside of a karaoke bar.
AW: The bartender who ingratiates himself as a baritone is Australian character actor Robert Greig. He’s one of two Aussies with a penchant for playing butlers in this movie—look for Charles Coleman as the slimy gossip columnist Damery.
SG: My biggest complaint about this movie is the disjointed way it moves along. The ending feels completely disingenuous, and it is an unsatisfying conclusion to a movie that up to the point seems to be going another way. The strength of the actors carries this film; we are drawn in by Sidney and March immediately and want their relationship to succeed in spite of the odds. They wear gorgeous clothes and move around in pleasant settings.
AW: I disagree about the ending. I thought that last, darkly lit shot along with Sidney’s final line—which could be read in two ways—arrived at the title’s southward destination and suggests an eternity of bleakness. It gave me a chill.
SG: Larry Reid, the reviewer for Movie Classic said, “It seems that there were two novels—one called Merrily We Go to Hell and the other I Jerry, Take Thee, Joan. They have taken the title of one and the plot of the other, and the result is more or less a waste of time for Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney… The acting is way above the story.”
AW: Maybe I’m misunderstanding this comment, but there is just one novel I Jerry, Take Thee, Joan by 24-year-old Cleo Lucas. Since it was serialized in College Humor magazine, it’s presumably a bit lighter than the film adaptation.
SG: I think he is being figurative, implying that two conflicting stories were meshed together in a way that didn't make sense. Photoplay liked it better, writing, "Between bawling like a baby and giggling like an idiot at March and Skeets Gallagher, you're going to have your best hour in a theater in a long, long time."
What this country needs is more blondes like that and more men like me.
AW: Well, I neither bawled nor giggled. Nor was I offended, like the crew at Harrison’s Reports. The movie has some moderately funny moments, especially in the first half, but it spirals into a dull and morose melodrama. There are some great acting moments and visually it’s appealing, but I kept wondering, “What’s the point?” It’s worth a watch, but it’s not one I’ll likely revisit. Three stars.
SG: I was surprised when this film was chosen for the Criterion collection last year. I believe they may have been influenced by the fact that this was directed by a female, the wonderful Dorothy Arzner. My first experience attending the Wexner Center was for a screening as part of a celebration of Arzner's work. She made three films with March prior to this one (The Wild Party, Sarah and Son and Honor Among Lovers). Although this movie has wonderful elements, I consider it overall uneven and far from canon. Three stars.