Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We go to Hell (1932) is a film for the ages. It’s about an alcoholic writer, Jerry Corbett (Fredric March), who falls in love and marries an heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney). Jerry then starts an affair with his ex Claire Hempstead, and actress (Adrianne Allen).
Jerry meets Joan at a party and is smitten with her despite his drunkenness. She notices that he drinks consistently throughout their initial meeting. Her face says it all as he makes each drink; she’s intrigued by him, but she’s cautious. The way March plays the role is with great finesse, especially when he’s drunk. But alcoholism isn’t a laughing matter. Alcoholism is the reason for his tumultuous marriage, extramarital affair, and a possible end to his marriage. But when he’s sober, his marriage is happy, and his career is thriving.
Jerry goes from an average newspaperman to a successful playwright. His ex, Claire, is cast to play the lead role through no control of his own. While Joan is a supportive wife and tries to help Jerry stay sober, Claire is an enabler. There’s one scene where Claire and Jerry talk about a scene. The despire in his face is evident as he takes a drink for the first time in weeks. You can see Joan’s heartbreak in her face as he takes the first sip.
The play is successful. Jerry is inebriated when he takes he bow. He comes home later that night, more dunk. Soon after, Joan kicks out Jerry for the night, despite her knowing that he’s going to see his mistress. Jerry returns home the next morning only to meet a “modern wife.” Jerry thought she’d leave because of last night. Joan replies, “Don’t be silly. The way you talk, one would think we’re living in my grandmother’s day.”
The interaction between the two is too rehearsed and lacks emotion. But Joan says things which resonate today. “I spent the morning realizing we’re living in a modern world. That there’s no place for old-fashion wives. You seem to want a modern wife, that’s what I’m going to be. You see, I’d rather go merrily to Hell with you than alone.” Jerry assumes that she’ll stay faithful. But, she says, “if being a modern husband gives you privileges, being a modern wife gives me privileges.” He still doesn’t take her seriously until she tells him she has a lunch date with one of his friends and walks away.