When the cinema was first invented, women were responsible for some of the major breakthroughs in the medium, and often advanced to the director’s chair. Such early figures as Alice Guy, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, and Lois Weber all made films during the silent era, and the impact of their work was considerable. Alice Guy directed what is often considered the first film with a plot, La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy) in 1896, and then went on to direct nearly 1,000 films, of which some 350 survive, as well as developing an early sync-sound process, an equally pioneering color process, and directing some of the first multi-reel films. Lois Weber was one of the most successful and highly paid directors working at Universal during the teens and early 1920s, with such controversial films as Hypocrites (1915), Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Blot (1920).
It was during this period that Dorothy Arzner broke into the film industry, starting out as a stenographer in 1919 at Paramount Studios, rapidly moving up as a screenwriter, and later as a film editor on Fred Niblo’s 1922 version of Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. As an editor, screenwriter and script doctor, Arzner was much in demand, but Paramount refused to give her the chance to direct a feature film. Incensed, Arzner finally threatened to move to Columbia Pictures, where Columbia’s studio head, Harry Cohn, was actively courting her as a director and scenarist. Dismayed at the prospect of losing her services altogether, Paramount relented. Arzner soon became one of the studio’s most prolific directors, directing such box office hits as Fashions for Women (1927), Ten Modern Commandments (1927), Get Your Man (1927) and The Wild Party (1929), her first sound film, starring the “It” girl, Clara Bow.
The Wild Party was an immense commercial success, becoming the third most profitable film of the year, and Arzner was off and running. In rapid succession, she directed Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), Working Girls (1931) and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), which was to be her last film at Paramount.
One might persuasively argue that Arzner’s career peaked with Merrily We Go to Hell. Arzner was at her best as a Pre-Code director, unhampered by the Production Code that would become so rigidly enforced from 1934 onward, and change the face of American filmmaking altogether. Arzner made films for women, about problems that women dealt with every day; adultery, sexism, patriarchy, maternal issues, and other social concerns that no male director of the period would touch. But what makes this all the sadder is that by 1934, Arzner was the only woman working as a director in Hollywood, and that by 1943, her career as a feature film director was over.
Merrily We Go To Hell starts off as a somewhat conventional romance; Jerry Corbett (Fredric March), a Chicago newspaper reporter and a would-be playwright, accidentally meets wealthy young Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sydney) at a drunken party, and is almost immediately smitten with her. Jerry is so drunk that it seems he would proposition anyone; indeed, when Joan invites him for tea the next day, he shows up several hours late, much the worse for the wear. None of this sits well with Joan’s father (George Irving), who recognizes almost immediately that Jerry is too unstable to be trusted with his daughter’s happiness.
Joan marries Jerry in a lavish church ceremony, and the couple settle down to live on Jerry’s $85 a week salary, while Jerry swears off alcohol, and tries to hammer out a play. At first, the play is rejected by a number of producers, but suddenly a telegram arrives from a New York impresario, offering to bring the play to Broadway. Joan and Jerry are thrilled, but Joan’s ardor cools when she discovers that the female lead in the play is none other than Jerry’s old flame, Claire Hampstead (Adrianne Allen). The play is a hit, but that only makes matters worse.
Jerry starts drinking heavily again, and quickly falls into an affair with Claire, apparently unconcerned about his wife at all, whom he starts calling “Claire” while in a drunken stupor. Joan, finally convinced she can’t reform Jerry, decrees that from now on, theirs will be an “open marriage,” and launches into affairs with several young men. The title of the film comes from a toast that Jerry repeats throughout the film whenever he’s about to go on a drunken binge; “merrily we go to hell” he exclaims, as he lurches from one misadventure to another. And the toast is, of course, all too prophetic.
Arzner’s sympathies are entirely with Joan through all of this, and Sylvia Sidney’s metamorphosis from starry-eyed innocent into shocked realization at the mess she’s gotten herself into is all too convincing. Arzner’s camerawork is strikingly mobile for an early sound film, executing difficult tracking shots with the ease of a Lubitsch, as the camera prowls through the twilight world the characters inhabit, and the overall atmosphere of decadence the film depicts is depressingly real. Sold as a comedy, the film is anything but; Arzner views café society as a snake pit, in which people use and discard each other without a backward glance.
After this film, Arzner quit Paramount to freelance, but directed only a handful of features for other studios; the feminist aviation drama Christopher Strong (1933), with a strong Katharine Hepburn in the lead; the disappointing Nana (1934) with Anna Sten, co-directed with George Fitzmaurice; Craig’s Wife (1936), perhaps her most famous film, with Rosalind Russell as a psychotically possessive wife; The Bride Wore Red (1937), an indifferent Joan Crawford vehicle for MGM; Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an effective exposé of the drab, exploitational world of burlesque; and her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), featuring Merle Oberon as Nikki, a member of the Norwegian anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. When Arzner fell ill with pneumonia during the filming of First Comes Courage, she was summarily dismissed from the project, and replaced by director Charles Vidor, who hastily completed the film.
From 1943 until her death in 1979, Arzner was unable to get another directorial assignment, although she taught some of the first college film classes at UCLA, and directed numerous Pepsi Cola commercials at the behest of Joan Crawford, who was married to the president of the company. Clearly, Arzner could have done much more if she had been given the support and resources that she needed; there was also the fact that, as an “out” lesbian in a very hostile environment, she was unable to connect through the “boy’s club” network that stills rules Hollywood today. But in Merrily We Go To Hell, we can see Arzner’s bleak vision of life, unadorned and uncompromised, and we can get a sense of how she saw life, as a queer person in Hollywood, and how she understood the issues that faced women, straight or gay, every day of their lives. For this, Arzner is one of the most important and individual directors of the sound era, who deserves much more attention, and Merrily We Go To Hell shows us precisely why.
Merrily We Go To Hell (1932 United States 84 minutes)
Prod Co: Paramount Publix Corp Dir: Dorothy Arzner Scr: Edwin Justus Mayer, from the story “I Jerry, Take Thee, Joan” by Cleo Lucas Phot: David Abel Ed: Jane Loring Mus: Rudolph G. Kopp, John Leipold
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard, Kent Taylor, Cary Grant