Between 1927 and 1943, the year when she retired from feature filmmaking, Dorothy Arzner was the only female film director working in Hollywood. While the situation isn’t exactly perfect now, it was a whole lot worse as we entered the epoch of ‘talkies’. She made twenty films over that period and launched the careers of several stars, including Katherine Hepburn. Produced during the pre-code era, Merrily We Go to Hell is one of her best.
Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a struggling playwright and Chicago reporter whose lack of success has contributed to his lifestyle as a hopeless louche. As has having his heart broken by the now successful actress Claire Hampstead (Adrianne Allen). At a party one night when he’s more than a little worse for wear he meets Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sydney), a wealthy young heiress. The pair hit it off and start dating, much to her father’s (George Irving) chagrin, but can love conquer all.
Merrily We Go to Hell delves into the seediness and dissolution of the probation era to create a tragic love story which defines the times. As with much of the pre-code output, the producers play it close to the bone in terms of what they could get away with. Arzner’s film is less of a cautionary tale and more of a tragedy, where the two lovers are fated to experience unhappiness. March and Sydney are well-balanced in this drama which is years ahead of its time.
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a 1983 documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler
- New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne
New cover by Sonia Kretschmar
Merrily We Go to Hell is released on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion collection on 14 June.