I wonder all the time why I'm so cynical when it comes to love and relationships. At the age of 21, a relationships feels like it would be too much stress alongside my schoolwork, my job, my family, and other miscellaneous responsibilities. Merrily We Go To Hell, based off of the novel I. Jerry, Take Thee, Joan by Cleo Lucas, only helped in cementing this cynical philosophy of mine with the rollercoaster ride of marriage between characters Joan Prentice and Jerry Corbett.
Five minutes into the movie, Joan played by Sylvia Sidney, a daughter of a rich businessman in the trade of alcohol, and Jerry played by Fredric March, a drunkard and reporter, meet and converse at a party. Their first meeting springs a relationship that evolves into marriage of the unrequited sort. Before the knot is tied, Jerry hardly ever looks or acts fully committed to Joan and the relationship. Or maybe I'm mistaking disinterested and a lack of commitment with full-blown inebriation. Since I don't want to spoil the movie too much I'll just say that the rest of the movie outlines the marriage between Joan and Jerry throughout the years specifically how Joan responds to the inebriated antics of Jerry.
Getting drunk and making self-destructive decisions seems to be another motif spread throughout. From main to minor characters, the liquor runs wide and deep in the bloodstreams of all involved.
The occasion of drinking alcohol was also tied to a break from reality. Whenever characters were under the influence, like Jerry for instance, they became different people, addressed a different reality.
There are whisperings of this in the beginning of the film where we see Jerry, for a brief moment, forgetting who Joan was. After the two had conversed and Joan basically fell for Jerry, Joan briefly leaves Jerry but then revisits him to say goodbye as she is leaving the party. However in their second meeting, Jerry can't bring her face into visual focus; he doesn't recognize her; her face is blurred by his intoxicated state.
This theme of altered or effected persona by the properties of alcohol is present all throughout the film as most of the characters try to seek solace through the bartenders and liquor behind the bar.
And there were many chances to approach bartenders, bottles of alcohol through all the parties and dances held. So many dances and parties were there and this was where the wardrobe played a huge role.
Sylvia Sidney was styled in the most beautiful gowns that sparkled from all the beading, embroidery, and glitter the fabric housed. One of the elements of black and white films that I covet is the fashion of the women, especially. They are always decked out in gowns of classic Hollywood style.
There were some great surprises in the plot and the relationship between Joan and Jerry can be very rage-inducing if you've ever known someone in a bad relationship they need to rid themselves of. However, it's portrayal of relationships and their complications is part of what makes the film so realistic.
Some other important notes I'd like to highlight are how the movie tied money and marriage together. In the time period of which this movie takes place, marriage was like a financial transaction. There were only two reasons to marry, for either money or love.
In Merrily We Go To Hell, Joan's father, played by George Irving, was her biggest supporter in terms of having her marry for money. Since the Prentices come from money with the alcoholic beverage business that Father Prentice runs, Father Prentice would like his daughter to marry someone of equal caliber. Unfortunately, Jerry is within the bounds of the middle class with his profession as a reporter.
So, for a while I wondered if married Joan just for the money since Jerry seemed to have no other reasons for having done so except that Joan is "swell." Really, he said that word so many times it was grating to hear after a while.
Nowadays, I don't think marriage is viewed as a financial transaction but some relationships, especially bad ones, still come with a lot of stress attached. Through the experiences of my friends and family members in relationships I've found that to be true. Also, in the film, Jerry heaps stress onto Joan. Life is made more complicated with Jerry's presence in her life.
After seeing this movie, I don't feel any more confident in the idea of dating anyone during a time of which already feels stressful. As a college student trying to make her mark on the world through writing while also working and having to spend time with family, my younger sister especially, there is too much on my plate for another element to be factored in.
However, I'd love to know what others think. Is the reward attached to romantic relations worth the stress, the potential drama? If there is too much drama, are you with the right person? And is love enough to carry a relationship on? These are all questions the movie raised for me so let me know in the comments where your opinion lies.
For your viewing pleasure the movie can be found on YouTube, for the time being.
A cool source I found upon my research was a 1932 review of the movie from the New York Times archives. It's an interesting read as reviewing these older articles allow you to see how others from the past viewed these movies and novels and the themes and ideas they raise.