Merrily We Go To Hell (1932); Dir. Dorothy Arzner


On Facebook recently, a friend mentioned the wonderful Fredric March, in passing, and while he is probably most famous for The Best Years of Our Lives, I think some of the best acting he has ever done is in the pre-Code film Merrily We Go to Hell, directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few female directors working at that time. Merrily We Go To Hell also stars Sylvia Sidney, a favorite of mine.

Merrily We Go To Hell has superb acting (not just from the two leads, who could not be better) but from the rest of the supporting cast. It’s one of those ensemble pieces where everyone, everyone, shows up 100%. Some of these people have very small parts (including a pre-fame Cary Grant), or only one or two scenes, but everyone makes such an indelible impression that you never feel lost, you never feel like you are in some “general” atmosphere. These people LIVE, and occasionally they stroll onscreen, say a couple of lines, and stroll off, and you never forget them, even if you haven’t seen them for the last hour. George Irving, who plays Mr. Prentice (Sylvia Sidney’s father) is in the film in the beginning, and then a good hour passes before we see him again. But his character is so solidly and evocatively created (God bless those character actors, they knew what they were doing) that my response when I saw him again was, ‘Oh! Hi, Mr. Prentice – how are you? What have you been up to?”

Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) elopes with journalist Jerry Corbett (Fredric March). They meet at a party and fall in love, one of those glittering urban parties so typical of 1930s films. Joan is an heiress, and is supposed to marry a rich man, but she marries for love. This is her downfall, and it’s one of the most radical things about this script, and about the pre-Code movies in general. Jerry Corbett is not a villain, but he is a childlike man, not ready for the responsibilities of marriage, and, on occasion, he hits the sauce a little bit too hard. But love is blinding, and Joan marries him anyway. During their marriage, it becomes clear that Jerry is unwilling to give up the freedom he had as a single man, and Joan suffers through his obvious infidelities and constant partying. She tries to be a good wife. But too often, she is left out in the cold. Jerry doesn’t want to bring her along on his shenanigans – of course not, she’s his WIFE, that would be no fun … and Joan, who loves him, starts to disintegrate. She starts to drink, too (something she had never been interested in), to see if she can keep up with him, maybe bond with him in an alcoholic way (love makes people desperate), but finally, it becomes too unbearable, and she leaves him. She flees home to her parents, who love her, but who were disappointed in her match in the first place. Unfortunately, Joan discovers she is pregnant. Jerry, who, like I said, is not a villain, is horrified that his wife walked out on him. He tries to sober up in time for the arrival of the baby. Will it be too late? Is there any hope that this pair could make a go of it?

Melodramatic stuff, right? But it’s played realistically, with a gritty understanding of the darkness we all have within us. And Sidney and March are so good that you ache for both of them. This is the way things sometimes go in life. Merrily We Go To Hell doesn’t blink.

The film is an example of how these pre-Code films so often had the courage of their convictions. They go to the limit. They follow the events as they would happen, not as they should happen. Even the ending (which I would not dream of revealing) is not a compromise. It may seem to be on the face of it, but to quote Roger Ebert in his review of Stranger Than Fiction, it is the characters’ compromise, not the compromise of the script. Because we, as human beings, don’t always behave in a noble fashion, and we don’t always do the right thing. “Happy” is subjective. You may look at a married couple and think, “God, I could never be happy in a marriage like that!” But to then take the leap and say, “So they must NOT be happy because I personally cannot understand the dynamic” is narrow-minded. What works for you may not work for everyone. Merrily We Go To Hell doesn’t take a simple or easy way out. It also doesn’t take an unnecessarily hard way out, the script doesn’t feel too bossy or mechanical. This is not a melodrama, although it could have been. It is a drama, end-stop.

This is a portrait of a real marriage, between two real and flawed people. The deck isn’t stacked on one or the other side. When does pride become something you hide behind? When does pride force you to make self-destructive choices because you are afraid of looking weak or giving in? Love also means being able to stand up to society, who may disapprove, and say, with your actions, “Look. I love this man/woman, and I don’t care what you have to say about it.”

Another thing that is so wonderful about the acting of the two leads is the transformation they both go through over the course of the film. As we know, movies are not usually filmed in sequence. In a film, you might shoot the last scene on the first day of filming. So the actor needs to be in charge of the gradations of whatever transformation the character has to go through. “Okay, so this is the last scene – I am now a heroin addict, I am devastated … GO.” You may START the film as a fresh-faced young schoolgirl and end it as a crack whore, but it’s not a play where you can go through those transformations in something akin to real-time. Sidney and March have quite a journey to go on here, and it’s amazing to watch. Their performances are perfectly modulated. You watch them disintegrate, and because you have invested so much in both of them, it is shattering to witness.

Fredric March is an exquisite actor, and here, in 1932, he predicts the future of film acting with this performance. He is a precursor to the Method actors of the 50s. He appears to be drawing on something very real. It’s an incredibly personal performance.

Sylvia Sidney is an actress I have always loved. My first encounter with her, believe it or not, was in an episode of Thirtysomething in the early 90s. She played Melissa’s bossy grandmother who wanted to hand off her dressmaking business to Melissa before she passed. It was a fantastic performance by a little wrinkled old lady, still glamorous with her red lipstick and perfectly styled white hair, who reminded me a lot of my O’Malley grandmother: a real DAME, nobody’s fool, lives her own life, a matriarch, and in everybody’s business. I watched the episode with Mitchell, when they were re-running the series every night on Lifetime, and naturally the second she came onscreen, Mitchell said, “Oh, that’s Sylvia Sidney – she was huge in the 1930s.” Lesson learned. I have now seen most of her work in the 30s, where she played spunky working-class girls, struggling in the harsh realities of her day and age. She is luminous, brilliant.

In Merrily We Go to Hell, she vibrates with real feeling. You can see her breath catch in her throat, and spontaneous tears come to her eyes. There is always a laugh at the back of her voice. She is one of the most sympathetic of movie leading ladies. Beautiful, yes, but not in an alienating way. She looks like a real person.

There’s one painful scene where she gets drunk, and it’s awful to watch, because you know she’s making choices out of heartbreak and desperation, and you want to intervene. She does not play a doormat, let me make that clear, because it is a very important distinction. She is not a tear-soaked downtrodden little lady, just a heartbroken wife trying to survive the disappointments being handed to her. And so she gets drunk, and there’s a moment where she staggers through her apartment, laughing and weeping at the same time, an extraordinary bit of physical and emotional acting. It made me feel like I was watching Gena Rowlands. Sidney is a brave actress.

Not only was I moved by her work, I was also excited. That is my memory of what it was like to watch Merrily We Go To Hell for the first time. I actually felt excited. I can enjoy movies, get into them, even love some of them … but the movies that excite me stick out. There are scenes between March and Sidney where I got that telltale goosebumpy feeling of being in the presence of something real. To use the terminology that some people find obnoxious (but I don’t care), both actors “go there”, and when actors “go there”, it is an act of great generosity towards the audience. The story requires the actors “going there” in order to make its impact. You cannot hold back, you cannot protect yourself.

So. Actors. Do YOU have the courage of your convictions?

Can you enter a story where you might come off not looking so good or admirable? Can you, as one of my acting teachers said once, just “do what the character does”? He would say that to students when they were struggling with making this or that moment happen. He’d work with them, but eventually, he would say, “Try this. Just do what the character does. See what happens.”

Easier said than done, and many an actor, while seemingly “doing what the character does” is also kind of winking at the audience, trying to subtly give across the message, “I’m not really like this … don’t worry.” Even very good actors do this from time to time.

Fredrich March and Sylvia Sidney never do this. It’s tough stuff. Neither of them come off looking so great. They are so flawed, and acting under such desperation, that they miss the signals repeatedly. They wallow in misunderstanding. They forget how to talk to one another. It’s excruciating to watch (in the best way).

Fredric March has a moment at the end of the film where he says the line, “You’re lying” twice in a row.

A lesser actor would have pushed, would have shouted the words, “You’re lying”, or he would have modulated himself in a technical way, saying the first “You’re lying” in a soft voice, and then shouting the second one. We’ve all seen that kind of acting. In my opinion, it means the actor has one eye out on US, in the audience. His focus is split. He is in the scene, but he is also thinking, “Hmmm, what is the most effective way for them to ‘get’ this.” Now, that is not a bad concern, in and of itself. It is important that audiences “get” things, but there are times (and the “You’re lying” repetition is one of them) where you need to NOT worry about HOW to do it – you just need to DO it. This is what the acting teachers of yore meant when they talked about the reality of the given circumstances. Or, as David Mamet put in his book, “Deny nothing. Add nothing.”

In a big dramatic scene, don’t deny anything that happens (i.e., saying to yourself, “This emotions isn’t appropriate for this scene”) and don’t add anything (i.e., saying to yourself, “Let me see if I can pump up the emotion in this moment.”) Of course, you need talent to follow Mamet’s simple advice, and as I keep saying even very talented people miss the mark sometimes, due to poor material, or poor direction. They “add” too much or “deny” too much. A perfect example of an actor who knew how to do this instinctively was Marlon Brando, and Kazan’s story of the filming of the famous taxi-cab scene in On the Waterfront gives us a perfect glimpse of what it means to “deny nothing”. Terry’s brother pulls a gun on him. A shocking moment, right? Terry’s response, in the script, was to be shocked and scared. But Brando did it the way he did it, with a gentle sorrowful shake of the head, calmly pushing the gun away, looking at his brother – his brother – with love and sadness. Nobody envisioned the scene being played that way, and Kazan himself took no credit for how it eventually came out: “That was all Brando.” In this scenario, “denying nothing” means that Brando didn’t intellectualize the moment, and didn’t say, “My character Terry wouldn’t do that in this moment …” (So many actors hide behind such excuses. Rehearsal halls across the land are filled with actors saying, “My character wouldn’t do this or that.” Well excuse me for asking, but how do you know until you try it?) Brando allowed Stanley Kowalski to be gentle at times, even delicate. Brando didn’t decide beforehand, “My character wouldn’t do this or that.” He denied his characters nothing.

The scene in Merrily We Go To Hell is tense and fraught with emotion, and with Fredric March’s repeat of “You’re lying” – I realized that what I was watching was not just a highly effective scene in a movie, but an actor truly REACTING to something in a real and spontaneous manner. He quite literally could not take in what the other person was saying. He refused to accept it. It could not be true. No. “You’re lying.” The other person went on talking, and then Fredric March said again, “You’re lying.” He didn’t raise his voice. If you heard both of those versions of “You’re lying” you might be hard-pressed to tell them apart. But to see March go through what he goes through in that moment … to watch the news being given to him sink in … It’s breathtaking. Breathtaking acting.

One of the best examples of “Keep it simple, stupid” that I can think of.

Stella Adler, famous acting teacher, said (and this is probably her most well-known statement), “The talent is in the choice.”

Lots of people don’t like that statement of hers, and argue with it. People seem to resist its implications and retort that talent can reside in all kinds of things … not just the CHOICE the actor makes. But I’m with Adler on this one. Fredric March, as he was memorizing his lines, or reading the script, knew that he had to say “You’re lying” twice. I don’t know his work process or how he worked, but whatever mysterious thing he did to prepare himself for that scene – led him to let it all go, not be technical, not over-think it … and not to “play” it at all. He is IN the moment. And THAT is a “choice”, and again: picture another actor who might have realized “Hm. This is my big moment in the film. Let me plan out how I will say it so that everyone will see that this is my big moment.” So the talent IS in the choice. Fredric March’s “choice” (conscious or no) led him to say those lines the way he did, and words cannot express how wonderful and how awesome he is. I am writing a lot about his acting right now, in a very technical way, but my experience of watching that scene had nothing to do with how awesome Fredric March is an actor. In the moment of watching that scene, all I thought was, “Oh my God. Jerry. I am so so sorry. I am so so sorry for what has just happened to you”

That is entirely due to how Fredric March played those two lines of “You’re lying.”

Top-notch acting. Top notch.


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2 Responses to Merrily We Go To Hell (1932); Dir. Dorothy Arzner

  1. Stevie says:

    Wow, Sheila. I haven’t heard of any of these movies before, and it’s like you’ve come across buried treasure. Sylvia Sydney and Frederick March – oh my, they’re both so wonderful. Thank you for bringing these pre-code movies to your grateful public. xxx

  2. red says:

    Stevie – absolutely – this one in particular is a lost classic.

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