GFF20 #1: Merrily We Go to Hell (US 1932)

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My Glasgow Film Festival stint this year started with a sparkling DCP of a pre-code classic directed by Dorothy Arzner. This screening launched the festival’s mini-strand of ‘Women Make Film’, designed to complement the 5 part Mark Cousins documentary with that title which is screened this weekend.

Fredric March plays Jerry, a gifted newspaper columnist in Chicago with a drinking problem who meets the heiress Joan Prentice played by a young and beautiful Sylvia Sidney. She doesn’t drink and has an over-protective father who isn’t keen on the relationship. But Joan and Jerry are determined and with the help of Jerry’s drinking buddies they manage to get married and Jerry settles down to write plays. When one is accepted by a producer everything seems to be going too well and, sure enough, problems arise when the leading lady of his play turns out to be an old flame or rather the old flame Claire, played by Adrianne Allen. This character intrigued me as Ms Allen was born in Manchester and may have travelled to the US for this role. She spent most of her later career on the English stage and was at one time married to Raymond Massey and mother to both Daniel and Anna.

Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney with Cary Grant

Adrianne Allen is not the only British interloper since Cary Grant has an early Hollywood role as the leading man in the play. Claire’s return to Jerry’s life causes him to start drinking again and to alienate Joan. But Joan decides that the only way to respond to Jerry’s drinking and his renewed interest in Claire is to start drinking and partying herself in a ‘modern, open’ marriage. It can’t end well and in fact the ending of the narrative is quite down and realistic even if it still manages some Hollywood conventions.

In his introduction, Alan Hunter filled in some of Dorothy Arzner’s career details. Arzner’s work is not as easily available to view as it should be and GFF has done a good job in making this film available on the big screen. As well as Arzner’s handling of the actors and the choreography of the action, I was impressed by David Abel’s camerawork with its lively feel and use of bold images that reminded me of both German and Soviet cinema of the 1920s. These pre-code films are often much more dynamic than might be expected for still relatively early sound cinema — the technology was developing quickly.

The over-protective father (George Irving)

The shock of the film in terms of the coming Production Code is in the realistic representation of drinking culture and the view of a marriage in which the partners openly display their infidelity during social gatherings. Films like this still feel ‘modern’. The code had a damaging effect on adult stories in Hollywood, though it did bring out the ingenuity of filmmakers.

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