Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Arzner’s Pre-Code Melodrama, Starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney as Leads and Cary Grant in Supporting Part

Dorothy Arzner, the only female filmmaker in the studio era, directed Merrily We Go to Hell, a pre-Code film, starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney (who gets top billing) in the leads.

Billed seventh, Cary Grant plays a small supporting part that did nothing for his career.

Merrily We Go to Hell


Some newspapers refused to publicize the film because of its racy title (a phrase March’s character says while making a toast).

Fredric March plays Jerry Corbett, a Chicago reporter and self-styled playwright, who begins dating heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sydney) after meeting at a party. Though his economic prospects are dim and he is an alcoholic, Joan accepts his proposal, against the objections of her father (George Irving).

Jerry becomes heavily intoxicated before their engagement party, but Joan stands by him. Jerry writes some plays which are rejected, and fights his alcohol addiction. He manages to sell a play and the couple travels to New York to watch the production. The star of the play turns out to be Jerry’s former girlfriend, Claire Hampstead (Adrianne Allen).

On the premiere night he gets drunk, and mistakes Joan for Claire.  When Joan catches Jerry trying to sneak out to Claire’s one night she kicks him out.  She’s resolved to have a “modern marriage,” having affairs herself.

Jerry makes a “Merrily we go to hell” toast with Claire, and Joan and her date toast to the “holy state of matrimony–single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning.” Joan becomes pregnant and learns from her doctor that her health is poor.

Jerry eventually realizes that he loves Joan, and regrets his behavior. He commits to sobriety, returns to Chicago, and works as a reporter again, but Joan’s father keeps them apart. Jerry discovers Joan has given birth from a gossip columnist, but the baby died two hours after his birth.

Jerry discovers that his distraught wife has been pleading to see him all along, and feeling repentant, he pledges his love to her.

Sylvia Sidney as Joan Prentice
Fredric March as Jerry Corbett
Adrianne Allen as Claire Hempstead
Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as Buck
George Irving as Mr. Prentice
Esther Howard as Vi
Florence Britton as Charlcie
Charles Coleman as [Richard] Damery
Cary Grant as Charlie Baxter

Directed by Dorothy Arzner
Based on I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan by Cleo Lucas
Cinematography David Abel
Edited by Jane Loring
Production and distribution: Paramount Publix Corp.
Release date: June 10, 1932

Running time: There are different cuts of this movie.


TCM shoed this movie on September 1, 1932.