Merrily We Go to Hell
Addiction, nonmonogamy, and female sexual liberation: decades before such ideas were widely discussed, Dorothy Arzner, the only woman to work as a director in 1930s Hollywood, brought them to the screen with striking frankness, sophistication, and wit—a mature treatment that stands out even in the pre-Code era. Fredric March (in one of four collaborations with Arzner) and Sylvia Sidney turn in extraordinary performances as the urbane couple whose relationship is pushed to the breaking point by his alcoholism and wandering eye—leading them into an emotionally explosive experiment with an open marriage. Exposing the hypocrisies and petty cruelties simmering beneath the surface of high-society elegance, Merrily We Go to Hell is a scathing early-feminist commentary on modern marriage.
The Criterion Collection presents Dorothy Arzner’s pre-code Merrily We Go to Hell on Blu-ray, sourcing the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation from a new 4K digital restoration scanned from a 35mm duplicate negative. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
Though some issues are still present—all unsurprising considering the age of the film—the restoration and final high-definition presentation have turned out remarkably well. The picture is rarely what I would call sharp, as though a soft focus was applied to most of the photography, but there is still a decent amount of detail along with an incredible film texture to the final image. Grain is heavy, but it looks clean and natural, never processed or sharpened. Grayscale is also quite stunning, handling smoky sequences nice while the blacks show some strong range themselves, allowing a nice level of shadow detail. The image looks incredibly photographic in the end.
The restoration efforts have cleaned things up as best they can, no large marks or scratches remaining. Very fine scratches and bits of dirt remain, and rain through consistently throughout the film, but I assume these were left as to not harm the general quality of the film elements and to not over-process the image. These marks are ultimately very fine and easy to overlook for the most part, and I’d say the fact they even show up at all is a testament to the resolution and overall quality of the digital image.
The source elements limit things in the end, but an impressive amount of effort has gone into this.
The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented here in lossless PCM. Criterion hasn’t over-filtered things, meaning there is still a bit of noise in the background, but the quality is still generally good. Voices are a bit flat and music can be a bit edgy, but there are no severe drops and it’s still easy to listen to.
Criterion’s edition for the film ends up being a bit light on features but they’re much better than what was available on Criterion’s other Arzner release, Dance, Girl, Dance. There isn’t much here that is specific to Merrily We Go to Hell with both features offering more of a look at Arzner’s life and work. Film historian Cori Beauchamp first provides a 26-minute video essay on Arzner, which does end up offering an analysis of the film (which she calls “a product of its time”), with an overview of its production and stars, and also looks briefly at how it probably helped in bringing about the production code. Outside of that material, the piece still spends more time looking at Arzner’s overall career.
Criterion has also grabbed yet another documentary by filmmaker Katja Raganelli (having previously included her documentaries on their editions for Wanda and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), this one about Arzner entitled Dorothy Arzner: Long for Women, running about 47-minutes. Filmed in 1980 (though released in 1983 I think), Raganelli visits Arzner’s home a few months following her death in a car accident. She films the location while recalling some of the filmmaker’s work in voiceover, hinting at their importance to her. She then manages to get interviews with Arzner’s former neighbour, Evelyn Scott, and then actor Esther Ralston, both of whom talk about the person they respectively knew, either as a neighbour and friend or as a collaborator. Arzner was very private and Raganelli doesn’t delve that deeply into her personal life, limiting it to whatever Scott or Ralston tell her, but the film is a very passionate and heartfelt look at her work and the impact Arzner had on the industry and other filmmakers.
Unfortunately, the on-disc supplements end there. Judith Mayne provides an essay around Arzner and the film and its central character Joan (played by Sylvia Sidney). It's a decent read, offering a more satisfying look at the film, but seems kind of short. In the end, the supplements do a nice job providing a profile around Arzner and her work, but the film itself does feel to get overlooked a little bit.
As with Dance, Girl, Dance, Criterion doesn’t go all-out with the supplements for this Arzner title, but the presentation, despite the issues that do remain, still offered a wonderful surprise.