For 90% of Merry We Go To Hell‘s running time, it is a stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of self-loathing and love. Opening on Fredric March’s alcoholic, cripplingly self-hating Jerry meeting Sylvia Sidney’s bubbling, intelligent Joan in a delightful meet-cute, Merrily moves along as a comedy for its first act, with only the occasional feint towards something darker. It is only after their marriage that nearly all of the comedy drains out and we are forced to watch the disintegration of a love that could and should never be.
Jerry fears that he is unworthy of love, and so he lowers himself to that state. He takes up drinking again, and he has an affair with the woman whose rejection created that fear in the first place. He is a sad, angry, selfish bastard – but he is charming, too, and sympathetic.
And Joan loves him. Despite his many, many faults, Joan sees the man that could be hiding inside Jerry’s tattered shell. Through it all, she loves him. So when Jerry betrays her, when he turns away from the only woman to love him unconditionally, she is broken. She makes a decision, one that would be a happy ending in a modern world, the power of a woman taking control over her life – she takes her own lover, allowing their marriage to go on as a frame for their occasionally intersecting lives. But it’s not happy, it’s not good, because she was forced to do this. She never stopped loving Jerry, even though he did not deserve it, and that love gave her life. She had to sacrifice her love to reclaim her agency. By the time Jerry realises his folly and cruelty, it is too late for him to fix anything. Joan realises that she can’t go on living adjacent to her heartbreaker, and she leaves him.
It was at this point in the film that I cried. Terrible tears, my body seizing up in shakes and starts, two loves lost in an instant because of fear.
That is where the film should have ended, with Jerry losing his love because he inadvertently tried to take her life.
But it doesn’t. The film goes on for another 15 minutes, and it lets Jerry win Joan back. It makes no sense and it takes away the power Joan had had so recently. The ending feels tacked on and fake, so utterly ridiculous compared to what had come before. Though Dorothy Arzner still directs the hell out of these last moments, almost selling them completely, they don’t work.
So I will forget them. Author be damned, I’m sticking with the parts that made sense and made me cry and had strong female characters.