Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage1936.jpgSabotage: Willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.

It’s not exactly a titillating introduction but since this is precisely where this 1930s Hitchcock thriller commences so will I.

Again, Hitch is collaborating with Charles Bennet and of course Alma Reville (his wife) core members of his team by this point. I do find it funny that it came from a novel called The Secret Agent, the name of one of Hitchcock’s earlier entries, only to be changed to Sabotage. But it only goes to show how throwaway some of these titles were because they are hardly reflective of the genuine satisfaction in partaking in what is trying to be accomplished.

The inciting incident of the entire film involves the power grid going out all across the city. Some people assume it’s a freak event but those embroiled in national security and connected with Scotland Yard know there are far more ominous intentions. There are men looking to undermine the nation through systematic acts of sabotage and ultimately terrorism.

From our perspective, these were obvious harbingers of impending world war. In that climate, they were probably quite close to home. This film occupies itself with a single individual as he’s tailed by a government agent with his adopted family (Sylvia Sidney and Desmond Tester) acting as his convenient alibis because he’s been nothing but good to them.

One telling statement comes from the little boy when he’s talking aloud excitedly about gangsters and the like.  Because gangsters look quite ordinary, just like you and me and it’s an offhand comment but he doesn’t know how right he is. This is another textbook Hitchcock scenario because this is by no means a mystery. We know from the opening shot who the perpetrator is. But Hitchcock uses that modicum amount of knowledge to grab hold of his audience.

Similarly, he uses the tried and true example he mentioned in his dialogue with Truffaut. Having two individuals talking before a bomb blows up isn’t inherently suspenseful but if you show your cards early you’ve instantly ratcheted up the tension. He does that here immaculately aboard a double-decker bus.

Although even then it would be hard to favor Sabotage over some of his other works even those that are part of his thriller Sextet. It’s really a fairly minor addition and though Sylvia Sidney is as candid as ever she’s hardly meant for a Hitchcock film. Oskar Homolka and John Loder aren’t bad per se but they’re hardly as compelling as a Peter Lorre or Robert Donat.

Though the terrorists might look slightly different and their motives are more political than any other, there’s this uneasy sense that there is very little that is new under the sun. It’s telling that Bennet’s screenplay was loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad story which was itself focused on sabotage in the late 19th century perpetuating this idea that certain stories are truly timeless.

Reading Walt Disney’s name in the opening credits might be a pleasant surprise for some and as might be expected, since this story does take place partially in a cinema, they show a cartoon short, seeming to be a harbinger for Sullivan’s Travels (1941) except in this story the main character gets shot with an arrow — very much a Hitchcockesque spin on animated cartoons if there ever was one. There can be humor but it’s always underlined by a sizable dose of dread.

3.5/5 Stars

 

You Only Live Once (1937)

youonlylive1There are two types of lover-on-the-run narratives. There’s the Bonnie and Clyde/Gun Crazy extravaganza full of shoot-outs and bloodshed. Then you have the more sensitive approach of a film like They Drive By Night. You Only Live Once fits this second category thanks to two bolstering performances by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney. Fonda is forever known for his plain, naturalistic delivery full of humanity. He has that quality as 3-time loser Eddie Taylor certainly, but he also injects the role with a somewhat uncharacteristic rage. In many ways, he has a right to be angry at a world that so easily writes him off and is so quick to pronounce guilt. There is very little attempt to rehabilitate the reprobate and Taylor is an indictment of that.

youonlylive2Secretary Jo Graham (Sylvia Sydney) is positively beaming the day they are releasing her boyfriend Taylor because he is finally getting the second chance he deserves. A glorious marriage follows soon after until reality breaks into the lovers’ paradise. Few people aside from Father Dolan and a few forward thinkers are willing to give Taylor grace. He is prematurely fired from his job and has no way to make the payments on the house that his wife has been sprucing up for him. Adding insult to injury, a brazen bank robbery is committed which he is wrongly accused of. It’s back to the clink and then the electric chair.

Jo is beside herself and Taylor is angered at the way the law deals with him. This justice is the most unjust imaginable, and he is about to pay the price. But Jo desperately gets him help and he tries to make a break for it.

youonlylive4That’s what makes a wire proclaiming his innocence all the more ironic because he will have none of it. He takes a man’s life and now his acquittal goes down the drain as quickly as he got it since he has a murder to his name. Eddie and Jo go off on the road together, looting banks and surviving the best they can with their newborn son. This is not two joyriding youngsters trying to get rich without an honest day’s work. Fritz Lang develops a more complex story with people who tried to live by the rules and found they were dealt an unfair hand.

As one of Lang’s earliest works in America, you can see some remnants of German Expressionism exported here with foggy clouds of mist engulfing the screen at times. His tale also has an interesting ambiguity suggesting that crime is not always black and white. Perhaps it has less to say about the moral degenerates or corrupt individuals in our society and more about the faulty structures that our justice system often get built around. It’s mind-boggling to think that this film came soon after the Depression meaning the bitter taste of those years was still fresh in peoples’ mouths. Nevertheless, this film is an interesting crime-filled character study.

4/5 Stars