Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) opens with a credit sequence displayed on an illuminated theater marquee, on which the “merry” fires of hell are embodied by a play of dancing lights. The camera sweeps across a cityscape to show us a neon-lit Chicago at the stroke of midnight and settles on the balcony of an apartment in a high-rise building. Jerry (Fredric March), a journalist, huddles behind a bottle-strewn table, as if to protect himself from the party in progress within, on the other side of sheer-curtained French doors. Jerry is drunk, as he will be throughout most of the film, and his vision is obscured, but he is able to make out the brusque come-on that one of his newspaper colleagues delivers to a young woman, Joan (Sylvia Sidney). Seeking refuge, Joan comes out onto the balcony. Unlike the other revelers, Jerry is charming rather than aggressive when drunk, and Joan immediately falls for him.
As the two flirt, Jerry picks up a melody that we first heard during the opening credits and sings: “First she gave me gingerbread and then she gave me cake; and then she gave me crème de menthe for meeting her at the gate.” The song, silly as it may be, is an earworm that gains resonance as the film progresses, for it both encapsulates and predicts the developing relationship between Jerry and Joan. Merrily We Go to Hell traces the arc of the romance from this initial meeting to their marriage and its failures, from Jerry’s short-lived attempt to stay sober and his struggle to complete a play to Joan’s increasingly desperate efforts to make things work. Throughout the film, Joan will provide the gingerbread and cake, and Jerry will promise to meet her at the proverbial gate, although he is usually drunk and late or does not appear at all.
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