By: Megan McGurk
Of all the rotten things Fredric March does to Sylvia Sidney’s character—and there are many—the worst occurs when he ruins her chicken for a dinner party. Any woman under the sun would have grabbed him at the belt and tossed him out the window for that offence. But Sylvia Sidney, with a face like a Valentine, heart shaped and bow-lips, absorbs every indignity he dishes out. She’s the type of woman who’s won over so easily, viewers can only lament that she thought so little of herself. Fredric March, at the one-eye-squint stage of inebriation, nearly legless, woos her at a cocktail party with a vapid ditty:
First she gave me gingerbread and then she gave me cake. Then she gave me crème de menthe for meeting her at the gate.
As society heiress Joan Prentice, the simplicity of the song appeals to Sylvia Sidney’s character. She thinks it’s winsome when she should regard it as a metaphor for their terrible relationship. March’s Jerry will take and take from her without giving anything in return. During their first meeting, there are other signs she should have noticed, especially his assurance that he could talk about himself for hours. Or when he quips ‘all the signs point to three stars’ on the bottle of Hennessy cognac. By the end of their first conversation, he so pie-eyed, he ceases recognition and threatens a bellicose drunkard’s ‘Who’re you?’
Further evidence of how much he’s a scoundrel presents itself during their second meeting. Invited for tea, he arrives after everyone’s gone home and left poor dejected Joan alone, who had assembled gingerbread, cake, and crème de menthe like it was her heart on a plate for him to ignore and then smash. He says he doesn’t like women and ‘prefers the company of men’. Later, when engaged, he goes off the rails on a bender and passes out. Joan’s so humiliated that she leaves the engagement party rather than return without her finance. At the wedding, he has lost the ring and slips a pocket cork screw on her finger. At least he admits ‘I ought to be shot’ for losing it. As the plot progresses, he crawls back in the bottle and then in bed with another woman.
On every level, Jerry should be beaten, shot, buried, then dug up and set on fire for good measure. Yet amidst his narcissistic transgressions, the incident with the chicken remains most exasperating. On a platter for guests, golden brown and carefully dressed, the chicken represents the daily labour of an average wife. Above other dishes, the roast chicken signifies a hallmark of competent housekeeping. Roast chicken isn’t fancy or expensive, but not everyone can turn out a tasty one. It must be seasoned, kept moist and browned perfectly. When done well, roast chicken demonstrates the cook’s probity through rustic, wholesome fare. If you bring a bad chicken to the table, you’re unlikely to succeed with anything more ambitious. I haven’t eat meat since Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office and I still make a darn good roast chicken. Poor Joan washed the bird, patted it dry, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and rubbed pats of butter under and over the dimpled skin. She kept an eye on it, probably basted it, filled the house with its comforting aroma. Her stomach growled when she thought about carving it at table. Joan’s skill and care baked into the little bird.
Yet Jerry cannot even manage to bring it to the next room and deposit it safely on the table. He makes a hash of it, just like everything else. He ruins another moment for his wife through a complete disregard for her time and labour. He doesn’t exhibit any shame or remorse over dropping hours of work on the floor, nor does he attempt to clean up the mess he made. He stands over it with his hands dug in pockets like a truculent child. Even worse, he offers to run to the shops for tinned chicken, as though the two were in any way comparable. On his part, opening a tin, which encases a processed, gelatinous bird with a sickening pale sheen were equivalent to a brown, oven-roasted bird. His indifference to culinary skill rates as bad as when Charles Saatchi used to boast to the press about preferring cereal for dinner when he was married to Nigella Lawson, a woman who devotes her life to cooking. We’re talking indifference of a degree that marginalises a woman’s industry to the rubbish heap. The crime against roast chicken proves Jerry devoid of a basic sense of appreciation and esteem for his wife; it surpasses every other transgression. Again, Joan should have tossed him from the window like he was a plate of fish heads for alley cats.
Adrianne Allen plays Claire, the woman who supposedly ruined Fredric March’s ability to treat women with common decency. For the record, adults with a functioning moral compass refrain from using past relationships as an excuse for reprehensible behaviour. Claire’s cast in the play that Sylvia Sidney’s long-suffering wife disciplined him to write at the rate of three pages per day. Without a hint of surprise from viewers, he’s drawn back to Claire. Somehow, he makes his infidelity his wife’s failure. Jerry begs Joan to lock the door, to keep him away from Claire. Joan opens it and declares ‘I’m no jailor’. Later, she accepts the blame for his broken marriage vow. It was her fault for telling him to go. In typical Jerry fashion, he doesn’t apologise, beg forgiveness or promise to repent. Instead he says
Now that I’ve started this thing with Claire …
Now it’s a thing that compels him in some manner to honour a debt or commitment to Claire over what he owes to his wife. At every level he is an abominable man.
Merrily We Go To Hell excels as a woman’s picture because it gives women in the audience an occasion to affirm their own good sense, as well as the ability to feel like we know better than a friend. Women munch popcorn and think ‘I’d draw the line there’ or ‘my Harry may be a pain, but he’s nowhere near as desperate a louse as Fredric March’. Women engage Sylvia Sidney’s character as a familiar type. Viewers might think ‘She’s just like my friend so-and-so. Allows that man to walk all over her. I wish she’d leave him already.’ Women want to be swept away by the cathartic moment of being right, knowing better, or sussing out what the other woman onscreen doesn’t. Even men in the audience receive the message that Joan’s unwarranted devotion has crossed a line when her father tells her not to be a doormat.
Sylvia Sidney withstands so much indignity, disappointment and abuse from Fredric March and yet clings to him at the end while she coos my baby, my baby. Dorothy Arzner bypassed traditional romantic or Hollywood endings. Not one emotive note of this picture presents Joan and Jerry’s relationship as ideal or one to emulate. Clear as day, it’s a cautionary tale for women about the true cost of their adoration, oftentimes to men who are unworthy and pathologically cruel. Before she marries him, Joan receives a bit of advice: this town is full of wives who closed their eyes, jumped, and now are screaming for help, which serves as the core message of Arzner’s film. From the coalface of marriage, many women sweat and toil without relief. Arzner invites women to think twice before we cast lots with the amusing random from a party.
You can find this essay in Sass Mouth Dames: 30 Essential Woman’s Pictures 1929-1939