The puritanical and prudish nature of early 20th century America in general and Hollywood in particular cannot be underestimated. Prohibition (when alcohol was illegal in the US) ran from 1920 to 1934, the same year the Motion Picture Production code (promulgated by politicians and religious leaders) began to be more strictly administered. The rules covered everything from depictions of smuggling and use of firearms to married couples only shown with separate beds.

It was into this heady time that Merrily We Go to Hell was released, a little pre-Code gem. Even the title was controversial, with the Los Angeles Times refusing to run ads for the film. Such movies make for essential viewing now just as they did for the Depression-era audiences that first saw them.

It’s boy-meets-girl with a twist. Jerry (Fredric March) is a penurious reporter who wants to be a playwright. Joan (the doll-like Sylvia Sidney) is the heiress whose father (George Irving) sees Jerry as a gold-digging wastrel. When they meet there’s much innuendo-laden smart talk. “Drinking is not one of my many vices,” says Modern Woman Joan, but it’s Jerry’s reason for living. Love – and success – will conquer all, won’t it? When Jerry’s play is a hit he returns to the bottle and to his former flame, blonde, Gertrude Lawrence-like actress Claire (Adrianne Allen). A very young Cary Grant appears briefly as her on-stage leading man.

Joan’s reaction to her now husband Jerry’s extra-curricular activities would have given the Production Code guardians palpitations. “If being a modern husband gives you privileges then being a modern wife gives me privileges,” Joan says, threatening to go find a flirtation of her own.

What might have been a zippy, screwball comedy suffocated with its own smugness turns, in Arzner’s hands, into a sad, if glossy, tale of the war of the sexes infused with ennui. Paramount went to town on the lavish sets.

Dorothy Arzner, for years the only female film director in Hollywood, captures well the chemistry between the excellent March and Sidney. The tendresse between the married couple is never masked by their backtalk and zingers, and while the women in the picture seem to be determined to control their destiny the men remain perfectly silly. Unlike other similar comedies of the time, Arzner’s characters live and breathe, not forever being funny at the expense of being human.

Yes, some of the secondary roles can be awfully wobbly and yes, the script is a tad room temperature but the film is a delightful and surprising breath of fresh air, perfect at a time when audiences needed it most – the early Depression-hit early 1930s and the Covid-hit early 2020s.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 14 Jun 2021