Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) is a journalist, aspiring playwright, and known around Chicago for his love of alcohol. Heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) doesn’t drink, but when they meet, but there is still a connection between them. They start seeing each other and Joan repeatedly invites Jerry to gatherings at her house, but he continually gets drunk and fails to show up. When he finally does meet Joan’s father, he’s not at all impressed by Jerry. And when Jerry and Joan decide to get married, Joan’s father offers Jerry $50,000 to go away. But Joan is more valuable to Jerry than money and they get married anyway.
The road to the altar is far from smooth for Joan and Jerry, though. Before their engagement party, he gets so drunk before the event, he passes out before he even gets to the party. At the wedding, he arrives drunk and without the wedding ring. The guests are impressed he showed up at all. But despite all of Jerry’s problems, Joan is bound and determined to stick by him and she encourages his ambitions to write plays. After many rejections, his play is finally picked up by a producer in New York. And as it turns out, the producer has Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Claire (Adrienne Allen) in mind to star in it. Jerry does his best to stay sober and stay faithful to Joan, but he completely falls apart again on opening night.
When Jerry falls off the wagon, he falls off hard and lives his life in a drunken haze. He also starts having an affair with Claire. When Joan finds out about it, she finally snaps, starts drinking, and decides that if he can cheat, she might as well do the same and starts having an affair with Charlie Baxter (Cary Grant). Joan lives the high life until she discovers she’s pregnant. She doesn’t tell Jerry and goes back to Chicago to live with her family. Meanwhile, Jerry realizes how much pain his behavior has caused her and desperately tries to patch things up with her.
Merrily We Go to Hell is a good but not great look at alcoholism. The story is good, the performances are good, the direction is good, but it just doesn’t seem to rise above being anything better than just good enough. I feel like Merrily We Go to Hell tried to do what Billy Wilder would go on to do more successfully thirteen years later in The Lost Weekend. But Merrily We Go to Hell did try to offer a cold, hard look at alcoholism and it certainly didn’t glamorize drinking. Jerry is not a fun drunk and when Joan starts hitting the bottle, they are no Nick and Nora Charles. During a party scene, we don’t see guests cavorting happily with glasses of champagne in hand, we see guests passed out on couches. It’s just not the hardest look at alcoholism that you’ll find. Jerry’s attempt in the end to get his act together seemed oversimplified and unrealistic.