Merrily We Go to Hell?
I was intrigued by the title of the 1932 romantic comedy which aired on TCM this past week. The film, directed by Dorothy Arzner, starred Fredric March as Jerry Corbett, an endearing and comical alcoholic who marries heiress Joan Prentice, played by Sylvia Sidney. The title, “Merrily We Go to Hell,” derives from a toast given during the film by Jerry — a rather startling title in 1932.
Startling titles were common during the pre-code transition years from silent to sound… many had to do with the darkness of the netherworld: 1929 Hell’s Heroes, Seven Footprints to Satan; 1930 The Devil’s Holiday, Hell’s Angels, Sinners’ Holiday; 1931 The Unholy Three, The Sin Ship, Hell Divers, The Unholy Three, Up Pops the Devil; 1932 The Devil is Driving, Devil and the Deep, and Merrily We Go to Hell.
The film received mixed reviews. Several newspapers refused to print the title of this film feeling it crossed a line of public decency.
Today these titles hardly sound shocking at all, but what is worse is that the very idea of going to Hell, “merrily” or otherwise, is scoffed as superstitious fable. Indeed the injunction “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” today seems embedded in a self-focussed culture. The pursuit of personal happiness is valued above the possession of character and contentment, and immediate pleasure is praised above personal integrity and the “Well done” of God.
Solomon played that hand through to the end. This man had everything! His happiness pursuit knew no restriction until at last he had tried everything and still came up empty. His life became a hollow emptiness summed up in the lyric, “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing.” His was the conclusion “…a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry” (Eccl. 8:15). These are the words of a despairing man, not the truth of the gospel.
The phrase also appears in Isaiah 22:13, Proverbs 23:35, and Luke 12:19. (We see it again in 2 Nephi 28:7 of the Book of Mormon!) In each case however it is cited as the despairing conclusion of the lost. Even the Apostle Paul concedes to this if it were not for the hope to the gospel:
“If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Cor. 15:32)
But the Christian’s hope extends beyond this world. The Christian knows “the perishable [will be] clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (15:54). The Christian lives for that “better country” (Heb. 11:14), stays sober (Eph. 5:18), and makes purity one’s goal (2 Pet. 3:11).
The Christian says, “Let us fast and pray, for tomorrow – and forevermore – in Christ we live!”
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