Welcome back to Missing the Silents, where we try to learn about lost silent films through their direct remakes. In many cases, the last people to see the films “alive” were the producers and directors of these remakes.
Merton of the Movies has long been on my personal wish list of lost silent films I would love to see reemerge. I am a big fan of author Harry Leon Wilson’s droll novel about a prissy young man trying to make it in the movies. The 1924 silent film starred Glenn Hunter (who had made a good impression as the stage Merton) and the charming Viola Dana as his love interest. The film was a hit for Paramount, both critically and commercially.
Eight years later, Paramount decided the time was right to try again. Why not? Backlot picture were cheap to produce, no sets required, and could use star cameos as a fun incentive for audiences to check out the picture. Merton of the Movies was a little creaky, sure, but it could be dusted off and brought into the modern talkie world. And so Make Me a Star was born.
The picture’s director was William Beaudine. Mr. Beaudine’s reputation has suffered in recent years, largely to the snide portrait painted by certain dubious film critics. Beaudine had been a top-tier director in the silent era but slipped into low-budget fare in the late 1930s. However, he was professional, capable and tried his hardest to get work for movie friends who had fallen on hard times. He doesn’t deserve the snickering reputation that so many modern know-nothings have given him. (I go into much greater detail in my review of Misbehaving Husbands.)
Beaudine was still in the studio system when Make Me a Star entered production and it proved to be one of the finest pictures of his sound career. By most accounts, Beaudine was a gentle, genuinely nice man and he was able to bring these qualities to Make Me a Star, turning a farce into something deeper and more melancholy.
Merton Gill (Stuart Erwin) is a small town boy who works at a general store but dreams of film stardom and to that end, he has subscribed to an acting correspondence course. Westerns are his prime area of interest and his prized possession is a cowboy costume complete with woolly chaps. His boss, neighbors and customers all think he is a bit off and the only supportive friend is Tessie (veteran silent actress Helen Jerome Eddy), who cherishes her own ambitions to be a screenwriter.
While trying to shoot some dramatic western stills, Merton ends up revealing his secret to the entire town. He is fired and decides to try his luck in Hollywood. His idol is Buck Benson (George Templeton) and he wants to work at the very same studio and learn the ways of film. Of course, it’s not that easy. The receptionist at the casting window (a wonderful Ruth Donnelly) won’t even let him inside the studio and his stills are met with derision.
Flips Montague (Joan Blondell) is a stuntwoman and comedienne on the lot. She is working in a comedy with Ben Turpin and doing okay for herself. Not a star, really, but she can pay her bills. She is just as contemptuous of Merton as everyone else but something about his eagerness touches her heart. She helps him get a day of work but then discovers that he has been scrounging in the trash for food. Flips buys Merton breakfast and tries to convince him to return home but he is determined to stick it out. And then Flips remembers those crazy stills. What if…
Her plan is cruel but effective, the sort of humor that still works for late night comedians and Sacha Baron Cohen. Merton’s sincerity and utter lack of self-awareness make him the perfect straight man, an ideal patsy for comedy. His acting is atrocious but just close enough to the real Buck Benson to be an accidentally perfect spoof. Flips gets in touch with Jeff Baird (Sam Hardy), a Mack Sennett-like comedy czar, and proposes a new kind of funny. They will tell Merton that Baird has turned over a new leaf and wants to make a dramatic western picture and they will use his laughably bad acting to create real comedy.
Merton falls for it hook, line and sinker. He even believes that old Ben Turpin is in the film because he wants to make amends for his coarse comedic ways. Maybe he can even get money to have his eyes fixed. (Snicker, sort!) Merton gives the part his all and Flips watches, justifying her behavior by saying that she is making the poor kid a star. That’s what he wanted, right? Of course, there’s a limit to how much you can lie to yourself and Flips reaches that limit when Merton’s movie debut has nearly wrapped.
Merton, who has styled himself Whoop Ryder for his new career in westerns, is concerned when Flips calls in sick and can’t accompany him to the sneak preview. Merton settles in to bask in his new stardom but then the picture starts and he gets a rude awakening. Baird’s crew played with the pitch of his voice, used rear projection to add silly backgrounds and turned his signature scene, a tearful goodbye to his horse, into the film’s comedic highlight.
Here’s the nasty sting: the comedy scenes are genuinely funny. We laugh at Merton and we feel sick while we do it. Beaudine had a background in exactly the sort of comedy that Baird specialized in and he knew how to construct the funny business. The onscreen audience guffaws and we guffaw along with them as Merton is forced to witness his dreams being ridiculed. Erwin plays the scene for maximum pathos. We watch as this sweet young man’s innocence dies and it’s heartbreaking.
The movie’s ending is as understated as everything else about it but I doubt any viewer could tear their eyes away. Will Merton be able to forgive Flips? Can Flips forgive herself? Will Hollywood lose its brightest new comedy star?
If I had to point out one quality of Beaudine’s work as a director, I would have to say that it would be humanity. The film could have easily pointed and laughed at Merton (stills from the 1924 film indicate that he was much more the butt of jokes) but instead we are asked to sympathize with this deluded but harmless young fellow. Sure, his dreams of stardom are naïve but what harm is there? Merton is the anti-Eve Harrington in a cynical town but his sweetness is enough to melt Flips, the toughest cookie on the block. He’s able to melt the audience just as easily.
Stuart Erwin’s halting delivery is just perfect and when someone hurts him, you just want to snatch him up and keep him safe. I would be remiss if I did not also praise Joan Blondell’s warm, maternal interpretation of Flips. She’s about the same age as Merton but Flips has decades of experience in the entertainment industry and she understands the need for a protective shell. Poor Merton is a complete marshmallow and her attempts to help him just set him up for more hurt.
How much of this emotion is due to the script and how much comes from the actors and director? I think the last line in the film provides a clue. (Spoilers. Duh.) Merton has completely broken down and Flips is cradling him in her arms, his head is buried in her chest. Then he realizes that he told his taxi driver to wait for them. He asks if the driver will charge just for waiting and Flips says that he will. Merton responds that it’s worth it. This little button of a joke was likely intended to be delivered with a broad, pre-code wink but Erwin and Blondell play it as a melancholy attempt at humor from a character who has been destroyed by his inability to understand the concept. Merton has accepted that he must be funny but he is in mourning for the dream of serious stardom that can never be. Beautifully acted and directed.
Of course, Make Me a Star is not all about the pathos. We get our star walk-ons and they include some of Paramount’s biggest names at the time: Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March and Clive Brook. The best star playing himself, though? An old-timer even by silent movie standards.
Ben Turpin was a film industry veteran from all the way back in 1907, Turpin’s trademark crossed eyes were frequently references in the novel Merton of the Movies:
“A painfully cross-eyed man in misfitting clothes was doing something supposed to be funny pushing a lawn mower over the carpet of a palatial home.”
“The antics of the painfully cross-eyed man distressed them both, though the mental inferiors by whom they were surrounded laughed noisily.”
“I wouldn’t like to go on playing in such things, with cross-eyed people and waiters on roller skates, and all that.”
And they were able to cast the genuine article! Excellent move.
And now I must tell you something very strange that happened while I was watching the film. Henshaw, Buck Benson’s director, acts as the tough voice of reason in the picture, heartless but correct. He fires poor Merton because a movie cannot wait for one stammering extra, no matter how sweet. Later, he takes Buck to task for whining about Merton’s spoof.
All the while, Henshaw’s voice and mannerisms seemed so… familiar. Very similar to Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Boulevard. A dead-ringer, in fact. Well, I looked up the cast information and what do you think I discovered? Henshaw is played by Oscar Apfel, a director turned character actor. Apfel had been hired back in 1914 to assist DeMille in directing his very first picture, The Squaw Man, and the men kept working together until DeMille was deemed suitably seasoned to go it alone.
So, the big question is who sounded like whom? It’s kind of eerie, to be honest, but I am quite proud of my DeMille spotting skills.
The Lost Silent Film
All that remains of Merton of the Movies (1924) are some stills and vintage reviews. Photoplay complained that the film was missing its tang and that the character of Flips was toned down compared to the stage play. Now, I have never seen the stage version but it would have been possible to mess with Flips by making her a sweetheart and taking away her edge. If this was the case, I would agree that that would have been a mistake. Joan Blondell’s Flips is a hardened movie pro and I can’t imagine a more genteel take on the character working as well.
I should note that this harsh assessment was not universal and The New York Times listed Merton as one of the best films of 1924. But then again, the resident critic at the Times was Mordaunt Hall, who was notably dense and had taste that verged, frankly, into the bizarre. The honor is not as prestigious as it sounds, is my point.
The big casting coup for the 1924 film was getting Glenn Hunter, who had played Merton on the stage. Hunter made a few more films before returning to the stage, he and Hollywood apparently not agreeing with one another.
While I am still eager to see Merton of the Movies (especially Viola Dana’s take on the Flips role and whether or not it lost its edge), I am not sure that it could be an improvement over Make Me a Star. The picture is a beautifully melancholy love story and a cautionary tale. “Follow your dreams” may look attractive on the page of a journal but the real world has a way of twisting those dreams.
Make Me a Star is one of the best films of the 1930s you’ve never heard of and I cannot recommend it enough. (The 1947 Red Skelton version not so much. But that’s another story for another day.)
Availability: Make Me a Star has been released on DVD by Warner Archive as a double feature with Red Skelton’s Merton of the Movies.