Book Review: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson
Simsbury, Illinois might just be a wide spot in the road, but twice a week, the Bijou Palace shows movies made in far-off Hollywood. Perhaps the most fanatical attendee of these showings is young Merton Gill, assistant shopkeeper at Gashwiler’s Emporium (general store.) Merton has studied these film stories carefully, subscribes to several photoplay magazines, and has taken a correspondence course in acting. (With a specialization in face journeys.) While ordinary folks only idly think of going to Hollywood to be in movies, Merton (aka Clifford Armytage) is going to actually do it!
This comedic novel is by the author of Ruggles of Red Gap and was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919. It was rapidly turned into a hit play, then released as a book in 1922. There have been three movie versions, the 1947 one starring Red Skelton.
Merton arrives in California at the height of the silent era, woefully unprepared for the realities of the movie business. He only wants to work for one studio, the ones that put out a Perils of Pauline style adventure serial starring his favorite actress, Beulah Baxter. An idealist, he hasn’t noticed how sanitized the magazine articles about the stars of Hollywood are. (One of the running gags is the stock phrases used in every interview.) For quite some time, he doesn’t even make it past the casting office’s waiting room.
While cooling his heels day after day, Merton becomes acquainted with (quite against his will) “Flips” Montague, a sassy, irreverent young woman who’s been in show business all her life. She’s not exactly film-heroine pretty, and far too familiar in her manner. Merton can’t quite fathom why she insists on acting as though they were warm acquaintances.
I should mention here that Merton has no sense of humor; he recognizes that such a thing as comedy exists, but doesn’t grok it. Slapstick, insults, wordplay, none of them seem funny to him, and he goes through life entirely seriously.
Finally, just as his monetary situation was looking grim, Merton gets a chance to be an extra in a cabaret scene. He’s supposed to be suffering from ennui due to the Blight of Broadway. As it happens, Merton is very uncomfortable in the scene, especially as he’s being forced to smoke cigarettes even though he detests the habit. This makes him look perfect for that scene, and Miss Montague takes notice.
After that, there’s a long dry spell until a day’s extra work gives Merton just enough money to choose between paying rent and eating. He chooses eating, then ingeniously uses the studio’s backlot resources to have shelter for the next week. Down to his last nickel, Merton is stunned to run into Flips again at her part-time job as stunt double for Beulah Baxter. (Ms. Baxter had claimed to do all her own stunts.) He’s even more stunned to learn that Beulah is married…for the third time.
Flips (who prefers not to use her given name of Sarah Nevada Montague) treats Merton to breakfast and learns his life story…and realizes she’s found a gold mine. She stakes Merton a couple of weeks rent, then contacts a director friend of hers. She and Mr. Baird agree on a plan. Merton will star in a movie, being told he’s playing a straight role, and not being allowed on the set for any scenes not involving his character.
Baird fibs to Merton that he wants to move up from comedy to serious films, and our hero buys it. Clifford Armytage is on the rise at last! Before the first film is released, Baird has Merton in a second movie with the same conditions. Merton does have some suspicions…if this is a serious movie, why is the notorious funnyman with the crossed eyes involved? But he puts them aside, after all he’s still a rookie and the director surely knows what he’s doing.
Shooting wrapped up, Baird signs Merton to a three-year exclusive contract (carefully looked over by Miss Montague.) Merton realizes he’s fallen in love with Flips, and she likes him a whole bunch too…but the first movie with Clifford Armytage as straight man in a slapstick comedy is about to hit theaters. Will this make Merton a star, or break his heart?
Good stuff: There are many genuinely funny bits, and it’s fascinating to have a window into the Hollywood of the silent era. There are things that are very much the same: Merton overhears as a worthy film idea is watered down and butchered to match what the moneymen think the audience wants, until the final product is unrecognizable. There’s also bewailing the intelligent movies that don’t get made because there’s no money in them.
Not so good: Period racism, sexism and ethnic prejudice. One of the standout lines here is “He knows all about money, even if he doesn’t keep Yom Kippur.” Flips is kind of an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope some folks are tired of. And there’s animal abuse by a film crew, true to the period.
Recommended to movie fans, especially those interested in the silent era.
And now, the trailer for the 1947 film: