Book Review: Merton of the Movies

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!

Merton of the Movies

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:

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Comic Strip Review: Johnny Comet

Comic Strip Review: Johnny Comet by Frank Frazetta & Earl Baldwin

Before Frank Frazetta hit it big with movie posters and book cover paintings of brawny barbarians and scantily-clad women, he worked in comic books and tried to break into the lucrative newspaper comics business.    After a couple of abortive efforts, Mr. Frazetta was hired in 1952 to do the art for Johnny Comet, the tale of a driver of midget race cars.

Johnny Comet

The strip was written by Earl Baldwin, although the name of Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo was attached to raise reader interest.   Johnny starts the strip loaning a tire to a hapless competitor of his, who goes on to win the race while Johnny crashes his vehicle.  Johnny’s idea of becoming a  mobile car repairman almost immediately falls through when his jalopy is destroyed in Clover, California.

Fortunately, this puts him in position to help out Jean Fargo,  a garage owner who just happens to have a midget car that needs a driver.  Aided by engineer “Pop” Bottle, his acerbic wife Mrs. Bottle and mechanic Sparky, Johnny and Jean battle the evil Al Gore(!) and his secret backer, who have good reasons to not want Johnny Comet to win the race.

The writing is kind of mediocre, with the basic plot device of a job opportunity for Johnny or his friends meaning ruin for someone else, who will then resort to violence rather than think of a less criminal way of doing things used repeatedly.  Mr. Baldwin was also overfond of resolving plotlines with the karmic death of the villains or an offstage arrest.

The art, on the other hand, was excellent, with Frazetta’s trademark handsome lead, attractive women , vile looking villains–and some very nice-looking cars.  There’s some fine craftsmanship on display in these strips.  A nice touch early on was the safety tips tucked into panels that let you know not to do the crazy stunts the characters get up to.

Towards the end of the strip, it was reworked, with Johnny being renamed Ace McCoy and becoming a stuntman.    There’s one storyline of this, and then the strip was cancelled three installments into the next plot, leaving the characters hanging forever.

The Sunday strips had a separate continuity and are reprinted here in color; they quickly switched to a gag format, mostly about Pop Bottle and Johnny being bumbling men who manage to offend Mrs. Bottle even when they’re trying to help.

There’s also an article on Mr. Frazetta’s comic strip career (he wound up as Al Capp’s assistant on Li’l Abner for eight years.)

If you’re a Frank Frazetta fan, or a midget car racing fan, this is a must-have.    Others will want to check it out from the library for the good art and mostly fun read.

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