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:

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

Josuke Higashikata (the kanji for his name can also be read as “Jojo”) has lived all his life in the northeastern coast city of Morioh with his single mother and his police officer grandfather.   When he was a small child, he became deathly ill for several weeks, and at one particularly dangerous moment, the family was helped by a passing stranger with a distinctive hairstyle which Josuke later adopted in gratitude.  Ever since recovering from his illness, Josuke has been able to manifest a Stand, a psychic projection that allows him to smash things and then fix them (he doesn’t have to put them back together in the original configuration.)  He calls his Stand Crazy Diamond.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

On the first day of high school, he and his new classmate Koichi Hirose meet a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Jotaro Kujo, a marine biologist who is Josuke’s nephew.  Say what?!  It seems that Josuke’s father is Joseph Joestar, an aging millionaire who had a brief affair with Josuke’s mother some years back.   Jotaro is his grandson by Joseph’s marriage.  The family only now discovered Josuke’s existence, so Jotaro came to establish contact and deal with any legal issues…and also warn Josuke that there is a hidden evil in Morioh.  And so the bizarre adventure begins!

This is the fourth installment of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series of series about the Joestar family, based on the manga by Hirohiko Araki.  The story is set in 1999, the near future at the time (which might explain some of the bizarre fashions the school-age characters are allowed to wear to school…but I doubt it.)  It’s a strong contrast to the previous installment, Stardust Crusaders.  Instead of a race against time across an entire continent, it’s about a number of incidents that interrupt the daily lives of people in a single small city.  Unlike the world-conquering DIO, the ultimate villain of Diamond Is Unbreakable just wants to be left alone to live a quiet life as a serial killer.

However, this series also strongly ties back to the earlier ones.  In addition to the returning characters of Jotaro and Joseph, this storyline reveals at least some of the mysteries behind the power of Stands.  It turns out there are arrows tipped with meteoric stone; anyone pierced by them gains a Stand, but not everyone survives the process.  This is how DIO got his Stand (and somehow passed the change down to everyone related to Jonathan Joestar, whose body he was wearing at the time), and created many of his minions.

After the events of Stardust Crusaders the stone arrows wound up in Morioh, and several people have been pierced (and in addition people who were born with Stands have moved to the city, as Stand users tend to attract each other as if it were fate.)  Most of these people are at least initially hostile–it’s good that Josuke has friends!

Josuke’s Stand reflects his central trait of compassion, but his kindness is leavened by being much more of a “teenager” than Jotaro ever was.  He likes goofing around and more than once comes up with a get rich quick scheme based on his and other people’s powers.  He’s also very touchy about his hair.  Josuke is initially hostile to the now-seemingly senile Joseph, but eventually warms to his old man.

Koichi is a short, wimpy fellow who initially does not have the fighting spirit to survive being imbued with a Stand, and only lives due to Josuke healing him.  He undergoes the most character development of the heroes, learning how to use his Stand Echoes (which evolves along with him) and finding his true courage.  His personality is less off-putting than Josuke’s, and he makes more friends, even getting a love interest!

Okuyasu Nijimura is initially an enemy, but this is largely due to the influence of his brother Keicho, who was creating Stand users to find a solution for their father, who had been a hidden servant of DIO and became severely mutated as a result.  After Keicho’s murder by a would-be crimelord, Okuyasu joined the heroes to get revenge, and quickly became Josuke’s best friend.  Okuyasu’s simple but powerful Stand The Hand is seldom used to full advantage as he is kind of stupid.  (“I’m not very bright, you know” is Okuyasu’s catchphrase.)  He’s also most of the comic relief.

Jotaro Kujo is still the same stoic badass we saw back in Stardust Crusaders, but more educated.  He appears relatively seldom, preferring to concentrate only on the main enemies, but is much feared by the villains due to his Platinum Star Stand having a time stop ability, and having managed to defeat DIO.

About midway through the story, we also meet Rohan Kishibe, an extraordinarily gifted and arrogant manga artist whose stand, Heaven’s Door, allows him to read people like a book.  Literally.  Rohan turns out to have a deeper connection to Morioh’s mysteries than he ever suspected, and becomes allied with the heroes.

The unique Stand abilities and the differing personalities of the main characters allows for interesting battles-it’s seldom as simple as overpowering an enemy, but requires lateral thinking, use of the environment and quickly understanding the implications of how the Stands interact.

The anime adaptation has been slightly rearranged to foreshadow the existence of the final villain and make the flow a little more even.  Still, there are a few episodes that feel like padding.  (The best of these, “Let’s Eat Italian!” is a brilliant inversion of a common episode plot in the third series–in that one, any time our heroes entered a shop or eatery with a bizarre-acting proprietor and weird things happened, it was a deadly trap, while in this episode, the outcome is entirely different.)  I had to force myself to finish the episode that introduces Mikitaka, who is probably an alien, as it was just too sitcom.

The source material was aimed at boys, so it’s not too surprising that there is less for female characters to do.  The most prominent is Yukako, a classmate of Koichi’s who falls in love with him,  Unfortunately, she is a yandere (sweet on the outside, stalker-crazy on the inside) girl who makes Koichi very uncomfortable before learning to dial it back a few notches, at which point he begins to return her interest.  Sadly, despite her fearless nature and useful Love Deluxe Stand, which allows her to control her hair even when it’s detached from her, she fades from the story once she reforms and doesn’t help out in any further battles.

Then there’s Reimi, a ghost bound to the alleyway she died near, and who has important clues to the final villain.  A small role, and she’s not very powerful, but does get a couple of great scenes.

As a violent action series where two of the villains are serial killers, there’s quite a lot of blood in various scenes (though actual wounds are blacked out) and one episode has full-frontal male nudity.  One villain has committed rape in their backstory, but doesn’t get a chance for it in the present day.  There’s also an extended and really creepy subplot in the later episodes that may be too uncomfortable for some viewers for spoilery reasons.

Due to trademark issues, many of the Stands (which have music-relateed names) have been renamed in the subtitles.  Crazy Diamond, for example, is renamed “Shining Diamond” even though you can still hear the characters saying the original name in English.

Overall, this series is a lot of fun for fans of superpowered battles.  If you liked the previous installments, you will probably enjoy this one–if your watching of Jojo starts here, you might be a bit confused for the first few episodes relying on readers remembering previous events.

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

TV Review: Blackadder Goes Forth

The year is 1917, the place, somewhere in France.  British troops are dug into trenches, not too far from the German troops in their trenches.  This particular part of the front line is the location of Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson.)  Experience has taught him that the British strategy of sending men “over the top” in waves to assault the German lines just results in dead soldiers, and the captain has no interest in dying.  He hatches scheme after scheme to get himself away from the front lines, or at least delay the fatal charge.

Blackadder Goes Forth
“A war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”

In this effort, Captain Blackadder is badly assisted by his second, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), an upper-class twit who believes all the propaganda about honor and glory, and the company batman (military servant), Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) who is profoundly stupid but does the best he can.  They try to outwit the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry) who thinks that using the same tactic that has failed eighteen times in the past will surely trick the Germans this time, and Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny) a rear echelon bureaucrat who is determined to kiss up to the general in order to stay safely behind the lines.

This was the fourth and final series of Blackadder, each short (six episodes) season using mostly the same actors in similar roles in different times, as though they were reincarnations.  Blackadder himself seems to improve somewhat over the ages–his first incarnation is both very evil and stupid, and slightly lessens those qualities in each subsequent variant.  Captain  Blackadder is bright (but not quite bright enough) and his goal isn’t particularly wicked (not dying) but retains much of his ancestors’ contempt for everyone around him and skill at insults.

Many of those insults are quite funny, and there are many other laugh out loud moments as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in.  I did not care as much for the gross-out gags involving Baldrick’s cooking (he ran out of real coffee in 1914.)  And to be honest, since the show aired in 1989, rape jokes have lost much of their luster.

The treatment of World War One is satirical, focusing on the futility and loss of life it entailed, and the divide between the courage of the soldiers and the poor leadership of the commanding officers.  Some historians feel the series went too far with this, and warn that this is after all a work of fiction.

Especially striking is the final episode, “Goodbyeee”, in which the Big Push is ordered at last.  The mood turns more somber as Captain Blackadder’s plans to escape fail one by one.  Lieutenant George realizes that all his friends are dead and he doesn’t want to die himself.  Baldrick asks the obvious question, “why can’t we all just go home?” and no one can give him a good answer.  Even Captain Darling is ordered into the charge as General Melchett fails to understand that this “reward” for loyal service is the last thing Darling wants.

In the final moments, the soldiers leave the trench and go into battle–their fate is left unsaid, but the screen fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the fallen of WW1.  It’s a bleak ending for a comedy.

The cast is excellent, and the writing good (despite some gags falling flat.)  I’d recommend watching all the Blackadder series in order, but if you have a special interest in World War One, this part stands on its own.

And now a video about poppies:

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