US / 82 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Robert Alton Pr: Albert Lewis Scr: George Wells, Lou Breslow Story: Merton of the Movies (1919) by Harry Leon Wilson, and Merton of the Movies (1922 play) by George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly Cine: Paul C. Vogel Cast: Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Gloria Grahame, Leon Ames, Alan Mowbray, Charles D. Brown, Hugo Haas, Harry Hayden, Tom Trout, Douglas Fowley, Dick Wessel, Helen Eby-Rock.
This was the third movie version of Wilson’s novel and the hit Broadway play based on it. The earlier versions were Merton of the Movies (1924) dir James Cruze, with Glenn Hunter, Charles Sellon, Sadie Gordon and Gale Henry, and Make Me a Star (1932) dir William Beaudine, with Joan Blondell, Stuart Erwin, Zasu Pitts, Ben Turpin and Charles Sellon, the latter reprising his role as Pete Gashwiler. There was also a Kraft Theatre version: Merton of the Movies (1947 TVM) with Eddie Mayehoff and Patricia Englund. Cruze’s 1924 silent has been lost, and the same may be true of the TVM.
Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame), having just told the press she does all her own stunts, prepares to let stuntgirl Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) do the dangerous bit.
A satire of the movie business, this has no real noir relevance save for the presence in its cast of noir goddess Gloria Grahame (I’ve been working on a piece about Grahame for something else, which is what brought me to this movie), not to mention actor/producer/director Hugo Haas, whose enjoyably dire shoestring noirs have a minor cult following today. There are also some regular noir supports like Ames and Fowley.
It’s 1915 and Merton Gill (Skelton) is a cinema usher in Tinkerton, Kansas, and mad about the movies; his favorite stars are Lawrence “Larry” Rupert (Ames), famed for his detective roles, and the lovely Beulah Baxter (Grahame), famed for her curves. One night thieves try to rob the cinema; they flee when Merton starts acting like a lunatic—in reality, trying to imitate the fancy fighting moves of Lawrence Rupert. When Merton’s “heroism” is written up in the papers, Rupert’s PR people bring him to Hollywood as Rupert’s protege. After a couple of photo ops, they dump him back on the streets.
Doing the rounds of the studios, Merton—now calling himself Clifford Armytage, that last syllable being of course pronounced the French way!—runs into bit-part actress and stunt girl Phyllis Montague (O’Brien), not to mention big-time slapstick producer Jeff Baird (Brown). Merton watches as Phyllis does a stunt for Beulah Baxter; since he’s believed entirely Baxter’s interviews in which she claims to do all her own stunts as a matter of conscience, this is a painful dashing of scales from the eyes for him.
Phyllis’s next job is her big break, a supporting role in the new Lawrence Rupert mystery, the first attempt at a serious movie by producer Baird and his director Frank Mulvaney (Mowbray). When Rupert goes missing on one of his binges, Phyllis—by now unaccountably in love with the perpetually klutzing Merton—proposes to Baird that he finish the movie as a slapstick parody, with Merton in the Rupert role of Inspector Marlake. Of course, to bring out Merton’s unconscious comic genius, everyone must keep it a secret from him that this isn’t a drama . . .
Director Frank Mulvaney (Alan Mowbray) asks Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame) if she’d do him just one teeny favor.
The movie’s essentially a vehicle for Skelton’s clowning, and there are several extended set pieces, some of which are superb (e.g., Merton trying to keep silent as the porter in the fossilized Goodfellows’ Club), some moderately successful (e.g., told to help Merton relax, Beulah invites him for a soirée à deux and plies him with champagne in hopes of bedding him before he falls over), and at least one pretty grim (e.g., Merton tries to kiss Phyllis with the aid of a textbook).
Haas features in one of the best of these, as dictatorial fusspot director Von Strutt, who tries—and spectacularly fails—to coax ten seconds of usable footage out of Merton for a Civil War epic. At one point Von Strutt complains of a cloud crossing “my sun”. Although it’s customary to dismiss Grahame’s role as an easy one for her to play—all she has to be is a dumb, tasteless broad—in fact this most intelligent of actresses makes something quite wonderful out of the part, managing to be predatory, sexy, beautiful, repellent, clumsy and extraordinarily funny all at the same time.
Hugo Haas offers a fine parody as director Von Strutt.
The movie’s plot must have seemed curiously familiar to O’Brien. She started out with the intention of being a serious stage singer, but in an early performance she was so paralyzed with fear that she sang her number with a deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. The audience thought this was hilarious, and her career as a comedienne was launched. Unfortunately she tended to be typecast; Merton of the Movies was a rare leading role for her, and she excelled in it. Surprisingly, it was her last movie for MGM, who soon afterward dumped her, which was more or less the end of this talented performer’s movie career.
On Amazon.com as part of a two-disk set with Make Me a Star: Make Me A Star/Merton Of The Movies (2 Disc)
On Amazon.com (VHS): Merton of the Movies [VHS]