“Oh, God, make me a good movie actor! Make me one of the best! For Jesus’sake, amen!”
—Merton of the Movies (Wilson 29)
The story of Merton Gill has resonated with audiences of many generations and has roused iterations of and expansions upon the tale on film, radio, and the stage. While a variety of actors have portrayed Merton over the years, the story originated as a 1919 publication in the Saturday Evening Post. Three years later, it would be published as a book and went on to sell millions of copies of its release.
Unlike many other stories that focus upon the Silent Era, Merton of the Movies is not written as a retrospective text. Rather, the characters conjured up by author Harry Leon Wilson were inspired by the Silent Era as a reality, offering intriguing caricatures of the different talents–and film fans–of the period.
As is the case in many a plot that deals with a character dreaming of entering the film industry, life both behind the camera and in front of it is not always as imagined. The heroes one idolizes are certainly more complicated and varied than the individuals that they portray in films. Nonetheless, Merton’s disappointments and the moments during which myths are shattered are portrayed in a humorous way, as evidenced by the following passage:
The noble sheik, of undoubtedly Asiatic origin, came to the doorway overlooking the assistant director’s work on the narghileh. A laden camel halted near him, sneered in an evil manner at the bystanders, and then, lifting an incredible length of upper lip, set his yellow teeth in the nearest shoulder. It was the shoulder of the noble sheik, who instantly rent the air with a plaintive cry: “For the love of Mike! — keep that man-eater off ’n me, can’t you?”
His accent had not been that of the Arabian waste-land. Merton Gill was disappointed. So the fellow was only an actor, after all. If he had felt sympathy at all, it would now have been for the camel. The beast was jerked back with profane words and the sheik, rubbing his bitten shoulder, entered the cafe, sitting cross-legged at the end of the divan nearest the door.
[…] Merton Gill resolved never to play the part of an Arab sheik — at the mercy of man-eating camels and having to smoke something that looked murderous. (Wilson 126)
So, too, is the case for a wide-eyed, buffoonish Merton, who dreams of trying his hand at the budding industry. To him, the talents are larger than life until he meets them for himself and develops new relationships and popularity in his own right.
Merton of the Movies was the earliest comic novel about the filmmaking industry of the Silent Era and functions as an enjoyable representation of the time period. Merton himself comes with clear goals that poke fun at the different types of roles an actor could receive and works to achieve the persona he prefers.
Readers will note Merton’s distaste in comedy, hoping to instead become an actor with more dramatic roles.
“Walking on, they discussed the wretched public taste and the wretched actors that pandered to it. The slapstick comedy, they held, degraded a fine and beautiful art” (Wilson 37).
At the same time, he expresses a desire to avoid being typecast.
‘This was worth considering, because he was not going to be one of those one-part actors. He would have a wide range of roles. He would be able to play anything” (Wilson 37).
As Merton navigates the studio, his own status and clout within the studio, he works to secure a career for himself. Throughout the process, his watchful eye shares comical observations of the different actors and directors employed in the industry, in addition to the mannerisms and characteristics of screen hopefuls. Merton of the Movies goes on to comment upon the evolution of acting itself, which is not always in step with Merton’s own dreams of the profession.
While Merton’s observations of studio life and talents are intriguing to classic film fans–particularly fans of the Silent Era–Wilson’s fictitious Merton is also a fine source of comedy, offering lighthearted interpretations, dialogue, and scenarios throughout the novel. Though Merton dreams of being a leading man, he essentially enters into a career in comedy by accident, thanks to comedienne and stunt woman Flips Montague. His own physicality and knack for misadventure also aid in sealing his fate.
To me, Merton’s observations offer an interesting portrayal about the expectations and preconceived notions regarding the fledgling industry at the time. Like the industry itself, Merton sees potential in a future career and in himself through this innovative medium. In illustrating this era alongside Merton’s encounters and dreams, Wilson offers us a fine, multifaceted depiction of this period that will surely delight.
Of course, the story has indeed managed to be a source of joy for many audiences, even leading to the point of the tale transitioning to the very medium that finds itself at the center of Merton’s life–film.
Over the years, the story would be reimagined for the stage by George S. Kaufmann and Marc Connelly in 1922. A film version from 1924 is now lost, but Make Me a Star (1932), starring Stuart Erwin as Merton, survives. More notably, another film version–Merton of the Movies (1947) would be released, starring Red Skelton in the title role. In between the surviving film releases, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland performed in a 1941 radio adaptation of the story. After 1947, the story was envisioned for the stage twice more. A 1977 musical was intended for Broadway but was instead produced at Carnegie Mellon University in 1985. In 2011, another musical version was stage read but not produced.
While some iterations of the story are more enjoyable than others, the novel remains a witty tale that is sure to capture the interest and attention of classic film fans and aficionados of the early filmmaking industry. LARB’s republication of the text is a labor of love and welcome reissue of a story that will no doubt continue to charm film fans in through its depictions of the Silent Era, the adventures of Merton, and the engaging style in which the novel is written.