Monday, June 1, 2020

Merton of the Movies

A lot of the movies I've been watching off of TCM lately have been those that are available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive. Another of those is Merton of the Movies.

Red Skelton plays Merton Gill, an usher in a small-town movie theater in the early silent era of the 1910s somewhere in what we'd call flyover country now. Merton has dreams of becoming an actor, having taken a correspondence course; in fact, he gets so into the movies that he doesn't really do his ushering job which could well get him fired. Until one day, that is, when his overacting foils a robbery. He mentions Hollywood star Lawrence Ruprecht (Leon Ames), and that gets Merton out to Hollywood.

Merton is too naïve to realize that Ruprecht's agent only wants to use Merton as a PR stunt, having Merton take a bunch of pictures with Ruprecht, who will claim that Merton is his protégé. Merton actually believes this nonsense, hanging around Hollywood expecting to get a call at one or another of the studios.

Like many struggling actors, he takes on a variety of odd jobs until one day he sneaks in to one of the studios where a nighttime scene starring big actress Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame) is going to be filmed. Publicity would have you believe, and certainly has Merton believing, that Beulah does all her own stunts, with the stunt this time involving diving off a ship's high mast. Of course, she's got a stunt double Phyllis (Virginia O'Brien), and when Merton jumps in the studio tank to rescue Beulah, he actually rescues Phyllis.

Phyllis and Merton are both able to get parts, although Merton's is only an extra in a Civil War drama. He's not very good at it, constantly flubbing his lines and cues, and either hitting other characters are falling down and otherwise having trouble with the props. Now, if this were a comedy, that might be OK, but not a drama.

However, it gives Phyllis an idea. She's gotten a role in what is supposed to be Ruprecht's comeback role, and realizes that Merton would be perfect for slapstick, especially if it's a parody of Ruprecht, who has become enough of a drunk that the studio is concerned he won't be able to complete the project. Of course, Merton has dreams of being a serious actor, not a slapstick comedian, and boy will he be pissed if he should ever find out the studio used his clips as comedy.

Merton of the Movies is based on a George S. Kaufman play, having been made already once in the silent movie (now presumed lost), and again as Make Me a Star back in the early 1930s. The material was redone here to play to Skelton's comedic strength, and mostly works as long as you like Skelton. If you don't particularly like Skelton's antics, you'll probably grow tired of the movie even though it doesn't run all that long. Graham and Ames both do a fine job with the comedic material.

There's nothing really new here, both because the movie is a remake and because it's a Red Skelton material. But it's certainly worth a watch.

No comments: