Friday, September 10, 2021

Make Me a Star

A year and change ago I did a post on the Red Skelton movie Merton of the Movies, mentioning that it was based on an old George Kaufman play that had already been made into a movie a couple of times before. The surviving version is the early talkie Make Me a Star.

Stewart Erwin plays the would-be star, a man named Merton Gill who works at a general store for the Gashwilers in some Middle America small town. Merton has dreams of becoming an actor but has never actually done any acting; to that end, he's been taking correspondence acting lessons. His acting idol is the cowboy star Buck Benson (George Templeton), and for all his portfolio photos and the like he shamelessly imitates Benson.

Eventually, Merton loses his job and heads west to Hollywood, where he goes to Majestic Pictures because they're the studio that has Buck Benson under contract. He's stupid enough that he has no desire to work for any other studio, and never seems to get the lesson that a young Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born got about extra work when she first landed in Hollywood.

We don't see much of anything Merton does to make ends meet, just him sitting around the casting office with the two women secretaries, including one who's a would-be actress herself, Flips Montague (Joan Blondell). She finds Merton hanging around the lot after he's been evicted from his rooming house, and takes pity on him by making certain he gets some extra work in a western.

The only problem is, Merton is a terrible actor, constantly flubbing his lines. But Flips comes up with an idea: star him in a movie that will be a parody of all the Buck Benson westerns, but don't tell him it's going to be a parody, since Merton thinks comedy is beneath him. Instead, keep lying to him and have him think he's really making a serious western picture. How Merton is dumb enough not to figure out what's going on is beyond me. But he'll find out come the premiere. By this time Flips has fallen in love with Merton and has come to regret what she's done to him....

I think there are two problems I had with Make Me a Star. One is that it's too serious at times, veering into light drama as opposed to just comedy. With Red Skelton in the remake, you knew you weren't going to get anything but a comedy, and that works (assuming, of course, you like Skelton's brand of comedy). The other problem is that this version doesn't come up with a good reason to keep Merton around the studio. In the remake, Merton uses the correspondence acting lessons from the cowboy star to foil a crime at the theater, and the studio uses this as a PR move to keep Merton in Hollywood. Here he just comes to Hollywood of his own accord; why he wouldn't have been caught at the studio and arrested is beyond me.

But Blondell is always a professions and Erwin winds up being appealing. The supporting cast does an OK job too, although cross-eyed Ben Turpin may not be to everybody's liking. So watch both Make Me a Star and Merton of the Movies and judge for yourself.

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