Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

Merton of the Movies began its existence as a short story by Harry Leon Wilson. Two knights of the Algonquin Round Table, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, made it into a hit Broadway play in 1922. It was first made into a movie, now lost, two years later.  Paramount remade it as a talkie and for some reason redubbed it Make Me a Star. Did the studio executives worry that the story was already old hat in some eyes and needed to be disguised? Almost a generation later, M-G-M would take a crack at it and went back to the original title. It makes you wonder whether there's something qualitatively different about the Paramount film, directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine from an adaptation by three writers. Based on the evidence on the screen, one could believe that Make Me A Star is a somewhat darker version of the Merton story. It definitely taps into a sense of desperation appropriate to the Great Depression, especially when compared to Harold Lloyd's treatment of a similar subject the same year in Movie Crazy. That film was old hat insofar as it was the same old Lloyd persona from silent days, the bumbling but indefatigable go-getter, trying to make it in Hollywood. By comparison, Stu Erwin's title-fulfilling performance as Merton in Make Me a Star is a portrait recognizable to modern viewers of a troublingly obsessive personality, vested with as much pathology as pathos.

As spoken in the film by Merton Gill, the title is a prayer to God. Stardom is Merton's only possible escape from the small-town hell where he works as an assistant shopkeeper. His obsession ultimately estranges him from his adoptive father, who tells Merton that if he wants to get to Hollywood he better catch the morning train. Merton, of course, is only one of a talentless multitude trying their luck in the movie capital. His would be a dull story if he were only talentless, but the genius of the story is that he's pretentiously talentless. Merton is dedicated to the high dramatic art of moving pictures, despising comedy, but his idea of high dramatic art is the Buck Benson series of B-westerns (at best) made by Majestic pictures. In Hollywood he's determined only to work at Majestic, a mirror-universe version of Paramount where many of the real studio's real stars work and appear in pretty pointless cameos for publicity's sake. He haunts the Majestic casting office for days and weeks waiting for an opportunity, insisting that his correspondence-course acting class entitles him to consideration for speaking parts rather than extra work, until hard-boiled studio girl "Flips" Montague (Joan Blondell) takes pity on him and pulls strings to get him a bit part with one line in a Buck Benson picture. In an all too predictable progression, he nails the line in rehearsal but finds different ways to botch it in each live take, finally nailing it again after he's been thrown off the set and the crew breaks for lunch.

After noticing his absence for several days from the casting office, Flips finds Merton foraging for scraps in the wreckage of former sets, lamenting how he'd stashed a plate of cold beans inside a desk only to have the desk taken away. He'd never left the lot because he was afraid he'd never be allowed back on after his debacle. Flips tries to find work for him and finally convinces the studio's comedy producer to try him out. The diabolical idea is that Merton, using his chosen screen name of Whoop Ryder ("I bet there's a story behind that!" Jack Oakie opines) will star in a parody of the Buck Benson films. The key to the comedy, the director believes, is for naive Merton to play the part absolutely straight according to his idea of high cinematic art. He must not be allowed to realize that he's in a comedy picture, and he's clueless enough for this to be relatively easy. The only stumbling block is the casting of Ben Turpin (himself), a vulgar comic Merton despises so much he can't even call him by name, referring to him only as "the cross-eyed man." He accepts the explanation that Turpin has long aspired to change his image and prove himself as a dramatic actor. Special effects will take care of the rest.

The sneak preview of the Whoop Ryder picture is a hit with the audience but a nightmare for Merton and Buck Benson. Benson can't stand the parody of himself, while Merton can't stand that he's being laughed at after being tricked by the studio. Beaudine films this so you empathize with Merton; the comedy isn't very good, really, yet people are making braying asses of themselves laughing at it. In a Producers-like reversal Merton is poised to be a comedy star but he's ready to head back home in self-imposed disgrace, until he hears two studio men talk about the genius of his performance. Then, determined to prove to Flips that he's no fool, he returns to her to explain how he knew what was going on all along. Parroting what he'd heard from the studio men, he tries to build himself up into a comic genius until he breaks down in the girl's arms. It's a brilliant climax to what's probably the best work Stu Erwin ever did on film and a genuinely great performance, eloquently incoherent, naively insane, vaguely disturbing but indisputably sympathetic. The irony of it, at least as the publicists told it later, was that after this picture Erwin could have written his own ticket in Hollywood, but turned down a lead role in a forthcoming Paramount picture because he didn't feel ready for stardom. I wonder whether you can draw a line linking that self-analysis to the performance he gave and how much of himself he put in it.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Sounds like a movie worth tracking down.