Monday, April 4, 2011

Make Me a Star (Paramount, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Make Me a Star, a quirky Hollywood story that began life in 1922 as a novel called Merton of the Movies by one Harry Leon Wilson. His name may be pretty much forgotten but a couple of more illustrious writers, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, bought the dramatic rights and later in 1922 produced a Broadway play, also called Merton of the Movies, which was a hit. Paramount bought the film rights and made it in 1924 under the original title, with James Cruze directing and Glenn Hunter and Viola Dana as the stars, then decided to do this version in 1932, updating the story to the sound era and casting Stuart Erwin and Joan Blondell (the latter on loan from Warners and actually billed first). Later on Paramount sold the film rights to MGM, which made a considerably campier version in 1947, directed by Robert Alton and starring Red Skelton and Virginia O’Brien, which relocated the time of the story back to the silent era.

Make Me a Star opens in the small town of Simsbury, established as “middle America” by a sign that announces it’s 1,051 miles from New York and 2,091 miles from Los Angeles, where Merton Gill (Stuart Erwin) works as a stock boy and delivery driver for Mr. Gashwiler’s (Charles Sellon) grocery store — only he keeps making mistakes because he’s secretly dreaming of a career in movies, watching the Westerns of Buck Benson (Dink Templeton) at the local theatre and fantasizing himself in similar roles. He’s so wrapped up in Buck Benson’s world that when Mrs. Scudder (ZaSu Pitts, amazingly billed third even though her part is over after about 15 minutes or so — and, as usual, the woman Erich von Stroheim hailed as “a great emotional actress” and potentially the screen’s finest tragic heroine gets wasted in a silly comedy role) complains that he’s delivered her turnips instead of eggs, his only reply is to mutter something about needing to head them off at the pass before they get to Red Gap — lines as incomprehensible to the characters as to us until we learn they’re from Buck Benson’s latest film.

Merton lives in a room above the store, as do Mr. Gashwiler and his wife (Florence Roberts), since he’s an orphan whom the Gashwilers took in, and it’s evidence of what a backwards place Simsbury is that he makes his grocery deliveries from a horse-drawn cart and listens to the records he’s been sent as part of a correspondence course on acting on an old wind-up Victrola, stuffing cloth in its reproducing horn to muffle the sound. He gets a nerdy-looking local girl named Tessie Kearns (Helen Jerome Eddy), who also has movie ambitions — though as writer instead of star — and a photographer to take “Western” shots of him on the Gashwilers’ horse (who, remember, is a dray horse who’s never actually been ridden!), whereupon the horse bolts at the sound of a gunshot from Merton’s prop gun and disrupts a crowd coming out of church (it’s Sunday), causing Gashwiler to fire Merton at last.

Merton gets his back pay and uses it to finance a trip to Hollywood and a few days’ stay there, and he zeroes in on Majestic Studios because that’s the company where Buck Benson works. (There actually was a short-lived Majestic Studios in the early 1930’s and it’s a surprise to see a genuine company name in a 1932 film.) There he meets the head of the casting department, a woman known only as “The Countess” (Dorothy Burgess), who spends a lot of her time — when she isn’t telling desperate actors and wanna-be actors that there’s no work for them today — hanging out with minor actress “Flips” Montague (Joan Blondell, playing a part very much like her off-screen self, a performer who literally grew up in show business and knows no other life). “Flips” sees Merton sitting forlornly in the Countess’s office day after day and takes pity on him, and finally scores him a job as an extra in a Buck Benson movie. The director picks Merton out of the crowd and gives him a one-line speaking role — only Merton flubs it and is fired. Realizing that once he leaves the studio grounds he’ll never be allowed back on them again unless he actually has a job there, Merton decides to live on the Majestic lot, subsisting on prop food and scraps left over from box lunches, until “Flips” catches him and insists on taking him out for a proper meal.

Realizing that Merton’s utter sincerity will look ridiculous on screen, “Flips” arranges with Jeff Baird (Sam Hardy), director of the “Loadstone Comedies” unit of Majestic, to star Merton (under the name “Whoop Ryder”!) in a parody of a Buck Benson Western, only because Merton hates Loadstone’s movies and regards comedy as “the lowest form” of movies, Baird orders everyone connected with the film not to let on that they’re shooting it as a comedy lest Merton catch on and realize he’s only there to be ridiculed. Baird also has the sound man run Merton’s voice through a trick filter to raise its pitch and make it sound like he’s on helium (one wonders if writers Sam Mintz, Walter de Leon and Arthur Kober, adapting material that pre-dated sound in films, got this from the widely believed rumor that Louis B. Mayer had ensured John Gilbert’s failure in talkies by similarly screwing up his voice electronically), and the film gets finished without Merton being any the wiser — until the night it’s supposed to be previewed, when Merton wants to take “Flips” as his date, she begs off and has the sort of crisis of conscience Joan Blondell could do so well, telling Baird it’s shameful what they’ve done to the kid. Merton attends the preview alone and his reaction is to head for the train station and get on the first train back to Simsbury — only “Flips” catches on, heads for the station, and the film ends with a romantic clinch between them and a curious (for 1932) ambiguity as to whether Merton continues his film career. (The story had the makings of an interesting sequel, as Merton faces the dilemma of whether he’ll still be any good at making people laugh now that he knows he’s funny.)

Make Me a Star is noteworthy for its early use of the “cameo” gimmick — major Paramount stars like Maurice Chevalier, Sylvia Sidney, Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Clive Brook, Fredric March, Jack Oakie and Charlie Ruggles appear for a few seconds each — and also for its odd darkness; whereas the Skelton version was campier (let’s face it, it was hard to believe that Red Skelton wasn’t aware that people were laughing at him!), this one makes Erwin a genuinely pathetic (in both senses) figure even though we’re also in on the joke in an odd way that practically makes us partners in the on-screen characters’ sadistic treatment of him. It’s also noteworthy for the director, William Beaudine, who’s known today mostly for his ghastly work at Monogram in the 1940’s — he’d done The Old-Fashioned Way with W. C. Fields (a film that, interestingly, repeats the gag from this one of an aspiring actor repeating one line over and over again in rehearsal, then blowing it at the crucial moment) but just about anybody could make a great film with W. C. Fields (all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus), but here he shows that even with a clichéd (though charming) story and a professional but not exactly “A”-list cast, he could make a more than decent movie.