Young Hopeful

One cute thing about THE ARTIST is the bit with Berenice Bejo trying to break into pictures — we had just watched MAKE ME A STAR the night before, which deals with a similar subject and environment (a cheap production for Paramount, who could shoot most of it on their own lot). This is a version of Merton of the Movies, a George S Kaufman-Marc Connelly play filmed previously in 1924 and remade in 1947 with Red Skelton. It also shares much of its set-up with HEARTS OF THE WEST, the charming 1975 parody of 1930s filmmaking, which starred an impossibly young Jeff Bridges. And Bridges is the one actor in the lot who can make the naive doofus role appealing.

Stuart Erwin in MAKE ME A STAR takes a slightly different route from Bridges — a capable comedy relief supporting actor in Andy Devine type roles, here he’s the leading man and is going all out for pathos. This involves a peculiar, halting delivery of lines which makes Merton seem not just slow-witted but positively learning-impaired. Seeing such a defenseless character get put upon for the whole picture kind of robs it of any potential for comedy…

The early stretches, with Merton making a fool of himself around his hick hometown are painfully slow, with only the Paramount zoom lens (as used in LOVE ME TONIGHT) livening things up. “ZOOOOM!!!” we would cry, whenever it zeroed in on a salient detail. Though Merton’s correspondence course in screen acting, with its numbered photos of useful facial expressions, was a funny idea, much more could have been made of it. Instead, we got unfocused supporting performers (the script calls for several character to flip from supportive to hostile and back for no reason) and tiresome schtick.

When Merton gets to Hollywood there’s Ruth Donnelly and Joan Blondell to hold the eye, plus guest spots by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper, taking time out from DEVIL AND THE DEEP. And the pathos takes a turn into Von Trier torture-a-kitten territory which is weirdly diverting. Erwin’s delivery grows ever more faltering. Wangling his way onto the soundstage, he is promptly fired from an extra job for blowing his single line. In the most affecting — and universal — moment, he repeats the line perfectly after everyone is left, then hopelessly looks for approval from the empty sound stage.

Reluctant to leave the studio and find himself unable to get back in, Merton takes to hiding in the shadows, scraping scraps from abandoned box lunches, a studio derelict, a studio ghost. “Taking pity” on him, Blondell sells the resident Mack Sennett figure (Sam Hardy, drily amusing) on using Merton to spoof the great western star Buck Benson, whom Merton patterns himself on. “He’s like a blurred carbon copy of Buck Benson!” So the staff and players of “Loadstone” contrive a western parody with Ben Turpin, in which Merton is made more ridiculous by some technically unexplainable sound recording trick that makes his voice go falsetto while leaving everyone else unaffected. I wonder if this was based on the false rumour that Louis B Mayer sabotaged John Gilbert’s career in this fashion? At any rate, it’s a new addition to the play, which originated in silent movie days, and it doesn’t actually make anything funnier — it actually robs Erwin of the chance to be amusingly inept on his own.

Humiliated at the premier (stuffed with more Paramount guest stars: Oakie! Ruggles! Sylvia Sydney!) when he learns he’s been played for a chump, Erwin, face aflame, repairs to a coffee shop where he hears his idol complaining about being sent up. But Buck’s agent makes an impassioned and powerful speech about COMEDY and SINCERITY and THE PUBLIC’S LOVE. It’s quite a speech — even better than the one in THE ERRAND BOY.

Erwin goes to see Blondell, who’s ashamed at the trick she’s played, and the film collapses into an Event Horizon of conflicted response, as Erwin tries to explain that he’s not angry or upset, that he was in on the gag all the time, and that he knows he’s a great comedy star because he’s got LOVE and COMEDY and THE PUBLIC’S SINCERITY — it’s a garbled version of the speech in the previous scene, just like when Stan Laurel comes up with a good plan, but then can’t remember it when he comes to repeat it a second later. But the scene, ridiculous and strange, is still played for pathos, so it has a dizzying, nightmarish feeling — supplanted by the film’s only funny joke.

As Blondell takes Erwin in her arms, his head resting between what Jack Warner called “those bulbs”, he worries about the cab he has waiting outside.

“Do yuh have to pay taxicabs, just for waiting?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Oh. Well. It’s worth it.”

And he nestles back into paradise.

MAKE ME A STAR is kind of a bad film which turns out to be good almost by accident — it certainly doesn’t land on any of the accepted squares denoting quality or success, but it persistently winds up in strange, unfamiliar zones of discomfort, oddity, sadness or head-scratching peculiarity. I recommend it to the curious.

10 Responses to “Young Hopeful”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    The novel MERTON OF THE MOVIES ( http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3472/3472-h/3472-h.htm ) is a lot of fun.

    Maybe Peggy Pepper in SHOW PEOPLE took the same correspondence course!

  2. I got a strange feeling the film wasn’t meant to be very funny at all, more a warning to the starstruck. The scenes in Erwin’s hometown don’t provide much guidance and neither does Erwin, whose acts too much a humorless dope to be very sympathetic. I liked Sam Hardy, though, and Joan gets a couple of good scenes. Didn’t know Hardy had a hand in the story and screenplay of Fields’ Man On The Flying Trapeze.

  3. Hmm, thinking about that name, Peggy Pepper, and the name Peppy Miller in The Artist, makes me think Hazanavicius may have seen more movies than he lets on.

    Hardy is very funny in this, underplaying. And yet I can’t remember what he does in King Kong at all.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    And then there was Marion Davies [Peggy Pepper]’s niece, Pepi Lederer, sister of Charles Lederer and friend of Louise Brooks, featured in an anecdote in the latter’s LULU IN HOLLYWOOD recently cited by Glenn Kenny … there are no accidents.

  5. I always remember Hardy in small parts, usually as a heavy – he’s the guy who hires Claudette Colbert and threatens to can her when she won’t put out in Three Cornered Moon. I think MMAS and maybe On With The Show had the biggest parts he ever got. I remember him in Face In The Sky and The Millionaire also. He didn’t make much of an impression on me in King Kong, either.

  6. What a great beginning —

    “At the very beginning of the tale there comes a moment of puzzled hesitation. One way of approach is set beside another for choice, and a third contrived for better choice. Still the puzzle persists, all because the one precisely right way might seem—shall we say intense, high keyed, clamorous? Yet if one way is the only right way, why pause? Courage! Slightly dazed, though certain, let us be on, into the shrill thick of it. So, then—”

  7. Christopher Says:

    always thought of Stu Erwin as Jack Oakie’s dim witted cousin…and more tolerable in smaller doses..

  8. Randy Cook Says:

    Sam Hardy: Weston,the Theatrical Agent (as in “Everybody knows you’re squarrre, Denham”)

  9. I beg to differ on Oakie. Even if it wasn’t his standard role, he could play dimwitted pretty well, as in Once In A Lifetime. I do admit I wanted Aline MacMahon to slap him a couple of times in the film.

  10. Just looking at Looking for Trouble, which pairs Oakie with Spencer Tracy. Another blurred carbon copy, or else a child’s drawing. Oakie strikes me as potentially too close to the pre-code Tracy, but we’ll see how the pairing shapes up (have seen both characters but they haven’t met yet).

    My next viewing of Kong will be dedicated to appreciating Sam Hardy’s work! At least partially.

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