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.