Merton of the Movies (1947)

“I feel I belong in a costume.”

merton of the moviesMerton of the Movies is a light-hearted look at Old Hollywood and the silent film era, and what’s so interesting about the film is that it seems to debunk the Hollywood Myth of the newcomer becoming a success, and then proceeds to reverse itself to reinforce the rags-to-riches Hollywood dream.

Cinema usher, Merton Gill (Red Skelton) loves film and longs for the day he can go to Hollywood. To prepare himself for his big break, he’s taken a correspondence course in acting, uses the stage name Clifford Armytage,  and even has the certificate to prove that he looks like an actor. But in spite of Merton’s enthusiastic desire to go to Hollywood, it looks as though he’s stuck in Tinkerton, Kansas until one day fate intervenes….

One night while working as an usher, Merton inadvertently appears to foil a robbery, and he subsequently makes the headlines. In Hollywood, dashing but fading actor, Lawrence Rupert (Leon Ames), needs all the publicity he can get, and Lawrence’s agent arranges to bring Merton from Kansas to Hollywood. To Merton, this represents a lifelong dream, and he’s excited to meet one of his screen idols. But when Merton gets to Hollywood, Lawrence Rupert uses him for a few publicity shots and then ignores him. Merton, however, is determined to become a star and begins haunting the studio lots for work as an extra. Eventually he meets the kindly Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) who works as a stunt woman for glamorous star Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame).  

I’m not a Red Skelton fan, but I did enjoy Merton of the Movies. Skelton plays the good-hearted, innocent country boy who lands in Hollywood and has the sort of misadventures you’d expect given the plot. It’s a role Bob Hope could play–the guileless, idiot bumpkin whose innocence acts as a sort of protective armour against the harsh realities of life. While other people would end up bitter at the bad treatment meted out by Lawrence Rupert, Merton simply doesn’t get that he’s been used and then snubbed. And this basic innocence makes for a great deal of the film’s humour. Some of the film’s funniest scenes show Merton working at the Good Fellows Club in Hollywood in the “Over 70s Room,” a place where the club members are so sensitive that, of course, it’s only a matter of time before Merton creates a disaster. The club members are mostly stone deaf, and yet at the same time, they’re annoyed by the noise made by Merton’s corduroy trousers.

Gloria Grahame, the reason I sought out the film, only appears in a few but delightful scenes as silent screen star Beulah Baxter. Beulah is a good-natured air-head, but in spite of her dimness, she’s a man-eater, and the scenes at her home when Merton tries ‘fruit juice’ are hilarious. Directed by Robert Alton, Merton of the Movies is innocent, good-hearted fun.

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