Saturday, 15 February 2014

The lost world… Merton of the Movies (1924)

"This is such a good picture that we intend seeing it again at the first opportunity we have."
New York Times, September 8, 1924

Recent research from the Library of Congress has concluded that up to 75% of American films made before the advent of sound have been lost. How much does this add to the allure of silent film and do we count ourselves especially lucky to be able to watch that which survives? There’s no way of knowing how many classic have been dumped and whether what remains is almost by definition the best, the most watched and the most cherished? But, without doubt, many great films will never be seen again and many entertaining films that might have added to our appreciation of the period and its entertainments.

Aside from bemoan their loss, what can we actually do about non-extant films? Maybe the answer is to try and put them in context and to try and give them some kind of existence in memory.

Maybe, like Bradbury’s characters in Fahrenheit 451, we should all task ourselves with committing to memory at least one silent film so that it lives on in some way… maybe by drawing together the available information we can somehow resurrect them at least enough to catch a glimpse of what might-have-been and what actually-was…

Viola Dana and Glenn Hunter
Merton of the Movies is a lost film from 1924 directed by James Cruze, starring Glenn Hunter (who had earlier featured in Smilin' Through) and Viola Dana (star of many dozens of films from 1910 onwards including Children of Eve)  and which enjoyed some success being nominated as one of the top ten films of the year by the New York Times.

It was based on a 1919 book written by Harry Leon Wilson who also wrote The Ruggles of Red Gap which was later turned into a film starring Charles Laughton... In 1922, the book was adapted into a Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and a tie-in novel was published including stills from that production.

My copy of the 1922 edition, issued to tie in with the play's success: thanks Mary!
My friend Mary found a copy for 75c in a bookstore near where she lives in Santa Barbara and kindly sent it to me knowing it would be just my cup of tea. So now, ladies and gentlemen, I am able to re-tell the story of the book that led to the play and then onto the film and let your imaginations fill in the rest with the aid of the few shots that remain…

The book begins with some very dense, florid prose as cowboy Buck Benson does battle with one Snake le Vasquez for the honour of city girl Estelle St. Clair… you wonder if this is just aged creaky style but its Wilson’s post-modern humour poking fun at not just the movies but also our dreamy devotion to them.

Buck confronts Snake le Vasquez
 The participants turn out to be two showroom dummies and one stock room one: Merton Gill (Glenn Hunter) who whiles away his working hours daydreaming of being a western film star. He is employed by Mr Gashwiler (Charles Sellon) at his general store and is saving every penny for his big chance in Hollywood.

Merton has an ally in Tessie Kearns (Gale Henry) who writes scenarios in her spare time – none yet published – as well as accompanying Merton on frequent trips to the local movie house. He worships BB the star of dramatic serials and rather looks down on the slapstick shorts served on the undercard: real drama was worth more than laughter.

Soon Merton heads off to chance his hand with his savings and the promise of his old job back if things don’t work out - Mr Gashwiler obviously seeing nothing much to lose in the extension of such generosity…

Merton finds room and board and begins a daily routine of looking for work as an extra at the Holden Studios where BB films her serials… part-stalker, part-dreamer, you wish Merton the best but you’re not convinced he’ll get very far.

Flips buys Merton a square meal (image thanks to Jay Parrino...)
He encounters others on the fringes of the business including Mr. Montague (Charles Ogle) and his daughter Sally – nicknamed “Flips” (Viola Dana) who seems to have a finger in every pie and to know everybody and everything. Merton decides he doesn’t like her “frivolity” he prefers that movies are taken more seriously.

Wilson’s construction of cohesive inner dialogue for Merton is expert and you wonder how this could ever be translated onto the silent screen – a voice-over would help explain the young man’s nativity and an earnestness that blinds him to neuro-typical responses almost throughout the whole book.

Flips sees something in him and she persuades slapstick specialist  Jeff Baird (DeWitt Jennings) that his unflinching seriousness will have hilarious results when placed in the context of the latter’s silly comedies. Young Merton also bears more than a passing resemblance to  Harold Parmalee (Elliott Rothe), a successful and serious dramatic actor.

The formidable Flips
So it is that Merton gets into the movies thinking that he’s filming the start of a new serious strain of from the joker and his wobble-eyed cast (any resemblance to Ben Turpin is entirely deliberate…). But it’s vital that in order to be the joke, Merton mustn’t get the joke and Wilson works very hard to enable Baird’s hood-winking to succeed. His every improvised excuse for how things look is rapidly assimilated as justification for some of the extremes Merton must endure.

Things go well but Flips worries about how he’ll react when he discovers the truth… in spite of it all she’s going soft on the guy.

But Bairns thinks only good can come from being successful and even laughter is better than no applause at all… He rushes Merton into his next feature and aims to complete that before the cat is let out of the bag.

No spoilers… you can’t see the film but you really should read the book! There’s also a remake featuring Red Skelton in 1947 but it’s also fair to say that Show People owes more than a little to Merton.

Merton is so well-informed about the movies, how they’re made and how the effort in front of the camera can only truly be appreciated once all of the editing, cutting and post-production has been completed. Merton’s nights on the lot show evidence of Wilson’s depth of research and it’s especially fascinating to get a glimpse of the production process. Most of all, the attitude of the film-makers to what was already a massively successful business, is so revealing: the clichés were already in place probably a decade before the book was written.

Glenn Hunter in the play
The play was a huge success and Glenn Hunter had starred in one of the touring products. You can imagine he’d do very well in this role but Photoplay thought Charlie Ray would have been better. The New York Times was rather more enthused:

"Mr. Hunter's performance is all that could be wished. He makes Merton wistful and hopeful... While he is pathetic, he is persistent, and his frowns and smiles, his puffed-out chest and speaking eyebrows keep one constantly interested, and often stir one to hilarity."

Glenn Hunter as Merton as Buck
The Times described Viola Dana as splendid and you can imagine how she’d cope very well with the wise-cracking Flips, always addressing life on the balls of her feet – up for anything!

Ultimately, it’s hard to do anything other than imagine which bits of the 335 page novel would have informed the film and perhaps the play might provide a closer fit (it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive). But the book, as all source materials, stands on its own right and is stillavailable from Amazon. Second hand copies are also on eBay, later editions without dust-jackets are quite affordable, but a mint copy of the first edition could set you back over $2,000.

Maybe one day the celluloid will be found… it’s a slim chance but every so often, cinematic dreams do come true as Merton himself would attest.

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