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By 1932, Fredric March had arrived as a major player at Paramount Pictures. One sign of that was his appearance with a raft of other stars -- Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Sylvia Sidney among them -- in a cameo that lent credibility to the 1932 comedy, Make Me a Star, the second of three film versions of the Broadway comedy classic Merton of the Movies. Though Stuart Erwin and Joan Blondell were the film's true stars, its cameo cast is still a potent attraction.
With its portrait of a movie hopeful who perseveres even when his prospects seem hopeless, Make Me a Star is a celebration of the lure of stardom. Erwin plays a small-town boy who, after taking a mail-order acting course, decides to go to Hollywood to become the next Tom Mix. His lack of talent makes him a film-set pariah until a sympathetic actress (Blondell) gets him a job in a Western parody, though nobody bothers to tell the clueless amateur that he's the comic relief. Make Me a Star's ad campaign played up Erwin's aspirations with the tagline "Thousands Dream of it! Pray for it! Pay for it! But few ever achieve it."
Merton Gill was the creation of Harry Leon Wilson, who told his story in the novel Merton of the Movies in 1919. Adapted to the stage by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, the original production, which opened in 1922, ran for 392 performances with Glenn Hunter in the title role. He repeated his performance in the 1924 silent film produced by Famous Players-Lasky, the predecessor to Paramount, with Viola Dana as leading lady and Charles Sellon as his foster father. With the coming of sound, Paramount decided to make a new version of the story as a showcase for their rising comic actor, Erwin. When they borrowed popular new Warner Bros. leading lady Blondell for the female lead, however, she took star billing. Sellon repeated his performance as the leading man's adoptive father. One very smart casting move was the use of silent screen clown Ben Turpin to play a character only identified in the play as "The Cross-Eyed Man," a comic actor in Erwin's starring vehicle. Turpin had starred for Mack Sennett and was so famous for his crossed eyes he even had them insured by Lloyd's of London in case they ever became uncrossed.
One of the most fascinating parts of Make Me a Star is its director, William Beaudine. In a career spanning seven decades, Beaudine earned the nickname "One Shot" for his ability to finish films quickly and inexpensively. In the silent era, he started out as a prop boy for D.W. Griffith before moving into directing, eventually helming such classics as Mary Pickford's Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Sparrows (1926). He remained a top director after the coming of sound, but an ill-timed contract in England stopped his career. Returning to Hollywood with few job prospects and little fortune (most of his money was lost in the stock market crash), he started taking jobs wherever he could, which meant a long stay on Poverty Row directing low-budget films. He directed over half the Bowery Boys films at Monogram (later Allied Artists), along with the pioneering sexploitation flick Mom and Dad (1945), one of the most profitable films ever made. He also directed Bela Lugosi in possibly his worst film, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), and finished his career with the classic drive-in double feature Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both 1966). At the time he retired, he was, at 74, the oldest working director in Hollywood.
With its lowbrow humor and simple characters, Make Me a Star was something of a departure from the more exotic and sophisticated films Paramount was making in the early '30s. It certainly was not typical fare for March, who had, by that time, starred in such witty films as the Barrymore take-off The Royal Family of Broadway and the early screwball comedy Laughter (both 1930). But it prefigured the kinds of films Paramount would make in the '40s, after its more adult fare had begun to fizzle at the box office. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland starred in a radio version of Merton of the Movies in 1941. MGM would have done well to buy the rights then, as a vehicle for them. But they waited until 1944, filming it three years later with Red Skelton and Virginia O'Brien. It was not a hit, but Merton has resurfaced in stage revivals as recently as 1999, when the play enjoyed a successful run in Los Angeles.
Producer: B.P. Schulberg
Director: William Beaudine
Screenplay: Sam Mintz, Walter DeLeon, Arthur Kober
Based on the novel Merton of the Movies by Henry Leon Wilson and the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly
Cinematography: Allen G. Siegler
Score: John Leipold
Cast: Joan Blondell ('Flips' Montague), Stuart Erwin (Merton Gill, aka 'Whoop' Ryder), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs. Scudder), Ben Turpin (Ben the Cross-eyed Man), Florence Roberts (Mrs. Gashwiler), Helen Jerome Eddy (Tessie Kearns), Ruth Donnelly (The Countess), Oscar Apfel (Director Henshaw), 'Snub' Pollard (Actor in Wide Open Spaces), Kent Taylor (Theatre Doorman Ticket Taker), Tallulah Bankhead, Clive Brook, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Phillips Holmes, Fredric March, Jack Oakie, Charles Ruggles, Sylvia Sidney (Themselves).
by Frank Miller