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Merton of the Movies (1947) was the third screen version of Harry Leon Wilson's 1919 novel, which became a successful play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. The 1924 silent film adaptation was directed by James Cruze and starred Glenn Hunter as the movie-mad small town yokel with Hollywood dreams and Viola Dana as the warmhearted Hollywood stunt woman who befriends him. The 1932 remake, Make Me a Star, starring Stuart Erwin and Joan Blondell was produced by Paramount, and was notable for the cameos by Paramount stars such as Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March.
In the 1947 MGM version, set in 1915, Red Skelton plays Merton, Virginia O'Brien plays Phyllis, the romantic interest and Hollywood veteran who shows Merton the ropes, and Gloria Grahame is a comic standout as the silent screen vamp, Beulah Baxter. Merton wins a phony contest to go to Hollywood, and is convinced he can become a great dramatic and romantic leading man. But his acting is so bad it's comical... and being funny makes him a star in spite of himself. Merton of the Movies is an affectionate and amusing look at silent movie making, with several silent movie actors, including Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Franklyn Farnum, and May McAvoy playing bit parts in the film.
Skelton, a vaudeville and radio performer, had been signed to an MGM contract in 1940, after MGM star Mickey Rooney saw his act and offered to put in a good word for him at the studio. At first, Skelton was used mostly as comic relief in "B" movies and two Doctor Kildare films. Then in 1941, he had his first starring role in a "B" picture, Whistling in the Dark, playing a radio detective who becomes involved in a real-life mystery. The film was so successful that it led to two sequels, Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943). When Skelton returned to work after service in World War II, the studio took his career in a different direction, casting him in leads in adaptations of two stage hits, The Show-Off (1946) and Merton of the Movies. Neither film fully showcased his comedic strengths, and it was not until he began working with silent film legend Buster Keaton, who coached him in his routines, that he gave some of his most hilarious performances in films such as A Southern Yankee (1948).
Virginia O'Brien, known for her deadpan way with a song, had played opposite Skelton several times, most recently in The Show-Off. Her performance in Merton of the Movies was a rare non-singing role for O'Brien, and she showed a deft touch with witty dialogue. But her appealing performance was overshadowed by Gloria Grahame's flashier role, and MGM did not renew O'Brien's contract. Merton of the Movies was her final MGM film.
According to Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, Merton of the Movies was "one of the few times she was able to fully display her comic gifts onscreen." A Los Angeles native, Grahame began her career onstage right out of high school. She began getting attention when she appeared in several unsuccessful Broadway shows, and a Hollywood talent scout spotted her. Signed to an MGM contract in 1944, she had spent two frustrating years at the studio with only bit parts to her credit with the exception of Blonde Fever (1944), a showcase role. Then director Frank Capra, casting his independent production It's a Wonderful Life (1946) saw her screen test, and immediately chose her for the juicy role of the town flirt who could have become the town tramp without the intercession of hero George Bailey (James Stewart). MGM finally paid attention to Grahame, and immediately cast her in two 1947 films, It Happened in Brooklyn opposite singing sensation Frank Sinatra, and Merton of the Movies. In the latter, according to Curcio, "Her manner is delicious, her timing perfect, and her look a perfect combination of vamp and valentine, down to the last pincurl and satin ribbon. To play off the genius of Skelton, you can be sexy, but you can't be too wise, and Gloria managed to be the ideal foil."
Skelton left MGM in 1952, and went on to become a huge television star. MGM sold Grahame's contract to RKO the same year Merton of the Movies was released, and her first film there, Crossfire (1947) made her a star. It also earned her an Oscar® nomination, and she eventually won a supporting actress Academy Award for her performance as an unfaithful wife in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), ironically made on loanout back at MGM.
Merton of the Movies also seemed to have staying power. The play was still being revived on Broadway in the 1970s, and in Los Angeles as recently as 1999, proving that the dream of Hollywood stardom never loses its appeal.
Director: Robert Alton
Producer: Albert Lewis
Screenplay: George Wells, Lou Breslow, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and the novel by Harry Leon Wilson
Cinematography: Paul C. Vogel
Editor: Frank E. Hull
Costume Design: Irene, Helen Rose, Valles
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Howard Campbell
Music: David Snell
Principal Cast: Red Skelton (Merton Gill), Virginia O'Brien (Phyllis Montague), Gloria Grahame (Beulah Baxter), Leon Ames (Lawrence Rupert), Alan Mowbray (Frank Mulvaney), Charles D. Brown (Jeff Baird), Hugo Haas (Von Strutt), Harry Hayden (Mr. Gashwiler).
BW-83m. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri