Dec 20, 2019

Book Review: The Retro Appeal of Merton of the Movies

Merton of the Movies
Harry Leon Wilson
LARB Classics, 2019 (originally published 1919)

It is the 100th anniversary of Merton of the Movies, a book that inspired three films (the 1947 version with Red Skelton is the best known), a play, and a musical, but which is for the most part forgotten today. While the book unsurprisingly has some elements that would be found insensitive in the current social climate, it is for the most part still an entertaining read with timelessly relatable sentiment. Disillusionment with the Hollywood dream factory was built in to the industry from the beginning and while this is a comic novel, there’s an edge to the laughs.

The story follows Merton Gill, a self-serious, small-town rube who goes to Hollywood after completing acting correspondence school. It doesn’t take long for Gill to find work as a prominently-placed extra, but jobs are not plentiful, and he soon finds himself struggling to survive. With the intervention of his friend, the stuntwoman Flips Montague, he gets back on his feet and in front of the camera.

However, being a leading man is not what Gill expected. His director and Montague play a dirty trick on him in the name of show business that leaves him baffled and hurt by the illusions of Hollywood. Maybe he isn’t starving anymore, but he’s lost his bearings.

Merton is a naïve man, which makes him funny to many, and the tragedy is that he cannot see why he would be laughable. In his fight for dignity, he struggles to understand a wiseacre world which he is unable to view with anything but complete earnestness. You smile at his profoundly literal perspective, but cringe for the day when he realizes how much he has misunderstood.

The action takes a while to get rolling, but once Merton gets to Hollywood the story hits its stride. It was fun to get a contemporary perspective on the early film industry, which did not take long to establish some of its best and worst traits. For all his superficial simplicity, Gill is a complex character, inspiring laughs, scorn, and admiration in equal parts. Given its general lightness of tone, it’s surprising how deep it goes.

Many thanks to LARB Classics for providing a copy of the book for review.

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