Make Me A Star - 1932
Ruth Donnelly: It must've been funny.
Joan Blondell: Maybe, to anyone who could laugh at an explosion in a coal mine.
Make Me A Star should've been titled The Birth of A Clown. Stuart Erwin plays Merton Gill, a midwest grocery delivery man who has dedicated all of his waking hours to preparing to be a movie star, preferably a cowboy movie star.
He is practicing his cowboy riding skills dressed in full cowboy regalia when he is exposed to the town and is forced to choose between refocusing his energy on the grocery store or else he'll be replaced - so he chooses to pack his suitcase with his clothes and his correspondence school acting class materials and he goes to Hollywood, certain the time has come for him to join in making "uplifting movies."
What follows are weeks of waiting in a casting department (run by Ruth Donnelly) at Majestic Studios, Gill hoping for an acting part no one has any intention of letting the inexperienced amateur have. A frequent visitor to the administrative building is Joan Blondell (as actor 'Flips' Montague) who, out of pity, intervenes to get Gill some work as a scene extra, something he originally eschewed as beneath him when he first arrived in Hollywood. Shortly after, in a moment of chance improvisation on the movie set, Gill is given an opportunity to say a line, which he consequently blows repeatedly, and is fired from the film.
Rapidly becoming destitute, he takes to sleeping on the movie lot, hidden amid the sets, eating out of the garbage, because he knows if he leaves the studio grounds the guards won't let him back in. Blondell's character again intervenes, and Gill is enrolled as a comedy actor into a parody Western movie being produced by Jeff Baird (played by Sam Hardy). However, Gill doesn't know the film is a comedy and he is coached to think he is making a "regular oater" which centers on his (unbeknownst to Gill) funny imitation of Hollywood cowboy star "Buck Benson" (played by George Templeton). Gill plays his part with complete sincerity and has to be lied to when he notices how many comedy actors are also in the cast (such as Ben Turpin). At the film's premiere, though, Gill finally realizes he is the center of laughter in a cowboy farce. In crushed humiliation he is again forced into a position of having to make a choice about his future, and inexplicably, Joan Blondell's character is there, hugging him as the end credit comes up.
Make Me A Star suffers mightily from not being able to achieve what it sets out to do. Set up as a comedy about an untalented actor imitating the unreality of Hollywood cowboys, instead of multiplying the comedy this instead negates it, creating a sad, emotionally morose tale of Hollywood expectations smashing up against Los Angeles realities. Blondell's character seems to be the only person in the film with a hint of what's happening, and most of her scenes feature her big eyes loaded with concern for the slow-motion collapse of Merton Gill's psyche.
Make Me A Star reaches for comedy but doesn't allow either Blondell* or Stuart Erwin to be funny, and the film flirts with being a brilliant melodramatic tale about how a classic clown actor is born from sadness in the form of Gill realizing he completely lacks the dramatic talent he spent years imagining he had. The revelation that audiences find him hilarious beckons the cast and script toward Pagliaccio** territory. But the moment passes, the irony is lost, and Make Me A Star plods forward trying to wrap up the story with romance (Blondell and Erwin together at the end).
In a different film about Hollywood comedy and drama, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, that movie ends with Sullivan, a film director who had the ambition to make dramatic, "uplifting movies," discovering that comedy is valuable in its own right (something he learns due to the horrors Sullivan experiences in his tour into America to "find out what trouble really is"). Something like the revelation that Sullivan experiences is what Make Me A Star needed for the whole tragedy of Merton Gill to make sense.
*Blondell is featured in a superficially similar 1937 movie Stand-in in which we the audience are given a backstage tour of what goes into making a movie, and that later film is truly a comedy (and Blondell provides some of the humor) that balances the funny with a minor dramatic plot about shenanigans wrecking the finances of a movie studio.
**The Pagliaccio story is of a professional clown actor who must keep entertaining and making the audience laugh while he himself is tormented by a deep emotional trauma.
Original Page Feb 2020
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