Merton of the Movies
Harry Leon Wilson
Part 7 out of 7
probably over on the lot. And he put it over on me for a minute,
too. But he didn't last good. He was awful broke up when the end
came. Bless his heart. But you bet I kissed the hurt place and made
it well. How about him now? Jeff, I'm darned if I can tell except
he's right again. When he got here he was some heart-broke and some
mad and some set up on account of things he hears about himself. I
guess he's that way still, except I mended the heart-break. I can't
quite make him out--he's like a book where you can't guess what's
coming in the next chapter, so you keep on reading. I can see we
ain't ever going to talk much about it--not if we live together
twenty years. What's that? Yeah. Didn't I tell you he was always
getting me, somehow? Well, now I'm got. Yeah. We're gonna do an
altar walk. What? Oh, right away. Say, honest, Jeff, I'll never have
an easy minute again while he's out of my sight. Helpless! You said
it. Thanks, Jeff. I know that, old man. Good-by!"
ONWARD AND UPWARD
At the first showing of the Buckeye company's new five-reel comedy--
Five Reels-500 Laughs--entitled Brewing Trouble, two important
members of its cast occupied balcony seats and one of them
throughout the piece brazenly applauded the screen art of her
husband. "I don't care who sees me," she would reply ever and again
to his whispered protests.
The new piece proved to be a rather broadly stressed burlesque of
the type of picture drama that has done so much to endear the
personality of Edgar Wayne to his public. It was accorded a hearty
reception. There was nothing to which it might be compared save the
company's previous Hearts on Fire, and it seemed to be felt that the
present offering had surpassed even that masterpiece of satire.
The Gills, above referred to, watched the unwinding celluloid with
vastly different emotions. Mrs. Gill was hearty in her enjoyment, as
has been indicated. Her husband, superficially, was not displeased.
But beneath that surface of calm approval--beneath even the look of
bored indifference he now and then managed--there still ran a
complication of emotions, not the least of which was honest
bewilderment. People laughed, so it must be funny. And it was good
to be known as an artist of worth, even if the effects of your art
It was no shock to him to learn now that the mechanical appliance in
his screen-mother's kitchen was a still, and that the grape juice
the honest country boy purveyed to the rich New Yorker had been
improved in rank defiance of a constitutional amendment. And even
during the filming of the piece he had suspected that the little
sister, so engagingly played by the present Mrs. Gill, was being too
bold. With slight surprise, therefore, as the drama unfolded, he saw
that she had in the most brazen manner invited the attentions of the
She had, in truth, been only too eager to be lured to the great city
with all its pitfalls, and had bidden the old home farewell in her
simple country way while each of the villains in turn had awaited
her in his motor-car. What Merton had not been privileged to watch
were the later developments of this villainy. For just beyond the
little hamlet at a lonely spot in the road each of the motor-cars
had been stopped by a cross-eyed gentleman looking much like the
clerk in the hotel, save that he was profusely bewhiskered and bore
side-arms in a menacing fashion.
Declaring that no scoundrel could take his little daughter from him,
he deprived the villains of their valuables, so that for a time at
least they should not bring other unsuspecting girls to grief. As a
further precaution he compelled them to abandon their motor-cars, in
which he drove off with the rescued daughter. He was later seen to
sell the cars at a wayside garage, and, after dividing their spoils
with his daughter, to hail a suburban trolley upon which they both
returned to the home nest, where the little girl would again
languish at the gate, a prey to any designing city man who might
She seemed so defenceless in her wild-rose beauty, her longing for
pretty clothes and city ways, and yet so capably pro by this
opportune father who appeared to foresee the moment of her flights.
He learned without a tremor that among the triumphs of his inventive
genius had been a machine for making ten--dollar bills, at which the
New York capitalist had exclaimed that the state right for Iowa
alone would bring one hundred thousand dollars. Even more
remunerative, it would seem, had been his other patent--the folding
boomerang. The manager of the largest boomerang factory in Australia
stood ready to purchase this device for ten million dollars. And
there was a final view of the little home after prosperity had come
to its inmates so long threatened with ruin. A sign over the door
read "Ye Olde Fashioned Gifte Shoppe," and under it, flaunted to the
wayside, was the severely simple trade-device of a high boot.
These things he now knew were to be expected among the deft infamies
of a Buckeye comedy. But the present piece held in store for him a
complication that, despite his already rich experience of Buckeye
methods, caused him distressing periods of heat and cold while he
watched its incredible unfolding. Early in the piece, indeed, he had
begun to suspect in the luring of his little sister a grotesque
parallel to the bold advances made him by the New York society girl.
He at once feared some such interpretation when he saw himself coy
and embarrassed before her down-right attack, and he was certain
this was intended when he beheld himself embraced by this reckless
young woman who behaved in the manner of male screen idols during
the last dozen feet of the last reel. But how could he have
suspected the lengths to which a perverted spirit of satire would
lead the Buckeye director?
For now he staggered through the blinding snow, a bundle clasped to
his breast. He fell, half fainting, at the door of the old home. He
groped for the knob and staggered in to kneel at his mother's feet.
And she sternly repulsed him, a finger pointing to the still open
Unbelievably the screen made her say, "He wears no ring. Back to the
snow with 'em both! Throw 'em Way Down East!"
And Baird had said the bundle would contain one of his patents!
Mrs. Gill watched this scene with tense absorption. When the
mother's iron heart had relented she turned to her husband. "You
dear thing, that was a beautiful piece of work. You're set now. That
cinches your future. Only, dearest, never, never, never let it show
on your face that you think it's funny. That's all you'll ever have
to be afraid of in your work."
"I won't," he said stoutly.
He shivered--or did he shudder?--and quickly reached to take her
hand. It was a simple, direct gesture, yet somehow it richly had the
quality of pleading.
"Mother understands," she whispered." Only remember, you mustn't
seem to think it's funny."
"I won't," he said again. But in his torn heart he stubbornly cried,
"I don't, I don't!"
* * * * * * *
Some six months later that representative magazine, Silver
Screenings, emblazoned upon its front cover a promise that in the
succeeding number would appear a profusely illustrated interview by
Augusta Blivens with that rising young screen actor, Merton Gill.
The promise was kept. The interview wandered amid photographic
reproductions of the luxurious Hollywood bungalow, set among palms
and climbing roses, the actor and his wife in their high-powered
roadster (Mrs. Gill at the wheel); the actor in his costume of chaps
and sombrero, rolling a cigarette; the actor in evening dress, the
actor in his famous scene of the Christmas eve return in Brewing
Trouble; the actor regaining his feet in his equally famous scene of
the malignant spurs; the actor and his young wife, on the lawn
before the bungalow, and the young wife aproned, in her kitchen,
earnestly busy with spoon and mixing bowl.
"It is perhaps not generally known," wrote Miss Blivens, "that the
honour of having discovered this latest luminary in the stellar
firmament should be credited to Director Howard Henshaw of the
Victor forces. Indeed, I had not known this myself until the day I
casually mentioned the Gills in his presence. I lingered on a set of
Island Love, at present being filmed by this master of the unspoken
drama, having but a moment since left that dainty little reigning
queen of the celluloid dynasty, Muriel Mercer. Seated with her in
the tiny bijou boudoir of her bungalow dressing room on the great
Holden lot, its walls lined with the works of her favourite authors-
-for one never finds this soulful little girl far from the books
that have developed her mentally as the art of the screen has
developed her emotionally--she had referred me to the director when
I sought further details of her forthcoming great production, an
idyl of island romance and adventure. And presently, when I had
secured from him the information I needed concerning this unique
little drama of the great South Seas, I chanced to mention my
approaching encounter with the young star of the Buckeye forces, an
encounter to which I looked forward with some dismay.
"Mr. Henshaw, pausing in his task of effecting certain changes in
the interior of the island hut, reassured me. 'You need have no fear
about your meeting with Gill,' he said. 'You will find him quite
simple and unaffected, an artist, and yet sanely human.' It was now
that he revealed his own part in the launching of this young star.
'I fancy it is not generally known,' he continued, 'that to me
should go the honour of having "discovered" Gill. It is a fact,
however. He appeared as an extra one morning in the cabaret scene
we used in Miss Mercer's tremendous hit, The Blight of Broadway.
Instantly, as you may suppose, I was struck by the extraordinary
distinction of his face and bearing. In that crowd composed of
average extra people he stood out to my eye as one made for big
things. After only a moment's chat with him I gave him a seat at the
edge of the dancing floor and used him most effectively in
portraying the basic idea of this profoundly stirring drama in which
Miss Mercer was to achieve one of her brightest triumphs.
"'Watch that play to-day; you will discover young Gill in many of
the close-ups where, under my direction, he brought out the
psychological, the symbolic--if I may use the term--values of the
great idea underlying our story. Even in these bits he revealed the
fine artistry which he has since demonstrated more broadly under
"'To my lasting regret the piece was then too far along to give him
a more important part, though I intended to offer him something good
in our next play for Muriel Mercer--you may recall her gorgeous
success in Her Father's Wife--but I was never able to find the chap
again. I made inquiries, of course, and felt a really personal sense
of loss when I could get no trace of him. I knew then, as well as I
know now, that he was destined for eminence in our world of painted
shadows. You may imagine my chagrin later when I learned that
another director was to reap the rewards of a discovery all my own.'
"And so," continued Miss Blivens, "it was with the Henshaw words
still in my ears that I first came into the presence of Merton Gill,
feeling that he would-as he at once finely did--put me at my ease.
Simple, unaffected, modest, he is one whom success has not spoiled.
Both on the set where I presently found him--playing the part of a
titled roue in the new Buckeye comedy--to be called, one hears,
'Nearly Sweethearts or Something'-and later in the luxurious but
homelike nest which the young star has provided for his bride of a
few months-she was 'Flips' Montague, one recalls, daughter of a long
line of theatrical folk dating back to days of the merely spoken
drama-he proved to be finely unspoiled and surprisingly unlike the
killingly droll mime of the Buckeye constellation. Indeed one cannot
but be struck at once by the deep vein of seriousness underlying the
comedian's surface drollery. His sense of humour must be tremendous;
and yet only in the briefest flashes of his whimsical manner can one
"'Let us talk only of my work,' he begged me. 'Only that can
interest my public.' And so, very seriously, we talked of his work.
"'Have you ever thought of playing serious parts?' I asked, being
now wholly put at my ease by his friendly, unaffected ways.
"He debated a moment, his face rigidly set, inscrutable to my
glance. Then he relaxed into one of those whimsically appealing
smiles that somehow are acutely eloquent of pathos. 'Serious parts--
with this low-comedy face of mine!' he responded. And my query had
been answered. Yet he went on, 'No, I shall never play Hamlet. I can
give a good imitation of a bad actor but, doubtless, I should give a
very bad imitation of a good one.
"Et vailet, Messieurs." I remarked to myself. The man with a few
simple strokes of the brush had limned me his portrait. And I was
struck again with that pathetic appeal in face and voice as he spoke
so confidingly. After all, is not pure pathos the hall-mark of great
comedy? We laugh, but more poignantly because our hearts are tugged
at. And here was a master of the note pathetic.
"Who that has roared over the Gill struggle with the dreadful spurs
was not even at the climax of his merriment sympathetically aware of
his earnest persistence, the pained sincerity of his repeated
strivings, the genuine anguish distorting his face as he senses the
everlasting futility of his efforts? Who that rocked with laughter
at the fox-trot lesson in Object, Alimony, could be impervious to
the facial agony above those incompetent, disobedient, heedless
"Here was honest endeavour, an almost prayerful determination, again
and again thwarted by feet that recked not of rhythm or even of bare
mechanical accuracy. Those feet, so apparently aimless, so little
under control, were perhaps the most mirthful feet the scored
failure in the dance. But the face, conscious of their clumsiness,
was a mask of fine tragedy.
"Such is the combination, it seems to me, that has produced the
artistry now so generally applauded, an artistry that perhaps
achieved its full flowering in that powerful bit toward the close of
Brewing Trouble--the return of the erring son with his agony of
appeal so markedly portrayed that for the moment one almost forgot
the wildly absurd burlesque of which it formed the joyous yet truly
emotional apex. I spoke of this.
"'True burlesque is, after all, the highest criticism, don't you
think?' he asked me. 'Doesn't it make demands which only a
sophisticated audience can meet-isn't it rather high-brow
criticism?' And I saw that he had thought deeply about his art.
"'It is because of this,' he went on, 'that we must resort to so
much of the merely slap-stick stuff in our comedies. For after all,
our picture audience, twenty million people a day--surely one can
make no great demands upon their intelligence.' He considered a
moment, seemingly lost in memories of his work. 'I dare say,' he
concluded, 'there are not twenty million people of taste and real
intelligence in the whole world.'
"Yet it must not be thought that this young man would play the
cynic. He is superbly the optimist, though now again he struck a
note of almost cynic whimsicality. 'Of course our art is in its
infancy--' He waited for my nod of agreement, then dryly added, 'We
must, I think, consider it the Peter Pan of the arts. And I dare say
you recall the outstanding biological freakishness of Peter.' But a
smile--that slow, almost puzzled smile of his--accompanied the
"'You might,' he told me at parting, 'call me the tragic comedian.'
And again I saw that this actor is set apart from the run of his
brethren by an almost uncanny gift for introspection. He has
ruthlessly analysed himself. He knows, as he put it, 'what God meant
him to be.' Was here a hint of poor Cyrano?
"I left after some brief reference to his devoted young wife, who,
in studio or home, is never far from his side. "'It is true that I
have struggled and sacrificed to give the public something better
and finer,' he told me then; 'but I owe my real success all to her.'
He took the young wife's hand in both his own, and very simply,
unaffectedly, raised it to his cheek where he held it a moment, with
that dreamy, remembering light in his eyes, as of one striving to
recall bits of his past.
"'I think that's all,' he said at last. But on the instant of my
going he checked me once more. 'No, it isn't either.' He brightened.
'I want you to tell your readers that this little woman is more than
my wife--she is my best pal; and, I may also add, my severest
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