“HOW TO BEGIN?” asks author Harry Leon Wilson in the opening paragraph of Merton of the Movies. This is no small question, for while Merton was not the first American novel about moviemaking — that honor might go to My Strange Life (1915) [1] — it was the first Hollywood novel. Of the many ways in which Wilson could launch his novel, we are told that only one is precisely right. That involves Buck Benson — two-gun Benson — rescuing a New York society girl from a fate worse than death. As Benson engages in a deadly brawl with her evil kidnapper, Snake le Vasquez, this badly clichéd movie-style fantasy is abruptly brought to a halt. Shopkeeper Amos G. Gashwiler interrupts his young assistant, Merton Gill — the writer, director, and star of this private performance — and tells him to stop abusing the male mannequin (who had been assigned the role of Snake) and get back to work. It’s a busy afternoon at Gashwiler’s emporium in the small town of Simsbury, Illinois.

Merton of the Movies was first published as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919, the year Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage, United Artists was formed, and the second year of the Spanish flu pandemic. Merton appeared in book form in 1922, became a hit Broadway play adapted by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly that same year, and was followed by three movie versions in 1924, 1932, and 1947. The Los Angeles Review of Books has honored the novel by publishing a 100th anniversary edition, countering its reputation as a fun but not-too-serious read by promoting it with Gertrude Stein’s ironic praise: “The best book about 20th century American youth.” I’d characterize it somewhat differently: Merton of the Movies is one of the most profound novels ever written about Hollywood, and its influence on subsequent Hollywood novels and films is such that you cannot fully appreciate the genre if you haven’t read it. Merton of the Movies firmly established the archetypical plot that would be used again and again in novels and films about Hollywood. Tommy Wiseau in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (2017), to take one recent example, is a Merton-like figure whose narrative trajectory closely follows Wilson’s tale. Life imitates art, which imitates life.

I myself would like to begin my discussion of the book with another question, to which surprisingly few people seem to know the answer. What is Hollywood’s lucky number, and why is it such a well-kept secret? The number is already embedded in Wilson’s opening scene, but the answer is most blatantly revealed in that quintessential classic, Casablanca (1942). The desperate young wife (Joy Page) comes to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and asks him if the police chief (Claude Rains) is a man of his word. If she sleeps with the chief, will he give her the transit passes that will enable her and her husband to flee to safety? Rick assures her that he is trustworthy but then goes to the roulette wheel and tells her husband to place the last of his money on Hollywood’s lucky number — and to do so twice. The number is 22 — two two’s — done two times. Of course, it is not luck at all: the roulette wheel is rigged. But to return to Merton of the Movies: B is the second letter of the alphabet and Buck Benson (22) — who probably sports two 22-caliber pistols — will turn out to be Merton’s lucky ticket to fame and fortune, though the reader won’t find that out for several hundred pages.

And how old is Merton Gill when he first comes to Hollywood? Easy for me to remember because I was the same age when I first arrived there to work on Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974), a film funded by Columbia Pictures and made for BBS Productions — a company owned by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner. Yes, I too was 22. The big difference was that I arrived by plane. Goldwyn Studio was one block away from our cutting rooms on La Brea and Santa Monica: I watched it burst into flames on one of my last days on the job, as if my fate was suddenly linked to another quite different Hollywood novel, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939).

Numerology is everywhere in Merton of the Movies and haunts the genre: Robert and Gloria, the central couple in Horace McCoy’s first Hollywood novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), are assigned the number 22 at the dance marathon. By novel’s end, a sleep-deprived Robert does a favor for Gloria, ending her misery by killing her; soon after, a judge sentences him to death. So much for luck in Hollywood during the Depression. Nor should we forget that the first letters of Wilson’s protagonist are M (the 13th letter) and G (the seventh) — our unlucky and lucky numbers. Certainly, Merton Gill endures an odd, explosive mixture of the two over the course of Wilson’s tale. Nor was it chance that led Michael Tolkin to give the protagonist of his novel The Player (1988) the name of Griffin Mill.

But let us return to Merton’s story. The Candide-like hero of this brilliant, comic novel receives his Panglossian instruction from correspondence schools that assure him he has the acting talent to be a movie star. Fan magazines, which arrive weekly at his local post office, do the rest. The hopelessly naïve Merton is madly in love with Beulah Baxter, who stars in the motion picture serial Hazards of Hortense, which is playing at his local theater. Merton intends to leave his job as a shop clerk and go to Hollywood not only to break into the movies, but also to find Beulah and marry her. Beulah Baxter: double BB’s again. Did he choose the name Buck Benson as a way to bond with the actress? By now the reader should be cogitating on this proliferation of doubles. What is their significance, and what do they mean?

Movies have long posed a special problem when it comes to the relationship between representation and reality; since the days of the Vitascope, the image on the screen has easily been mistaken for “life itself.” The danger of collapsing this duality is a recurrent theme in such early films as R. W. Paul’s The Countryman’s First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901) and Edwin S. Porter’s remake, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902). Visiting a big city vaudeville house, Uncle Josh sees several short films and reacts to each of them. He jumps aside as the oncoming Black Diamond Express train threatens to leave the screen and flatten him. He subsequently witnesses a simple country scene in which his girlfriend is unexpectedly shown kissing a rival yokel. Forgetting that he is watching a film, Josh tries to attack his rival. Instead he pulls down the movie screen, ending the show. Twelve years later, Keystone Studios added another layer to this story with Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913). Mabel (Mabel Normand) leaves rural poverty for the city and soon becomes a movie star. Her country rube ex-boyfriend (Mack Sennett) goes to the movies and sees Mabel assaulted by a nefarious villain (Ford Sterling). Outraged and forgetting that he is only watching a movie, Mack shoots up the theater in a desperate effort to save her. The show grinds to a halt. But the rube won’t be satisfied. He tracks down the actor playing the evil scoundrel and is about to shoot him — only to discover that he is actually Mabel’s loving husband and the father of her numerous children (meanwhile Sennett is Normand’s boyfriend in real life). Not just representation and reality but really a hall of mirrors: representation and reality doubled. Double doubles — or 22.

As Wilson wittily reminds us, one of the central features of this world of doubled twoness is the actual double — those people who do the dangerous stunts that help to turn movie stars into fabled figures. The reliance on movie doubles (and stand-ins) is a unique aspect of Hollywood moviemaking, and yet their existence must necessarily remain hidden to maintain the illusion of a unified character and a real movie star. The movie double is Hollywood’s secret — like its lucky number. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is only the most recent example of the many Hollywood novels and films that prominently feature doubles. Wilson, however, was the first to make the movie double a central figure in the Hollywood novel, forever enriching the plot line with comic gusto.

While on a personal tour for one of her films, Beulah Baxter assures her fans (including Merton) that artistic conviction prevents her from ever using a double. Beulah does all her own stunts, risking life and limb each week to bring fresh episodes of Hazards of Hortense to the screen. Or so she claims. But then Baxter, like Hortense, is herself a construction — real and fake at the same time — designed by Hollywood’s emerging dream factory: a woman playing the role of a vivacious movie star when in real life she is Mrs. Sigmund Rosenblatt, a rather ordinary actress on her third marriage (twice divorced), this time to her director. In actuality, the screen star Beulah Baxter is a fictive amalgam of Mrs. Rosenblatt and her stunt double. Merton, of course, does not know this and goes to Hollywood thinking that the diaphanous woman on the screen who plays Hortense is “the real thing.”

Are the woman behind Beulah Baxter and the man behind Buck Benson made for each other, as the latter believes? Or are they made like each other? They are certainly twins, in that the Beulah Baxter whom Merton imagines on the screen and the Buck Benson he hopes to play one day are both his phantasmatic illusions. Merton Gill has never mounted a horse, and when he finally tries to be the cowboy of his imagination, the results are comically disastrous. The Beulah Baxter he glimpsed during her promotional tour would be equally inept at her own stunts.

When Merton leaves Simsbury and entrains for Hollywood, he is determined to find employment at just one studio: the Holden studios that produce Baxter’s films. For many days, he lingers outside the gate, his greatest reward a glimpse of Beulah Baxter entering the forbidden city in a robin’s-egg blue roadster. Waiting expectantly for his big break, he eventually gets the requisite job as an extra. In the process, Merton repeatedly encounters a cheeky young woman known as the Montague girl, who otherwise goes by the nickname Flips. Merton finds her to be extremely annoying: she is friends with Jeff Baird of Baird Buckeye Comedies and is unappreciative of the finer kinds of film art that Beulah Baxter and matinee idol Harold Parmalee claim to offer the public. And yet, as we slowly discover, the fate of Merton Gill and of the Montague girl are profoundly intertwined (the letters of her name are actually flipped vis-à-vis Merton’s, in that her last name begins with the 13th letter). The young woman is also rather flip to certain directors, who take themselves and their movies too seriously. Likewise, she possesses certain kinds of expertise, such as the ability to throw (or flip) a knife so that it will consistently stick in a doorframe and vibrate — something that eludes the studio’s entire male crew. She is also Beulah Baxter’s double. In short, she does the very stunts (including flips) that drew Merton to Baxter in the first place.

Wilson deploys names with razor-sharp acuity. As one slang dictionary reminds us, the word “gill” can refer to a “gullible person,” and Merton is indeed that. The Montague girl comes from a stage family, and it is impossible to ignore the subtext of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is a Montague — and so is Flips. Ponder their affinities. Baird’s last name is of Gaelic origin, meaning “bard,” “poet,” or “minstrel.” Baird can also refer to “the son of the bard.” Of course, Shakespeare (“the Bard”) produced a number of comedies: Wilson seems to hint (not too subtly) that Baird can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s successors — both makers of a newly popular art. At the very least, their surnames suggest Jeff and Flips share deep commonalities. Baird also serves as the author Wilson’s alter ego, his cinematic counterpart. Although Merton Gill has long despised Baird’s comedies, the two men will also prove to share a strong if unexpected affinity: Buck Benson will finally find a home under the Buckeye label. It was fated from the opening chapter.

Wilson savors the complex relationships between reality and the movies, between life and lifelike. In Simsbury, the closest Merton comes to the concrete reality of the movies is touching the film cans that are used to transport the reels of Hazards of Hortense as they await pickup at the railway depot. (If you can’t touch it, can it be real?) Once in Los Angeles and standing outside the Holden studio gate, Merton revels in his ability to view the forbidden city. Once he finally breaches those walls, he wanders from set to set and soon recognizes that reality might not be so simple: “He could see the real falseness of the sawmill he had just left, he could also look into the exposed rear of the railway station, and could observe beyond it the exposed skeleton of that New York street. He was surrounded by mockeries.” So begins Merton’s loss of innocence; Beulah Baxter will prove to be a mockery as well.

Even in its simplest form, making a motion picture image involves a two-stage process. As light from “the real falseness” in front of the camera pours through the camera lens, it creates an inverted negative. The image is both flipped and its light values reversed. The Montague girl (a.k.a. Flips) stands in a similar dual relationship to Merton. It is not just that Wilson has flipped the conventional narrative along gender lines — something that happens in The Jazz Singer (1927), when actress Mary Dale befriends and promotes Jack Robin. The Montague girl is a feminist: like many women in the motion picture industry in the 1910s, she drives the narrative forward. The second stage of motion picture making involves the printing of the positive image, which restores the impression of “reality.” On one hand, the image itself lies, because it takes the real falseness of the set and turns it into the false reality of the locale. On the other hand, it is exactly at this intermediate moment that a new level of movie magic can be introduced through editing — particularly the introduction of scenes involving doubles. Doubles lie.

As Merton runs out of money, he secretly moves into the Holden studio, sleeping in deserted sets at night. After he can no longer afford canteen fare, he eats the crumbs left behind by the prop men. Starving and desperate to the point of hallucination, he is drawn to the set where the Montague girl is doing multiple takes of a daring late-night stunt for Sigmund Rosenblatt. Merton tells her his story and mentions that he has a double of sorts: Harold Parmalee — the “world favorite.” Early on we are told that Parmalee “was the screen artist whom Merton most envied, and whom he conceived himself most to resemble in feature.” Flips recognizes the similarity as well and has an idea: she and Baird work up a farce comedy that mocks Parmalee and stars Merton. “[T]he less he thinks he’s funny the bigger scream he’ll be,” declares Baird. “He’s got to be Harold Parmalee acting right out, all over the set, as serious as the lumbago — get what I mean?” And so Merton stars in the kind of films he hates, mocking the man he most admires. Like Beulah Baxter, will Merton forgo his artistic convictions? Or find new ones? Will he forgive the Montague girl who tricked him? Can these two doubles find true love? Read the book and find out.

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Charles Musser is a film historian, documentary filmmaker, and professor of Film and Media Studies, American Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University.

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[1] My Strange Life (1915) was first published as The Love Story of a Movie Star: The Heart Story of a Woman in Love. Presented as an anonymous work, it was copyrighted by the publisher Edward J. Clode. Luigi Pirandello’s Shoot!: The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator was published in Italian in 1915, but its English translation only appeared in 1926.

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Merton of the Movies is the April 2020 LARB Book Club selection. To join the Book Club, become a Member at any level here!