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- Merton of the Movies - 62/62 -


"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 divine it.

"'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 feet?

"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 words.

"'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 critic.'"


Merton of the Movies - 62/62

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