Pre Code Confidential #3: MAKE ME A STAR (Paramount 1932)

1932's Make Me a Star
1932’s Make Me a Star

MAKE ME A STAR is an odd Pre Code film unsure what it wants to be. It starts off as a comedy about a movie-mad country bumpkin named Merton (Stuart Erwin) in the small town of Simsbury who dreams of becoming a cowboy star like his idol, Buck Benson (George Templeton). He’s even studying to become a thespian by listening to recordings from the National Correspondence Academy of Acting. Town busybody Mrs. Scudder (Zasu Pitts)  complains about Merton’s absent-mindedness to his boss, general store owner Gashwiler (Charles Sellon). Merton has a supportive friend, Tessie (Helen Jerome Eddy) who helps him set up a photo-shoot. But things go awry when Merton, dressed in full cowboy regalia, loses control of Gashwiler’s horse, causing a ruckus in the town square. Gashwiler fires Merton, and the starry-eyed yokel takes a train to Hollywood.

The film veers off into drama from here, as Merton tries to crash the movies, without success. Comic actress Flips Montague (Joan Blondell) feels sorry for the rube, and wrangles him an extra role in a Buck Benson production. But the talentless Merton promptly blows his one line and is fired from the set. Dejected and broke, he hides out on the studio lot, where Flips finds him living days later, hungry and disheveled. She buys him breakfast and tells him to forget his dreams (“You haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance”), offering him train fare back to Simsbury.  He politely refuses, determined to make it in Hollywood.

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Flips takes him to see her director Jeff Baird (Sam Hardy) and comes up with a plan to star Merton in a Buck Benson parody. The two don’t tell him it’s a farce though, because Merton abhors slapstick, thinking it’s degrading to the noble art of acting. While Merton (acting under the moniker Whoop Ryder) plays it straight, he’s surrounded by Baird’s comedy stars (veterans Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and Bud Jamison) hamming it up. The movie’s then gimmicked up in post-production with comic sound effects, sped-up action, and a high-pitched voice for Merton. When the finished product “Wide Open Spaces” is previewed, the audience howls with laughter. Poor Merton is mortified, and is ready to give up show business. He goes to see Flips one last time, who’s taken a shine to the boy, and feels terrible about the whole mess. Merton breaks down and cries, cradled in Flips’ arms in a real downbeat ending.

MAKE ME A STAR was based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson and stage play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. It was originally filmed as MERTON OF THE MOVIES in a 1924 silent version, and remade again as a Red Skelton vehicle in 1947 under the same name. The director of MAKE ME A STAR was William Beaudine, who shows great restraint with the material, not letting things get too maudlin. Beaudine had been around since the dawn of Hollywood, and could make a good picture when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, he somehow became stuck on Poverty Row during the 1930’s and cranked out hundreds of Grade B and lower potboilers for studios like Monogram, PRC, and the indies for the next thirty years, earning the nickname “One Shot” for bringing ’em in quick and cheap. MAKE ME A STAR allows Beaudine a chance to show he had talent, and his fate as a low-budget maestro wasn’t fully deserved.

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Stuart Erwin has never been one of my favorites. He’s clearly going for pathos, but comes off as just pathetic. Merton’s such a dimwit it’s hard to muster any sympathy for him. Joan Blondell plays her usual tough dame with a heart of gold  who’s seen it all. In the hands of a lesser actress, the improbable budding romance between Flips and Merton would be unbelievable, but Blondell’s talent somehow makes it work, despite Erwin. She’s the glue that holds the latter half of this schizophrenic film together.

The most interesting thing about MAKE ME A STAR is the cameos by some of Paramount’s brightest stars of the day. Pay attention and you’ll see Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Jack Oakie, Charlie Ruggles, and Sylvia Sidney parade across the screen in quick bits. This alone makes the film worth a look, but ultimately it’s a disappointment.  Aficionados of early 30’s Hollywood will want to see it; if that’s not you, don’t bother.

Halloween Havoc!: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (Realart 1952)


(if you read my post on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die you knew this was coming. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!)

When it comes to the title of “Worst Film of All Time”, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA has to be considered a top contender. This is the only movie for Martin & Lewis knockoffs Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. It’s easy to see why. Not only are they unfunny, they’re just barely passable as copies of the original duo. Mitchell does have a good crooning voice (more like Elvis than Dino), but Petrillo just flat out stinks! He’s not helped  by a lame script written by comedy veteran Tim Ryan. Ryan was a vaudeville star with his ex-wife, Irene (later Granny on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES). Someone should have told Tim that vaudeville was dead. The jokes were old even in 1952, and have grown a lot of mold since. The only saving grace is the presence of Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi hadn’t made a picture since 1948’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Down on his luck at the time due to poor choices and a growing morphine addiction, the proud actor took anything he could get to stay busy. Realart Productions had been having success rereleasing Lugosi’s (and others) Universal horror classics, and head honcho Jack Broder decided to take a chance on the declining boogeyman. Bela is good in his patented “mad scientist” role, rising above the crappy material. He’s adept at comedy, too, as he’d proved years earlier in films like BROADMINDED and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. Even in his deteriorated state, Bela Lugosi is better than anyone else in this dud.


The plot is so nonsensical I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. Duke and Sammy are two entertainers who fall out of a plane and land on a South Seas island. They’re found by a native chief (Al Kikune) and his lovely daughter Nona (Charlita). Duke and Nona fall madly in love, while Sammy gets stuck with Nona’s chubby sister Saloma (Muriel Landers), who Sammy calls “Salami” (yuk yuk). Nona understands English (she went to college in America), as do the chief and Saloma, while the rest of the tribe does not. The natives do a dance for their guests, which Sammy gets caught up in (yuk yuk), then Duke croons “Deed I Do”, backed by a full orchestra. This isn’t the last time you’ll hear the song, and you’ll soon be sick of hearing it.

Nona takes the boys to “the other side of the island”, where Dr. Zabor (Lugosi) lives. (In a castle. On a South Seas island.) Sammy gets one look at Zabor and thinks he’s Dracula (“Ain’t that the fellow with the hands and the faces….watch out for bats!” yuk yuk). Zabor is conducting “experiments in evolution”, and gives a long speech on his theories, loaded with scientific jargon. Bela does well with the tongue twisting speech, showing the old master’s still got it. Zabor is in love with Nona, and  jealous of the attention she’s giving Duke. So he gives Duke an injection that turns the crooner into a gorilla. Sammy figures things out when the gorilla starts singing “Deed I Do” (he can’t talk, but he can sing). The pair escape to the tribe’s campground, trailed by Zabor and his henchman Chula. Zabor raise his rifle to kill Duke, but Sammy takes the bullet for his pal and….AND IT’S ALL BEEN A DREAM! Duke wakes Sammy up in their dressing room (“We’re on next”), and Sammy runs into the people he saw in the dream (Nona and the chief have a “gorilla act”, Saloma is a dancer, Zabor the nightclub maitre d’). Sammy gets onstage and tells yet another lame-ass joke, followed by Duke crooning “Deed I Do” for the umpteenth time.


Jerry Lewis was not amused by all this, and threatened to sue Realart. They released the film anyways, and predictably it bombed. Mitchell and Petrillo never made another film together. Sammy Petrillo hung out on the edges of show biz, eventually opening a nightclub in Pittsburgh. Duke Mitchell continued to croon in lounges. He gained some fame as a cult actor/director in the film MAASACRE MAFIA STYLE (1974). Duke also made GONE WITH THE POPE, another exploitationer in the 70s, which didn’t see the light of day until 2010. BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA was directed by William Beaudine. Nicknamed “One-Shot”, Beaudine was one of the most prolific directors in history, with 177 films made from 1922 to 1966. And that’s not counting his TV episodes! Beaudine wasn’t the greatest, but he was fast. Some of his movies (1932’s MAKE ME A STAR, THE OLD FASHIONED WAY with WC Fields, some of his Bowery Boys efforts) are worthwhile. BELA KUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA is not. If you’re a Lugosi completest and have to see this, see it once. If not, avoid it. I’ve already done the dirty work for you. You’re welcome.