PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Plays About Hollywood

By Robert Simonson
10 May 2013

George S. Kaufman

MERTON OF THE MOVIES: Perhaps more than any other playwright, the satiric, sardonic, sarcastic George S. Kaufman was a past master at skewering Hollywood. His best known, and much produced, hatchet job is Once in a Lifetime, co-written with his most famous partner, Moss Hart. (See below.) But Merton of the Movies came first. Written in 1922 with Marc Connelly, it was a hit and surely ranks as one of the first major American plays to send up the vacuity and vulgarity of Tinseltown. Unlike Lifetime, Merton was not original material, but based on a 1919 book by Harry Leon Wilson about a dimwitted greenhorn named Merton Gill who takes off to Hollywood to make it big. He's naïve and has no talent, but he makes it anyway, mainly because producers reap unexpected comedy from his dramatic overacting. While not produced widely, it is occasionally rediscovered, and has received significant productions in the past twenty years from the Atlantic Theatre Company and Geffen Playhouse.

"No sooner were there movies then there were plays spoofing the movies," argued film and theatre critic Robert Cashill, who writes for and Merton, he was, "left footprints, by establishing a basic template for the genre, with an idealist adrift in fast-talking, morally screw-loose, scam-ridden Hollywood—I think every subsequent play ever written about La La Land follows it to some degree or another, including The Big Knife, with its conscience-stricken star, and Speed-the-Plow, whose secretary has, or seems to have, upstanding motives. Here movie-mad Merton Gill, lowly clerk in a Midwest general store, puts his dream of stardom into action and heads for the bright lights, where his earnest overacting draws unintended laughs in the dramatic parts a correspondence course in acting prepared him for. The joke’s on Merton as the filmmakers and hustlers around him groom the serious-minded rube into a comedy star, as sophisticated East Coasters skewer West Coast values, and not for the last time."

"The Kaufmann and Connelly script is a sweet, funny and painful look into an silent film actor’s hopes of becoming the greatest dramatic actor in all of Hollywood," said John Rando, who has directed the play, and calls it "one of the greatest Hollywood plays of all time." Rando added, "Merton Of The Movies is a hard look at the truth that even though comedy is the bread and butter of Hollywood, most of the time drama will take the cake."