Merton of the Movies

by Harry Leon Wilson

Foreword By Mitra Jouhari
Introduction By Tom Lutz

Merton of the Movies, which Gertrude Stein called “the best book about 20th century American youth,” follows midwestern bumpkin Merton Gill’s unlikely journey from a Kansas stockroom to the star-studded set of a silent film. Unfortunately, the actors he’s idolized from afar lose their luster up close, which fuels his desire to become a dramatic leading man — not some slapstick fool. By a stroke of luck, Merton lands a gig as an extra. His natural oafishness catches the eye of stuntwoman Flips Montague, and before long he’s a comic star — the only problem is, it’s all a spoof, and he doesn’t know it.

First published in 1919 in the Saturday Evening Post, and adapted three times to film and once as a Broadway musical, Harry Leon Wilson’s cartoonish tale has earned its place as an essential California classic. This freewheeling romp gets to the heart of any Angeleno’s worst nightmare: what if I’m not in on the joke?


Praise for Merton of the Movies

“The best description of America that has ever been done.” —Gertrude Stein

Merton of the Movies is and will always remain a delight of the American Dream run aground and a classic tale of the silent movie era. Dark and comic and darkly comic, it joyfully knocks down the façades of old Hollywood to reveal the desperation behind the scene while never ceasing to entertain.” —Ivy Pochoda, author of Wonder Valley

“At once satire and classic Hollywood tale, Merton of the Movies made me long for the Los Angeles cafeterias of John Fante, Nathaniel West’s studio backlots, and the early days of Musso and Frank when Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplain would horse race down Hollywood Boulevard, the loser picking up the tab. A blistering, rollicking, adventure in La La Land, before it got its Tinseltown fame.” —Liska Jacobs, author of Catalina

“Harry Leon Wilson’s Merton of the Movies was the first great comic novel about Hollywood filmmaking in the 1920s, with all of its attendant artifice and illusion. It remains a prescient and hilarious examination of the performative nature of the modern self in a culture dominated by film and media images.” —John Parris Springer, author of Hollywood Fictions: The Dream Factory in American Popular Literature

“It’s notoriously hard to make comedy out of the movies. That whole world is so absurd, so improbable, so filled with grotesques, that the reality is more fantastical than most writers can invent. Merton of the Movies succeeds by having at its center, a naïve but likable everyman, whose apparently unrealistic fantasies, in some deeply ironic sense, come true. For the author, and perhaps for any writer of comedy, style is everything. Harry Leon Wilson’s prose is sometimes hilariously artificial, sometimes effortlessly satiric, sometimes downright postmodern. It has echoes of Perelman, Wodehouse and Thurber, and is not shown up by those comparisons.” —Geoff Nicholson, author of The Miranda

“LARB’s republication of the text is a labor of love and welcome reissue of a story that will no doubt continue to charm film fans through its depictions of the Silent Era, the adventures of Merton, and the engaging style in which the novel is written.” —Hometowns to Hollywood

“What I admired about this novel is the story; it’s Hollywood behind the scenes. For a film industry so young at the time of publication, it really shows the beginnings of the craziness that would be more widely exposed in films such as Sunset BoulevardThe Bad and the Beautiful, and The Barefoot Contessa.” —The Flapper Dame

“Wilson writes in an unhurried style, one eyebrow raised, savouring his unusual fictional character: a judgmental yet clumsy young man with misplaced belief in his abilities, but one with a kind heart.”—Silver Screenings

“A centennial reprint of one of the biggest books of 1919. It is definitely not a love letter to Hollywood despite the author being an obvious fan.” —Karrie Hyatt

About The Authors

Harry Leon Wilson (1867-1939) was an American novelist and dramatist best known for his novels Ruggles of Red Gap and Merton of the Movies. His novel Bunker Bean helped popularize the term “flapper.”

Mitra Jouhari is a writer and performer based in Los Angeles. She has written for High Maintenance on HBO, Pod Save America on HBO, Miracle Workers on TBS, and The President Show on Comedy Central, for which she was nominated for a WGA Award. She worked on the inaugural season of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and was a punch-up writer on S5 of Broad City. She is a member of the comedy trio Three Busy Debras, who, following a sold-out run of their play at the Annoyance Theater, performed at Carnegie Hall and recently filmed a pilot for Adult Swim. She was part of the cast of the acclaimed Holy Fuck Comedy Hour at the Annoyance in New York City. She has appeared on Broad City, Miracle Workers, Friends From College, The Big Sick, President Show, Full Frontal, Three Busy Debras, Search Party, Alternatino, and High Maintenance, as well as a bunch of short films. She appeared in the plays Groundhog Date and Slice of Life at the Annoyance Theater. 

Upcoming projects include a co-starring role in the film F1, directed by Shahrzad Davani. She co-hosts the monthly show “It’s A Guy Thing,” named one of the best alt-comedy shows in NYC by Paste Magazine and one of the best comedy shows hosted by women by Time Out New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeneys, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Teen Vogue, Rookie, Splitsider, Flaunt, American Bystander, Reality Beach, Reductress, and other cool places. She performs all over as a live comedian and is from Ohio, which means she is nice.

Tom Lutz is the founder and editor of Los Angeles Review of Books. His books — Born Slippy: A Novel (forthcoming, January 14, 2020), Doing Nothing (American Book Award), Crying (New York Times Notable Book), Cosmopolitan Vistas (Choice Outstanding Academic Title), and American Nervousness, 1903 (New York Times Notable Book) — have been translated into 12 languages and have appeared on New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Republic, Chicago Tribune, Die Zeit, ZYZZYVA, Exquisite Corpse,, Black Clock, and other newspapers and literary venues, as well as in dozens of books and academic journals. He has taught at Stanford University, University of Iowa, CalArts, University of Copenhagen, and now at UC Riverside.