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Laugh, Clown, Laugh!

Merton of the Movies, starring Red Skelton, Virginia O'Brien

I Dare Say — Laugh, Clown, Laugh!

(originally published in The Pittsburgh Press, September 14, 1946)

By Florence Fisher Parry

Hollywood — I tell you you have to go out and get your story out here; it’s never in the mail or on the telephone.

I know, I know: millions are spent on Publicity in every studio, and the Important columnists have their “leg-women” to tour the studios for them, interview the stars second-hand, and telephone them the gossip items you read in all the syndicated columns.

But I, being nobody, prefer to find my own – they are under my feet wherever I go, stories I can never use, stories that I’ll hoard for a while until something happens that makes their telling just pat. And some, of course, I’m sending on to you right now.

But they’re never the stories you go out for; they’re never what you think they’ll be. How was I to know what I was going to find when they told me at MGM that Red Skelton was over on Stage 10 working on “Merton of the Movies,” and did I want to see him? Matter of fact, I didn’t. It was hot, I was tired, and I’m not a Red Skelton fan.

Or wasn’t. Count me in now, though.

A Serious Business

When it was time to talk with Red Skelton, he gave me the surprise of my life.

I expected a kind of grinning clown. I found myself talking to a dead serious kid with a face as sensitive as they come, blue eyes clear and honest, a nice gentle mouth. I’m afraid to use the word “sincere” since I read “The Hucksters”, but Red Skelton is sincere. Dead in earnest about his comedy, terribly bent on being a good actor.

“I’m supposed to be funny, that’s the job I work at,” he said, “but being funny isn’t enough. You have to have folks care what happens to the guy you’re pretending to be. It isn’t just making funny faces and cracks. Me, I’m always secretly sorry for the guy I’m playing. I like him, I want him to make out.”

“You mean Merton — Merton of the Movies?”

“I mean whatever part I’m doing. I guess it’s because I know how tough it is to BE a clown. You work your heart at it, you know.”

I asked him to tell me — you know — from the start. I remembered what Johnny Johnston had told me — how he and Red Skelton had worked at a Walkathon Palace, one of those unspeakably cheap places, and took each other’s place — Johnny would do his stuff from midnight to four, Red from four to eight, Johnny from eight to twelve, etc. Living on hot dogs and cokes, sleeping on benches.

“You tell me,” I said to Red.

“Well, you know my father was a clown — Hagenback and Wallace — my mother used to be always telling me about him; he died before I was born.Me, I wanted to be like my dad, so I sold papers and watched for the circus billboards and haunted the theaters and practiced being funny … one day I heard that Raymond Hitchcock was to be at our theater — that was in Vincennes, Ind. — and I did everything I could  to make folks stop and buy my papers so I could get in line for the gallery at a quarter — my mother said I could.

“So a man came up and I made faces and wise cracks, anything to stop him, and he asked me why I was so anxious to sell my papers, and I said that Raymond Hitchcock, a terribly  funny fellow, was to be at the theater and I wanted to go. And he said, how much for all your papers? and I said a dollar. So he gave me the dollar and an extra quarter for the gallery. And didn’t I find out that Raymond Hitchcock was the same guy!

Still Edna

“I joined a medicine show when I was 10, went into a minstrel show, then onto a Show Boat on the Ohio and Mississippi. The circus too, vaudeville, everything where there had to be someone to be funny. How I worked at it!

“I met a girl at Pantages in Kansas City. We were only 17, but we got married. That was Edna. We made out swell. I mean, we worked out everything together were a team you know; only she was the mastermind, she taught me everything I know. Manages my radio show now, you know, a wonderful woman. Fine husband too — Frank Borzage. Yep, she ain’t my wife any more, worse luck, that sure was an awful mistake on my part; but she sure deserves a fine husband and he’s that, you bet!

“Well, as I said, Edna did it all. Held me down, made me work, improve, experiment. When I’d say, after our act, ‘Did you notice those sour pusses in the front row never laughed at me once tonight?’ she’d say kind of thoughtful, ‘Well, mebbe you weren’t funny, Red. Why not try it a different way?’ So I would, and she’d make me work on it until they DID laugh. Taught me all I know.”

“Know what?” he went on, as though talking to himself, “This Merton, he makes me think of me. Ever notice how lonesome and kind of worried clowns look when nobody’s looking? That’s because they don’t SEE themselves as comedians at all.”

It was time for him to go back and make love to the store dummy again, this time in a close-up. “There’s somep’n I’ve  been wantin’ to say to you, Miss Lucy,” he drawled in exaggerated western accents. And then he stopped. Looked blank. Wretched. And again I thought Red Skelton had blown up in his lines, so forlorn did he look, this Merton of the Movies!