‘The Glass Character’ by Margaret Gunning

The Glass Character coverReviewed by Steve Currie

A contemporary novel set in the past makes an Orwellian demand on the author and the reader: the author must create a history, excising some troublesome details, inventing others, bringing some minor characters into the limelight while damning some titans to obscurity. The reader, in turn, has to accept this new chronology, to live in this new world, and to believe in the author’s articulation of of all these long lost thoughts and memories.

The reviewer though— oh boy — the reviewer gets to ask why. Why some changes, and not others, some inventions rather than omitted truths, and ultimately why the choice to tell this story, now? With all this in mind I approach The Glass Character, Margaret Gunning’s extended hymn to 1920s silent movie star Harold Lloyd, as seen by the luckless ingenue Muriel Ashford (nee Jane Chorney of Santa Fe, New Mexico).

I’m pleased that Gunning took me into this world. Rolin Studios — where Muriel presents herself for her first cattle call — is a beautiful turreted old mansion, half castle, half church. Its location — thanks Google Streetview! — is now a depressingly cheery and brightly sterile concrete patio. Gone too are men like Hal Roach, whose IMDB page reports a staggering 1,201 producer credits. And Harold Lloyd, who I will never love as much as Gunning or her mouthpiece Miss Ashford, was undeniably a superhuman performer. If the interested reader would now care to look up the great clock scene in Safety Last, I’ll permit it.

But Gunning’s Golden Age of Hollywood is barely sketched. The rambling cathedral of Rolin Film Co is described as a big house, with no details as to architecture or location. Its dimensions feel strange, and Muriel wanders through it for “what feels like hours” without finding the casting room. A three story mansion would no doubt be impressively vast for a sixteen-year-old straight off the bus from Santa Fe, but it seems incredible that it could hide three dozen weeping and preening young actresses from earshot for that long.

Similarly, the treatment of time and space seems inconsistent. Distances from the Court Hill studio to Muriel’s apartment, to Frankie’s Speakeasy — her drink-slinging Joe-job— are unreported. We don’t know if she’s spending her days wearing her shoes down on the Hollywood-land pavements to save streetcar fare, or if she’s found herself, by luck, in a tight neighbourhood of celebrity access.

The chronology is hard to keep straight as well, complicated by Jane’s need to tack on two years to her age when she became Muriel and the jerky rhythm; things happen to Muriel in disorienting bursts, requiring her to lay low for years at a stretch.

Worst of all is the treatment of women. Muriel’s great arc is not her seduction of Harold Lloyd, it is her making it as a writer in Hollywood. Some scenes in this arc are great, such as Muriel penning a script with her dimwitted beau taking credit in order to get it read at all, and some are too brusque to be believed. For example, Lloyd dismisses Muriel’s first piece of screenwriting — a title for a picture she was an extra in — because she wasn’t “a professional,” even though he had just asked her for it.

Muriel’s ambitions save the book from being 300 pages of mooning over a movie star, but this subplot has its own set of problems. Either Gunning’s Hollywood is very different from the historical one, or Muriel is profoundly self-centered, because this story of one woman taking on entrenched Hollywood chauvinism takes place during the greatest period of advancement for women in Hollywood before or since. World War I and the suffragette movement had put women on both sides of the camera, everywhere it seems except Rolin Studios. A passage like “He had come up against the Victorian in Harold’s heart. Women didn’t write titles, create stories. Women could be sweet and winsome like Mildred, but they were to be cherished and kept apart” is jarring when you realize that twenty-five percent of screenwriters at the time were women, and that they were by far the most productive and frequently the highest paid screenwriters.

In 1929, three years into the novel’s timeline, Frances Marion won the Academy Award for best writing, the third ever presented, and no one in our cast says boo. So Gunning made some revisions to the historical record to suit her story, all well and good, but this choice sits uneasily with me. I’m not saying that women had an easy time of it in the silent screen era; in fact I would find their lives unbearably disempowered and disenfranchised, but to service her story Gunning felt the need to make their lot even worse. It’s a lazy move, drama at the expense of truth. I think there are compelling stories to be told about the rise of women in Hollywood without excising the accomplishments of Marion and her contemporaries just because they made it look too easy.

I wouldn’t say Muriel and Lloyd have great chemistry, although the scene where they finally dance at the speakeasy does have a manic energy to it, but they are a fine study in opposites. Muriel is a woman of thought, Harold a man of action. Muriel is in the cattle pens and the writers’ room, Harold is in the limelight. Muriel is deeply and thoroughly exposited, Harold remains enigmatic, almost surreal, to the end. The structural problem with this division of labour is that Muriel becomes one of those characters that things just happen to. She bounces from one mentor figure to another whenever someone’s sage advice is needed to propel the story further (although sometimes these bounces involve years of waitressing or other thankless work).

Her writing, charm, and wit are all much-lauded, but rarely seen, and many of her supplicating mentors love and trust her immediately, due to some enchanting property of her presence, which is easy to write about, but hard to imagine. The story is supposed to be one of  obsession, but if there’s one aspect of humanity this cheerful millennium has taught us about, it’s celebrity obsession, and Muriel doesn’t have it. She claims in the prologue to be willing to sacrifice anything for Harold, but throughout the book she doesn’t give up anything more than bus fare for him. It’s not a story of an obsessive, but of a fairly sensible, somewhat suggestible young woman, perhaps a bit prone to panic attacks. I admit that’s not as strong of an elevator pitch.

Harold though, I love Harold. His mania, his immediacy, and his willingness to put in exhausting fifty-take shoots until he finds the perfect way to trip over his shoelaces, all of this speaks true to me as a comedian, and is a credit to Gunning’s skill as a researcher and a writer of character. “Watching us watch him, Harold’s face was a study in anxiety and hope. But he wanted to know why we were laughing.” That’s the neurotic workmanship of a man involved in the backbreaking and joyless craft of making the seat-fillers chuckle for a while. Harold is a lesson in hard work, in putting in takes until the reel is perfect, and this could be why Muriel, who gets advice on the virtues of hard work from virtually everyone she meets, is so reluctant to take it.

Harold also carries the main theme of the novel, the centrality of artifice, as the self-made character. Both Harold “The Glass Character” Lloyd, and Muriel “née Jane” Ashford invent their own lives, and are for the most part the sole credit for their successes (yes, things turn out all right for ‘Mimi’) The novel’s most beautiful passage — “His creation was a sculpture made of translucent ivory, wrought with his hands, his feelings, his mind. His creation was not a real person, never born, just made. Only God makes people, so he would be punished for it, I was sure.” — is also glaringly wrong. Lloyd wasn’t punished, at least not for that, and making himself was the act that set him free.

My favourite feature of the novel is its bookends, which send up those cash-grab compilations studios and record companies released whenever their residual cheques ran low. Wacky Antics of the Silent Movie Age, Hollywood’s Great Romances, 99 Death Defying Stunts, et cetera, ad nauseum. Perhaps Gunning and I both hate these cut-ups because they are the forebears of the worst and laziest parts of Internet culture, from which both of us feel somewhat estranged. I hope so, I sympathise with that, but I’m not sure if Gunning’s work is a fairer or more complete picture of that complicated, rapturous time. In the end, she’s also tearing “bleeding chunks” out of history, and her final feature, The Glass Character— The Periphery of Harold Lloyd’s career you’d have to READ to BELIEVE, isn’t something I’d pay the ticket to watch.

Thistledown | 312 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927068885

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