The Glass Character

The Winnipeg Review

 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.—

Reviewed by Steve Currie