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Wednesday 4 November 2015

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

Director: Anthony Newley
Stars: Anthony Newley, Joan Collins and Milton Berle

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Anthony Newley was a major star in 1969 and had been one for long enough that his ego had apparently decided that it was time to ejaculate all over the filmgoing public. This picture, which he wrote, directed, scored and starred in, is surely remembered today mostly for its unwieldy name, which Chicago Tribune readers voted ‘The Worst Movie Title Ever’, but that title is only as pretentious as the film it heralds. I’ve racked my brain but can’t come up with anything else as remotely self-indulgent as this movie. I applaud Newley’s desire to experiment with the cinematic medium, but this was never going to be anything more than a bizarre footnote in an otherwise highly successful career, not least because the many boobs lent the film an X certificate and so it was banned from advertising itself in many American newspapers. After all, he had played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, co-written the theme for Goldfinger and racked up a dozen hits (two number ones) as a singer. This project reeked of professional suicide.

As it turned out, Heironymus Merkin didn’t end his career, though it did contribute to his divorce from his third wife, Joan Collins, who plays a major role here as Polyester Poontang. Perhaps part of that had to do with the casting of their four and six year old kids in an X-rated movie. The majority surely has to do with what he says about both him and her as real people in a thinly disguised autobiography that has Collins playing herself. Given how absolutely stunning Joan Collins was in 1969, how he chooses to reject her is important; it demonstrates how utterly wrapped up in himself Newley must have been at the time. What would he have been like if the Oscar nomination he received for co-writing the score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 had become a win? But, as decried as this film was by the critics and the filmgoing public, it actually made money at the box office. And hey, wife number four soon showed up in its wake and stayed for eighteen years. Somehow things worked out for Anthony Newley.

At least he did have a wicked sense of humour, because the plot, if this picture can be said to have such a thing, is astoundingly autobiographical, as wild as it is. He starts out only a day past forty years of age and, as such, confronting his mortality. His response is, of course, to gather the detritus of his life onto a beach from whence it will be shipped to the Heironymus Merkin museum so that the world can know the truth, because that’s what the rest of us will do. In front of his mother, played by Patricia Hayes, and his kids, played by his kids, he attempts to tell his story in film in a variety of styles, which bewilder as much as enlighten. For example, the first is some sort of flashback sequence, depicting him as a marionette in thrall to Uncle Limelight, played by Bruce Forsyth trying to be Jason Robards as he stalks the boards of a half built theatre set belting out a musical number. It just gets stranger from here, with the aid of simple animation, dramatic narration and the constant interruptions of George Jessel as a wise-cracking angel.
For all that Merkin (and yes, he named his own autobiographical character after a pubic wig) wants us all to know his story, he leaps quickly forward to his rampant womanising years, visualised in subtle style by staging a long line of women in front of his tent, so he can lean out and order, ‘Next!’ There are moments of seriousness, such as the coverage of Merkin’s lack of a father and the childhood death of his firstborn, both autobiographical details of Newley’s life, but he treats himself with such scorn that we can’t feel for him even then. His second marriage, which lasted seven years in reality, is turned into a shotgun affair because she showed up pregnant, only to be quickly discarded after the child’s burial. Merkin puts on a magnanimous air, standing aside so she can leave with a truer love, but then flounces around in delight at his escape from boredom. And how seriously should we take the narrator’s question: ‘Oh, Heironymus Merkin, how many thousands of theatre lovers have you pleasured with the enormity of your gifts?’

At least at this point, Newley’s autobiography and Merkin’s meet in the form of Joan Collins, an audience member who interrupts his performance of Shakespeare to insightfully point out that the film she hasn’t been watching is clearly all about him. Is this a family discussion or character development? Who knows? Given that we’re soon stuck watching three critics discussing the film so far, while scriptwriters scrabble at their work and Merkin puzzles between the two sides, we wonder just how much of it reflects what the ego of Newley was really trying to do. The suggestion is that he’s soul searching, attempting to discover his real identity at a crucial point in his life, sparked by the work of Federico Fellini, whose pictures were often this wild but never this disjointed. Maybe it was here that I started to appreciate Newley’s honesty, as he accepts that his picture is masturbatory filmmaking, only to suggest that The Birth of a Nation and Mutiny on the Bounty were better pictures but suffered for the lack of good songs and pert tits.

For all the weirdness, and this film is full of the stuff, the oddest moment might just be the most telling, in which Newley the director threatens Newley the actor with the sack. While we’re watching him screen his life story to his family, we’re also watching him construct it. Newley may be admitting schizophrenia just as he admits paedophilia, without pressure from Goodtime Eddie Filth, the take on Satan played by Milton Berle, who guides him poorly throughout. At the very least it appears to be an attempt at suggesting that Merkin isn’t Newley, or perhaps is only a single aspect of his personality. So we ride into Chapter IV, ‘The Dream of Humbert Humbert or Snow White Meets Attila the Hun’. The studio don’t want this scene to be shot, let alone seen, which naturally makes it rather interesting. It begins by introducing Mercy Humppe, the other title character, played by Playboy centrefold Connie Creski, only to morph into an astrological dance sequence with Newley naked and Collins singing Chalk and Cheese. I feel for his therapist.
And, as Merkin can’t decide between Mercy Humppe and Polyester Poontang, we can’t help but wonder about the movie’s title and whether this whole project was an externalisation of Newley’s thoughts at the time, a sort of cellulloid mid-life crisis. If it’s really an honest soul-baring plea to keep his wife at the cost of his sexual obsessions, it’s a bitter irony indeed that he promptly lost her with this film cited as one of the reasons why. I can’t blame her, of course. How else was she supposed to interpret the choice of her husband of seven years and the father of her children to cast her not only as herself but also as the lady to which he, whom she has already personally identified in the film as playing himself, cannot commit? And why? Because the devil made him do it! It’s less a plea for forgiveness and more an admission that he hasn’t been faithful to her and has no plans to ever do so. Oh, and he’s going to make this completely obvious to everyone including their kids. Daddy loves mummy but, look, there’s Hope Climax! Woohoo!

If it wasn’t for the fact that he had major work left in him, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and its Oscar nomination still two years away, I’d interpret this movie as an attempt to derail his own career, the only argument being whether he did so deliberately or subconsciously. It isn’t just the title and the weird choice to write a script that relentlessly bashes his own character, then take the role for himself. It’s also in the frequent diversions from point that go as far as a fairy tale that casts Yolanda (of the dance couple Yolanda and Veloz) as a princess who falls in love with her donkey and spends her scenes with it naked. I do recognise that it ends with a pun that supposedly gives it validity, but no, it doesn’t. It’s just another opportunity for Newley to highlight that his sexual shenanigans take precedence over his marriages. This is honest, but it’s very sad indeed. Naming the princess Trampolina Whambang could have been genius but we’re too concerned for his mental wellbeing at this point to really notice.

Today, the film wants to be forgotten. It’s acutely a product of its time, when films were released once to theatres and almost never found their way back in front of eyeballs again. Heironymus Merkin did find a very brief release on VHS and DVD, but is almost impossible to find today; and I do wonder what Newley, had he not died in 1999 roughly when the insurance tables that spark this film suggest, would have felt about people like me seeing it almost half a century after its day in the spotlight. Most people would be acutely embarrassed, but this film suggests his ego was vast enough to crush any embarrassment that might creep up to be acknowledged. Roger Ebert’s contemporary review suggested that it might be the first attempt to make a personal film in the English language to sit alongside those of Godard and Fellini. I’m not going to argue but when Fellini juggled, he kept all his balls in the air. The last word here goes to the Presence: ‘Gonna be one of the all time greats,’ he says. ‘Definitely Hall of Flame material.’


  1. A film I had never heard of before... I'd like to see Spielberg, Tarantino and Polanski each do their own take on this sort of crazy auto-biographical format...


  2. Not to be that guy, but it's Eddie Filth and not The Presence who says, ‘Gonna be one of the all time greats. Definitely Hall of Flame material.’