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The Forgotten: Merkin Muffs It

Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) Is the film that dares to ask the question, "Can Heironymous Merkin ever forget Mercy Humppe and find true happiness?" Since the title appears only at the end, it’s fair to say that the film poses the question rather than answering it.
Anthony Newley’s autobiographical vanity project could be described as justly forgotten, except that in all its awfulness and horribleness, it’s tremendously entertaining, although that does depend on where you like your needle to lie on the pleasure/malaise scale. Newley is determined to give us a bad feeling.
The conception here is that we do indeed want, are crying out for, a version of Eight and a Half detailing the mores and amores of the lyricist of “Goldfinger” instead of those of Fellini, and Newley is the man to give it to us. Mixing the Felliniesque borrowings with a lot of Jewish showbiz archetypes, and throwing in a carousel filched from La Ronde and a lot of gratuitous ‘60s tit and bum (but what constitutes gratuitous in this context, anyway?), our writer-producer-director-composer-star – hell, let’s just say auteur – is determined to lay bare both soul and arse.
Playing the title character with brimming self-disgust, Newley eschews the walnut-up-the-nostril approach which so distinguished his work as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, and creates a pretty convincing portrait of himself as B-list celeb wallowing in mid-life crisis hell, dragging his old mum (beloved monkey-woman Patricia Hayes) and kids (real life Newley spawn Tara and Alexander) down to the beach, where he re-enacts scenes from his misspent existence. Meanwhile, in another meta-reality, Newley himself (or is this another Heironymous?) argues with his writers and producers about the film he’s making – the film we’re watching.
On top of all this, our anti-hero, or at least non-hero, is haunted and taunted by two spectral figures, a Mephistophelean agent (Milton Berle as Goodtime Eddie Filth) and another character known only as The Presence.
The Presence is played by vaudeville deity George Jessel, and very terrifying he is, with his most unnatural hairline, beginning just above his eyebrows in a smear of orange inflammation. I know that our hair does in fact grow from under our skin, but Jessel looks like he has a year’s growth stored up in his scalp, waiting to burst through when watered. He makes my temples throb.
Uncle Milty, meanwhile, uses his mellifluous voice and leering demeanour well, mouthing Newley’s most offensive dialogue with sickening relish: “As a rapist and a lecher and all-round good fellow, no one can touch him, that he hasn’t already touched.” If it’s fair to say that few of us wish to see Newley penetrating a pneumatic lovely on a merry-go-round, it’s even more obvious that very few of us indeed want to see a cutaway shot of Milton Berle watching with fatherly pride. But these things are here, along with much more.
Just when one’s gob feels like it couldn’t get any more smacked, Merkin meditates upon his aggressive approach to the sexual act, “I’ve really been committing a kind of sexual murder, the ritual homicide of the female sex, forever stabbing and reopening the divine wound.” This is followed by a crimson-cowled illustrative sequence, illustrating the perils of reading Andrea Dworkin while watching Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death.
This horrorshow is balanced by Newley’s vision of pure love (not the bit with the donkey, that comes later), a tender ode to the nymphet of his dreams, the eponymous Miss Humppe, narrated by Newley to his own four-year-old daughter, in a sequence which literally made me want to crawl out of Creation through my own mouth and brick it up behind me. As a time-capsule of hideously paedo attitudes of bygone years, this sequence is embarrassing but perhaps instructive, although now that I’ve seen it I wish I could have my retinas deodorised.
While most of Merkin’s conquests are anonymous bimbo types (and in some of these scenes, Merkin becomes anonymous himself, a thrusting mannequin with only a red-lipped mouth for a face – the repellent effect is far stronger than whatever point is being made could justify, a problem of proportion that subsumes the whole film), his two wives are allowed names and lines. As the more important of these, Newley spouse-of-the-moment Joan Collins gets to be called Polyester Poontang, which shows that Newley was really putting his attitude to women under the microscope in the sincerest possible way, doesn’t it? Joan gets to sing “Chalk and Cheese”, one of Newley’s pleasant but slightly interchangeable songs to a nude Newley, while surrounded by dancers dressed as astrological signs, in  a sequence which appears to by trying to insert Kenneth Anger into Busby Berkeley, head-first.
I give it points for trying. The whole film deserves credit for seeking to do pointless and frankly unwelcome things in the face of what must have been not so much opposition (the writers and producers Newley argues with in the film are fictional: he co-wrote and co-produced the film himself) so much as vague apathy. And while Merkin/Newley’s self-loathing is transparently trumped up and self-indulgent (nobody else loathes Newley, do they? He’s not important enough!), some sincere impulse to soul-baring must have motivated the project – you can see Newley struggling to find a soul to bare. Disappointed, he has to settle for his backside, and so do we.
Why remember this boss-eyed travesty of a film at all? Just because it happened? Is that enough? Perhaps we should remember it because it makes Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland look like an honourable attempt, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz like a masterpiece. Perhaps because it crystallizes the ethos of 1969, when filmmakers (and songwriters) were really being given enough rope to hang themselves, and none chose a longer drop than Anthony Newley.
THE FORGOTTEN is a weekly Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
This sounds like something that all the swinging cats writing for Playboy magazine would’ve drooled over back in 1969. Those sunglasses are a hoot, commensurate to the size of his ego I would think. Just knowing that this film exists kind of gives me a bad feeling, that’s just how successful Newley was in his determination. Didn’t know that Uncle Milty had a hand in all this, he looks rather strange in the frame grab, the grin gives his face a masklike countenance. I’ve been familiar with the title of this film for many years, but that’s all I was familiar with. Now I know that the film itself delivers everything that the title promises.
Well actually All The Jazz IS a masterpiece.Alex in Wonderland is a very honorable misfire. This thing is another story entirely, relating entirely to the psychopathology of Anthony Newley. He WAS big. His talent just kept getting smaller.
Well, I agree re the Fosse and Mazursky films — Newley’s film sort of shows how difficult the task they’re attempting really is. Berle is persistently disturbing, throughout his career, for me, but this movie really taps into his creep factor. I too was solely aware of the film as a memorable, yet strangely hard-to-remember, title. The film does indeed live up to its name: a brilliantly bad movie.
I was vaguely aware of this, as one of the films supposedly illustrative of the tenet that a film’s quality is in inverse proportion to the length and awkwardness of its title (i.e. THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED UP ZOMBIES; OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD, &c). Of course, that rule is probed by the exception of DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, the film that made overlong titles seem hip in the first place back in the 1960s. Happy new year, Edward
Looking over my list, and counting by syllables, I see that “Can…” actually has the longest title at 20 syllables (or 21 if I allow an accent grave in “Humppe”; only a fortunate viewer could tell me exactly how to pronounce this fortunate surname), followed by “Creatures” with 19, “Dad” with 18, and “Strangelove” with 17.
As it happens, Guy, Playboy did run a very celebratory feature/photo spread on the film at the time of its rather limited release. I was about ten at the time, and recall that the idea of Anthony Newley directing a kind of nudie musical variant of “8 1/2” raised no eyebrows whatsoever—it really was the thing to do. It’s only in retrospect that the project’s “WTF?” factor is made manifest. Just goes to show—the ’60s really WERE different. David, how did you manage to see this artifact, if I may ask?
Disgracefully, I’ve forgotten who my supplier was, as I swap movies with lots of people. It’s been quasi-released by gray-market specialists “5 Minutes to Live”. Humppe is pronounced “hump” to facilitate the oh-so-witty pun. The beauty of a free-and-easy film culture like that of the late 60s is that a movie like this could seem like a great idea, at least until anybody saw it. I keep hoping that Hollywood blockbusters will just STOP WORKING again, so we have have more desperate fumbling like this (and more creative triumphs too).
Glenn, You were reading Playboy at the age of ten, in 1969? Was this with your parents’ permission? But to read your confirmation of what I had speculatively supposed doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon back then, trying to get “with it”. Some were more successful, more genuine than others. Newley’s Brand of Cool seems out of step with prevailing currents of the time, more crass, more Vegas maybe. But hey, in all fairness, not having seen the film I could be wrong. Though somehow I don’t think so.
Guy— What can I tell you? I was a somewhat precocious child. As far as my parents’ permission goes—no. It’s true that Newley’s sensibility was more crass and Vegas-y than that of the “actual” counterculture, but by this point everything was getting so thoroughly smushed together that authenticity, such as it was, had been rendered both unrecognizable and kind of besides the point. A state of affairs considered, at least peripherally, by Zappa and The Mothers’ “We’re Only In It For The Money.”
The BRAVO cable network has also shown HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN, making it the source of a number of grey-market videos that circulate. I’ve seen worse films, but I’ve never seen one that made me cringe so terribly at the misplaced ambition of the director. Newley’s ego is a remarkable and truly horrifying thing to witness.
That’s a very good evocation of the Merkin effect. We may have to wait for The Day The Clown Cried before anyone beats it. Although, since Lewis’s film maudit remains unseen, maybe it’ll turn out to be great. Maybe.

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