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The Forgotten: Merkin Muffs It

David Cairns
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.
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