“Heironymus Merkin”: Anthony Newley’s Fellini-esque mid-life crisis failure

By on June 24, 2015

In the late sixties, British singer/actor Anthony Newley actually thought things were going so smashingly well (they weren’t, and Newley knew it) that he struck upon idea to co-write, direct and star in this absurd, overly self-indulgent and pretentious Fellini-esque musical sex romp, a film-within-a-film based loosely on the first forty years of his real life. (Slightly NSFW, folks)

The resulting motion picture — in which a rhetorical question in the title is posed: Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? — was later given an X-rating for its excessive and provocative nudity, but it was quite a wild ride, and may have, in fact, actually been an indiscreet act of self-sabotage by Newley on his career.

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It all probably didn’t sound so outrageously bad on paper, and considering Newley’s career had yielded hit after hit by that point: A child star, he first gained fame playing the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 version of Oliver Twist, then, after college, he collaborated with songwriter Leslie Bricusse on the musical Stop The World, I Want To Get Off and played the lead on Broadway for almost three years, with its huge hit, “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” He and Bricusse continued writing together, churning out charming songs like “Pure Imagination” for the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack, while Newley became a kind of omnipresent presence on TV around the world, appearing on talk and variety shows, and in films of varying degrees of success. And so, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that Heironymus Merkin might have been a successful project that some believed would actually make some money for the studio that backed it.

Alas, Heironymus Merkin was fairly doomed from the start, by all accounts, even with the additional screenwriting efforts by co-writer Herman Raucher, who within a year of this film’s release would, along with Newley, actually win the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best British Original Screenplay. Newley plays the autobiographical title role of Merkin, an internationally successful singer approaching middle age who curiously comes up with an idea of opening up a museum dedicated to his life thus far while contemplating a pile of memorabilia: books, posters and the other adjacent ephemera meant to represent the successful Newley’s own life.

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The songs thereafter are meant to highlight Merkin’s (and Newley’s) failures at commitment in his many relationships, which have led to his philandering affairs with younger women, all of which Newley had been dealing with in his actual life.

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They’re presented in a series of ribald production numbers, with original music penned by Newley and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (Les Misérables), and the first of these are staged on a seashore in front of his two toddlers named “Thaxted” and “Thumbelina” (and played by Newley’s actual children, Tara and Sacha) and his aged mother (Patricia Hayes), propelled by the fact that his insurance company’s actuarial tables have revealed that he has a mere 25.3 years left of his life.

Much of the storyline thereafter (some of it told with amateurish animation) focuses on his promiscuous relationships with several women, particularly his main love interest, Polyester Poontang. Newley somehow cheekily thought it was a good idea to cast his actual wife, actress Joan Collins, to play the the older woman in his character’s life that he was no longer attracted to — Collins later cited the film as contributing to her divorce from Newley (Newley had been married before her, to Ann Lynne, a London Tiller Girl dancer, and later in life found love again, with a flight attendant named Dareth, but he had many, many affairs, often with very young women, his entire adult life).

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Among the other women in Merkin’s life are former lover, Filigree Fondle (Judy Cornwell), who arrives on his doorstop, pregnant and accompanied by her parents (a shotgun wedding naturally ensues), and teenage blonde nymphet Mercy Humppe (lovely Playboy centerfold model Connie Kreski, Playmate of the Month for January 1968), who represents a kind of as-yet undefiled innocence. In fact, the title itself frames the complication found in Merkin’s (and Newley’s) life: can he forget meeting Mercy, so youthful and innocent, and be happy with the Poontang he already has in his life?

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Merkin, meanwhile, has memorable scenes with his Uncle Limelight (Bill Forsyth), a music hall performer who dies while singing his magnum opus, “Picadilly Lilly,” and we see Merkin in clown makeup, and as a marionette, as if to say that he sees himself not as a performer, but as a joke, adopting Uncle Limelight’s signature tune as his own. We see him in scenes with Goodtime Eddie Filth, played by the legendary Milton Berle — who plays a kind of minion to Satan, acting as a kind of procuring agent responsible for introducing him to various temptresses like the deliciously-named Hope Climax — as well as cigar-puffing, white umbrella-clutching Borscht Belt comedian George Jessel, who plays a kind of antethetical character, a white suit-wearing spectre named The Presence, acting as a kind of advance angel of Death who tells awful jokes like “If you’re not careful who your have your eggs with, very often the yoke’s on you.”

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Along the way, Merkin/Newley actually breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, to complain about the character he’s playing to an unseen director (voiced by Newley, of course), as well as grousing to two screenwriters, the movie’s producers (who want him to come up with “an ending”), and several movie critics who are already going on record as saying they hate the movie’s lack of plot and overt sexuality (critics had savaged his stage productions before, and Newley was used to not having their support). All of these off-screen narrators are like authoritarian God-like figures, but it’s clear that Merkin (and Newley) have little respect for what they’re saying, arguing with them (“this wasn’t how it happened”).

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Production for the film commenced on the island of Malta, where a few other musical film flops have been lensed (like Robert Altman’s Popeye). The set designer for the dream sequences was Loudon Sainthill, who died shortly after finishing his work on the film. In some ways the movie is both a send-up and a full-on embrace of the kinds of self-examining carnivalesque ego-trips that Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini is known for (his mid-life crisis movie  being a prime example), but Newley seems to have taken the personal self-indulgence a bit too far, so far that many wondered if he was actually attempting to kill off every aspect of his career in a kind of overtly suicidal way.

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Seriously, there’s a character here selling banana ice cream on a merry-go-round named Icicle Ike (Bernard Stone), and another named Princess Trampolina Whambang, wearing a sheer gown, who actually sings a love song to her donkey. Take that, Fellini!

The end credits, like so many late-sixties films (think 1968’s Skidoo) are worth waiting for, if you’ve made it that far, but if you have, you’ve also seen Merkin saying “fade on writers and producers, not understanding and not having an ending.” The critics were brutal in their honest hatred for what Newley put up on the screen. Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that Newley “so over extends and overexposes himself that the movie comes to look like an act of professional suicide . . . The movie is as self-indulgent as a burp. It’s also as pretentious as its form… The movie is not so free and loose as it is simply out of control.”

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Angela and Elkan Allan, writing in The Sunday Times Guide to Movies on Television in 1973, took their cue from the title of the film and posed a question of their own: “Can Anthony Newley ever remember that he is just a pleasant light comedian and settle down to earn an unpretentious living?”

Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times, on the other hand, praised the film’s ambition: “It is strange, wonderful, original, and not quite successful. It is just about the first attempt in English to make the sort of personal film Fellini and Godard have been experimenting with in their very different ways. It is not as great as 8½ but it has the same honesty and self-mocking quality.”

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What may have hurt the film even more than the critical response to it was the fact that all the nudity in it (much of it was nude Newley himself, and the sight of his bare ass begins to be something of a distraction after, oh, the first five minutes or so) earned an X-rating, which meant that a lot of newspapers in the U.S. would refuse to allow ads to run. Curiously, the film’s trailer didn’t even attempt to show any actual footage from the movie itself:

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Heironymus Merkin may have, in its own way, inspired other reflective mid-life crisis movies, like the Bob Fosse film All That Jazz, but we’re pretty sure that this one stands alone as an example of what can happen when a full-on film/stage/TV star decides to cinematically re-evaluate his life thus far after seeing perhaps one too many foreign-made art films. In other words, it should probably be avoided.

Shortly after the film was in theaters, in limited release in late 1968 — the official release date appears to have been March 19, 1969 — Newley appeared on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy After Dark,” with Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis, and Bill Cosby (Sammy and Anthony sing “Once In A Lifetime” in the episode that aired December 19, 1968), but Newley doesn’t focus too much on the fact that the movie made from aspects of his life was panning out to be a certifiable box-office disaster. Playboy, however, went ahead and devoted a ten-page pictorial to the film, a fact that appeared in almost all of the movie’s print ads. Watch the interview with Newley here:

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Connie Kreski would later be named Playboy‘s Playmate of the Year for 1969. Her name was actually mentioned in the L.A. Times shortly after Sharon Tate was murdered because she was a member of the same social circle (which included John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Tina Sinatra, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Sarrazin, and Andrew Prine, among others), and had been invited to attend a party on the night of August 9, 1969, at the Cielo Drive mansion that Tate shared with her husband, director Roman Polanski, but she had decided to skip going at the last minute. She was dating Jay Sebring at the time, and apparently had also dated Polanski too, later having a long relationship with actor James Caan in the early seventies. She died in 1995.

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As it turned out, regardless of what it said on his own insurance company’s actuarial tables, Anthony Newley had a little more than 25 years left in his actual life after he made Heironymus Merkin; he died on April 14, 1999.

If after reading all of this (thank you, kind souls) you’re now looking for a copy of the movie to watch, good luck on your search: it is difficult to find, as it was only briefly released on VHS and DVD, and is now fairly impossible to find, although we did find this source (no idea of the quality, etc.).

This post, by the way, came about because our friend Michael Dare dared us to find out more about the film, and we accepted challenge, as it fit right into some of the types of obscure 60s movies that we’ve covered here before, like this one on The Phynx, and if there’s something you’d like to see here on Night Flight, drop us a note.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.