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

One of the biggest-ever movie follies, an overblown vanity project with Fellini-esque overtones – written, directed, produced and starring British crooner Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle, 1967) – that turned into the first X-rated musical. Bob Fosse mined a similar, almost as seedy, sex-obsessed autobiographical vein in All That Jazz (1979) to critical acclaim whereas the Newley effort met with critical coruscation.

Although primary known as a Broadway star (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), he had a small but reasonable movie portfolio, star of The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) and male lead to Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968), so in a sense he was ready for the leap into movie stardom, though perhaps not in such grandiose fashion. Had the movie shown the slightest touch of irony, that might have been its saving grace, but the main theme is that women queue up to bed a star who is fed up with bedding women yet appears to revel in his own moral decadence.

The story is so slim it defies belief or arrogance. Hieronymous Merkin (Newley) is preparing to make a film about his own life though he feels he has been controlled from the outset, his child view is that of a marionette with someone else pulling the strings. Once Goodtime Eddie Filth (Milton Berle) sets him on a stage career beauties flock to his side. Although married to Polly Poontang (Joan Collins) he longs to be reunited with earlier lover Mercy Humpe (Connie Kreski). Basically, he keeps asking the universal question besetting all men – if I can have all the sex in the world, why am I not happy?

On the plus side it is certainly audacious, surreal, pretentious, unconventional and gives a good idea of what would happen if a director turned up on a beach in Malta with $1.25 million to spend on whoever happened to be available plus assorted nudes and rolled the camera to see what would happen and then argued with his crew or critics about what was taking place. One big minus is the songs. Newley was a talented lyricist (Goldfinger) and composer as well as performer. But the material here is poor and Newley, despite his Broadway experience, has no idea how to stage a musical.

Cameos abound. You can spot famed comedian George Jessel, singer Stubby Kaye, British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, Tom Stern (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968), and British character actors Patricia Hayes, Victor Spinetti and Judy Cornwell. You may be surprised to learn that the script written in tandem with Herman Raucher (Sweet November) was named Best British Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Theoretically, this is now regarded as a cult classic but I’ve yet to come across a review that treats it as anything other than a self-indulgent curiosity rather than a must-see.

Studio Universal was so embarrassed by the final outcome that it released it in the U.S. under its Regional Film unit “which handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The picture was not quite the box office disaster many anticipated after poor runs in New York and Los Angeles. Helped along by a 10-page spread in Playboy it scored substantial business in cities as diverse as Detroit, Louisville and Minneapolis, though not enough, ultimately, to break even.

Given Newley did not make another picture for six years, you might have imagined Hieronymous Merkin spelled the death-knell for his career. But that was not so. After the film opened, he signed a $1 million four-year deal at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was lining up a Broadway musical about Napoleon and Josephine with Barbra Streisand and was in talks to star in a movie adaptation of his hit musical The Roar of the Crowd.

Afraid you’ll have to dig around on Ebay to find this.

SOURCES: “Newley Making Vegas Bow Aug 7 at Caesar’s Palace,” Variety, June 11, 1969, p76; “Newley-Streisand for B’way Tuner on Nappy-Josie,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p1; “Merkin Dates Overcome Jinx,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p3; “Jack Haley Jr. Setup To Produce, Direct,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p6.

Can-Can (1960) ****

A sterling cast does justice to some great Cole Porter songs in an entertaining musical typical of the period. Apart from appropriating some stock footage, nobody was going to bother to head out on location when a Hollywood-ized version of Paris could be recreated on the set. While the film is ahead of its time in several ways – Simone (Shirley Maclaine) owns the nightclub and the women in the title dance are meant to be minus their panties, hence attempts by authorities to shut it down – the plot features an old-fashioned love triangle.

While the chief magistrate (Maurice Chevalier) turns a blind eye to the lewd dance, his younger colleague Phillippe (Louis Jourdan) does not and ensures Simone is arrested. Complications arise when Philippe falls in love with Simone who already has a lover, the lawyer Francois (Frank Sinatra) who is averse to committing to marriage. The four stars are all very charming and there is gentle comedy and effortless acting as the romantic knots are tightened and then unpicked. Hypocrisy is tested and found wanting. The courtroom scenes are amusing and most of the story focus is on how Phillippe can get round his principles and legal obligations to successfully woo Simone.

But in reality, the audience is here for the music, and to hear classic Porter songs interpreted by Sinatra and Chevalier. While the songs are top-drawer, what captured my imagination most was the “Garden of Eden” ballet with a stunning design and superb dancing by Simone and Claudine (Juliet Prowse).  The “Apache Dance” also boasts some singular choreography but otherwise while the “Can-Can” itself is rousing and well-done this is for obvious reasons a censored version.

The Cole Porter contribution includes: “I Love Paris,” “C’Est Magnifique,” “It’s Allright With Me,” “Let’s Do It,” and “Just One of Those Things.”

Walter Lang was a safe pair of hands in this genre having helmed Call Me Madam (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Oscar-nominated for The King and I (1956). The screenplay was a harder slog. The original Broadway musical was a romance between the judge and the nightclub owner. Adding the lawyer Francois to the mix necessitated major changes to the story. But Dorothy Kingsley also had form, having been responsible for the screenplays of  Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Pal Joey (1957). Co-writer Charles Lederer, although involved in Kismet (1955), had a better grasp of comedy, as seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and It Started with a Kiss (1960).

Although not universally admired by the critics, it won two Oscars – color costume design for  Irene Sharaff and best music for Nelson Riddle. It didn’t hit a home run at the box office either and the finger was pointed at Twentieth Century Fox for committing the mortal sin of inflating revenue figures on its initial launch.

While not one of the all-time great musicals and put in the shade when compared to West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), it’s an enjoyable confection, the easy screen charisma of Sinatra, Chevalier, Jourdan and MacLaine holding it all together.

Annette (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for the weirdest film of the year and a truly bonkers misfire, this is a musical only in the sense that much of it is sung in the vein of Tommy (1975) but completely lacking in the kind of memorable songs that would make it qualify for the genre. It is the most over-ripe of conceits, actors who can’t sing, a story that doesn’t fly, characters whose characteristics are endlessly laboured, little development, and a director who clearly believes audiences will swallow anything.

World-famous soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard) marries agent provocateur stand-up comic Henry (Adam Driver). Her stage act consists of dying and bowing, his of heckling his audience. The relationship soon hits the rocks but not before she has given birth to Annette. This is where it becomes even more tricky because Annette more closely resembles an offspring of Chucky, the horror doll, rather than, as was clearly intended, Pinocchio. The story takes an odd turn, which I won’t reveal, but it fails to redeem the project.

While Driver (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019) is quite convincing as the bonkers comedian – especially in one skit where he has the audience believing he has killed his wife – and it is virtually impossible for Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007) to be bad in anything, the film needs more than repetitive scenes of her singing and him upbraiding the audience. Cotillard actually has a reasonable voice – and has cut a few albums – but what she is given to sing here makes a mockery of her talents.

With names such as director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, 2012) and screenwriters/ composers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks fame this was clearly always going to err on the side of cult. It might have worked if the director could have seen his way to a bit of brevity. At 90 minutes or so it might have been an interesting trifle. At 140 minutes, it outstayed it welcome.

Wonderful Life (1964)****

I have just discovered a new guilty pleasure. I was too young to remember when Cliff Richard was the British equivalent of Elvis and by the time I became aware of him he was already in the family-favorites league with his own television show and popping up in the wider consciousness from time to time with a number one single. But I was conscious that Cliff’s aspiring film career was totally obliterated by the emergence of the Beatles. I found Wonderful Life to be totally innocuous, highly enjoyable, charming fun. There’s no story to speak of beyond an affectionate spoof of Hollywood but it has zest and exuberance and some decent choreography by Gillian Lynne who went on to be deified for her work on the original London productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

But there are some very funny visual gags, beginning with the opening scene when Cliff and Co are waiters on board a ship attending to a drunk whose glass moves out of reach every time the ship rolls. Having caused a power outage, they are chucked overboard in a dinghy and turn up in the Canary Islands where Cliff becomes a stunt man on the terrible Foreign Legion movie directed by a Hollywood ogre (Walter Slezak) and starring incompetent actress Susan Hampshire who has made a career of sorts playing the daughter of a sheik or sultan. You have to like a movie with lines like, “Follow that camel” and a geek (Richard O’Sullivan) whose scientific predictions invariably come undone. Cliff, realizing the lines are better sung than spoken, begins to make a musical on the back of the drama. And it’s true – the lines are good lyrics.

Britain had no reputation for musicals among the Hollywood cognoscenti unless you count the Jessie Mathews and Gracie Fields films of the 1930s which were far too parochial and contrived for American tastes and in terms of invention and musical technique a far cry from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! which would be filmed a couple of years later and in terms of originality not a patch on A Hard Day’s Night (1964) the same year. The songs are evenly contributed by various members of the Shadows – Bruce Welch composed the standout “A Matter of Moments” and with Brian Bennett the theme song – and the Peter Myers-Ronald Cass team who also wrote the screenplay. But this film comes across as naturalistic, rather than the contrivances of most Hollywood musicals. It doesn’t take much for these lads to strike up a song, any excuse will do. And the film is better for the lack of high emotion attached to every lyric.

You would be mightily surprised to learn that director Sidney J. Furie’s next film was stylish spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965) followed by Appaloosa (1966) with Marlon Brando and The Naked Runner (1967) starring Frank Sinatra. Here, he is in free-association mode, the ideas tumbling out, especially in the Hollywood parody dance numbers sections where we go from Chaplin pastiche to Greta Garbo and Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers, West Side Story and James Bond. We have gangsters whose violin cases contain violins, a singing cowboy with subtitles (to explain the growth of the foreign movie) and a song about homesickness played out with Battersea Power Station in the background. If anybody can actually act they’re not putting any great effort into it. And that doesn’t matter either. The storyline is no more preposterous than many of the great Hollywood musicals. Everyone looks as if they’re having a whale of a time and I guess that would include the audience because the movie was the fifth-best performer of the year in Britain. This was the type of movie, during the rise of the permissive cinema, that you could take your grandmother to see and still come away surprised you had enjoyed it so much yourself.

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