Let’s Make Love (1960) ***

Despite a luminous performance by Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot, 1959) , in revealing outfits half the time, this backstage musical drama barely staggers over the line. Whatever relationship the actress enjoyed off-screen with co-star Frenchman Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966) fails to register here. In this fish-out-of-water tale of the Broadway intrigue involved in putting a musical together, watching klutz billionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Montand) getting his act together as neophyte actor-cum-singer fails to fly.

It’s always difficult observing a good actor trying to be bad. If he’s a really good actor, it’s going to be an awful watch. And unless he’s got the comedic chops to trigger a bucketload of laughs it’s painful to observe. Gregory Peck reportedly quit this role in favour of The Guns of Navarone (1961) because there was too much Marilyn Monroe in it, and possibly an awkward Peck would have been more fun to watch though comedy was scarcely his forte, but without Monroe the movie would have been virtually unwatchable.

The story’s familiar, a twist on Cinderella with Clement being the ugly duckling in terms of talent. The billionaire businessman, notorious for his love life, attends a rehearsal of a show intending to register outrage at its veiled portrayal of him. Instead, he is mistaken for an auditioning actor and offered a role. He falls for Amanda (Monroe) but she shows little interest, either obsessed with her knitting or trying to improve her education at night class, and appears far more interested in her stage co-star Tony (Frankie Vaughan).

In order to sharpen up his act, Clement hires a bunch of well-known thespians: Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly.

This is where the show could be get interesting. Genuinely learning the secrets of a great comedian, singer and dancer should at the very least provide a fascinating insight into their skills. Of these, Crosby is the pick, demonstrating the importance of raising or dropping your voice at various points in order to maximize the emotion in a song, in other words a singing masterclass. Berle has too much screen time and does little to justify it.

Whatever, regardless of what the script says, Clement seems to take on board little of what he is taught. Montand was a gifted crooner in any case, having begun his career as Edith Piaf’s protégé, and it just seems like he switched instantly from being a bad singer to a good one. In contrast, when Amanda has to take direction, she immediately shows how simple it is to improve a number by adding some actions.

Luckily, Monroe is such a mesmeric screen quality that she can rescue any indifferent movie.  This would work better with a more charismatic leading man – and the prospect of Peck teaming with Monroe was intriguing – but regardless of who she acts opposite Monroe will always blow them away. This is a different kind of role for her because in a sense she is neither the girl adored nor the victim of romance gone wrong. For the most part she’s just a career girl focusing all her attention on getting on. She’s almost just the foil in the dramatic sequences for Montand. But once she has the stage or screen or to herself she dazzles.

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.

The Happening (1967) ***

Poor casting blows a hole in this picture’s great premise and only an excellent turn by Anthony Quinn as an indignant kidnappee prevents it achieving “so-bad-it’s-good” infamy. In fact for the first third of the movie you could pretty much guarantee it’s going to be a stinker, so dire are the performances of the quartet of hippy kidnappers. Only when the camera cuts  Quinn a bit more slack and the script skids into a clever reversal does the movie takes flight although still hovering dangerously close to the waterline.

Faye Dunaway (Sandy), all blonde hair and pouting lips, looks for the most part as though she has entered an Ann-Margret Look-A-Like Competition. Michael Parks (Sureshot) resembles a fluffy-haired James Dean. George Maharis is condemned to over-acting in the role as ringleader Taurus while Robert Walker Jr. as Herby does little more than mooch around. None shows the slightest spark and behave virtually all the time as if they are in on the joke.

For no special reason, beyond boredom, they kidnap hotel tycoon Roc (Quinn) hoping to make an easy score with the ransom. Unfortunately for Roc, none of those he is counting on to cough up the dough – wife Monica (Martha Hyers), current business partner Fred (Milton Berle), former business partner Sam (Oscar Homolka) and offscreen mother – will play ball. In fact, Monica and Sam, enjoying an affair, would be delighted if failure to produce a ransom ended in his death.

Eventually, while the movie is almost in the death throes itself, Roc fights back, using blackmail to extort far more than the kidnappers require from his business associates and taking revenge on his wife by setting her up as his murderer. It turns out Roc is a former gangster and well-schooled in the nefarious. So then we are into the intricacies of making the scam work, which turns a movie heading in too many directions for its own good into a well-honed crime picture.

Quinn is the lynchpin, and just as well since the others help not a jot. From a kidnappee only too willing to play the victim in case he endangers wife and son, he achieves a complete turnaround into a mobster with brains to outwit all his enemies. But in between he has to make a transition from a man in control to one realizing he has been duped by all he trusted.

Director Elliott Silverstein, who got away with a lot of diversionary tactics in Cat Ballou (1965) – such as musical interludes featuring Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole – essays a different kind of interlude here, fast cars speeding across the screen at crazy angles. But that does not work at all. Probably having realized pretty quickly that he can’t trust any of the young actors, he mostly shoots them in a group.  

Some scenes are completely out of place – a multiple car crash straight out of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for example. But occasionally he hits the mark in ways that will resonate with today’s audience. Sureshot, confronted by a policeman, refuses to lower his hands in case he is shot for resisting arrest. Although drug use is implied rather than shown, Sureshot is so stoned he can’t remember if he has actually made love to Sandy. And like any modern Tinderite, neither knows the other’s name after spending a night together.  

The strange thing about the youngsters was that they were not first-timers. Dunaway had made her debut in Hurry Sundown (1967). George Maharis had the lead in The Satan Bug (1965) and A Covenant with Death (1967), Michael Parks the male lead in The Idol (1966) and played Adam in The Bible (1966) and although it marked the debut of Robert Walker Jr. he had several years in television. Oh, and you’ll probably remember a snappy tune, the music more than the lyrics, that became a single by The Supremes.

I’ve got an old DVD copy but I don’t think this is readily available but you can catch it for free on YouTube, although it’s not a good print. Via Google you should be able to see The Supremes performing the title song.

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