Here's another almost-unknown Anthony Newley song, that's not bad (though it requires a bit of a backstory, because otherwise it would seem like the world's most egotistical and pretentious song ever...) And coming across it reminded me of one of the strangest screenings I've been to.
It was a strange screening because, in part, this comes from one of the stranger movies, with one of the stranger titles -- Can Heironymous Merkin Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (As you might imagine, the film is from the 1970s when such titles were in vogue. For instance, the Dustin Hoffman movie, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?)
Heironymous Merkin.had a bit of a reputation at the time, most particularly because it was supposed to have a lot of nudity and pretty women and a Playboy Playmate of the Year (who was the titled 'Mercy Humppe" -- o the subtlety...), and Playboy magazine had done a big pictorial feature about the film. I was at Northwestern at the time, and the film was going to screen on campus, and as you might imagine, this sort of film held much interest for college students. Well, the men folk, at least. The auditorium was packed.
Though it wasn't packed for long. The audience quite enjoyed when the young woman playing Ms. Humppe appeared on screen, without much wardrobe. But before that occurred, they were a bit disoriented by a big musical number, quite a good one, in fact, sung by veteran British music hall star Bruce Forsythe, called "On the Boards." Mind you, I wasn't disoriented at all, because while I was all for the beautiful naked women and especially the nude Playmate, I wanted to see the musical. In fact, as I heard all the rumblings in the audience (and it was obvious why), I was tempted to stand up and yell, "Didn't you people KNOW that this was a musical??!!!"
Then, the second song was performed, and the rumblings built to discomfort. When Mercy Humppe appeared in all her naked glory. there was at first great relief by the audience -- but as the scene built, it eventually turned in a musical number, and it was like disbelief and abject horror broke out en mass. It wasn't quite a stampede for the exits, but the departures did begin in large numbers. (I can't swear that I have all the order of this correctly, but this was about 10-15 minutes into the movie.) Probably within another 10 minutes or so, the auditorium had significantly cleared out. What was left was: musical comedy fans willing to put up with the mess on screen, fans of naked ladies willing to put up with the musical numbers, Anthony Newley fans -- though I suspect many of those had left, cinema buffs (no pun intended...) who'll watch anything, and those who had nothing better to do on a weekend night. It wasn't all that many, compared to the jammed auditorium only minutes before.
And through it all, I kept wanting to yell out to people, "Didn't you know this was a musical??!!!"
I can't tell you much about the story, other than it was clearly a semi-autobiographical tale written by Newley that he preferred to make instead of to an analyst. It had a lot to do with Merkin's naked romp through women and relationships and trying to find God and his family. And yes, it was incredibly, monumentally self-indulgent. (I think George Jessel played God, and Milton Berle played the Devil. Just what college kids want to see when going to a movie with young naked women and a Playboy Playmate of the Year. By the way, this God and the Devil theme was central to Newley's musical, The Good Old Bad Old Days, that played in London but never made it to Broadway.)
Indeed, when I titled this article, "Lost Newley," I wasn't only...or especially...referring to the song.
My recollection is that the songs weren't half-bad -- I don't say that from the screening, which I hardly remember, but I actually bought the soundtrack album. (Yes, leave it to me to get a soundtrack album to something like this. But like I said, I knew it was a musical -- and was from the guy who did Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. To people who not only like, but actually study musicals, this was no small thing. But still...yes, I know. Even by my standards, it's odd.) However, it's worth noting why the songs ranged from fair to extremely good -- the music was by Anthony Newley, after all...but the lyrics were by Herbert Kretzmer, who years later wrote the English words for Les Miserables! And also the London musical, The Four Musketeers, which I've posted songs from here, a show that starred Harry Secombe. It wasn't a distinguished or memorable score by any stretch of the imagination, but it did have some quite good numbers. And yes, I'm well-aware that the musical numbers have absolutely nothing to do with why most anyone thinks of this movie -- if they think of it at all.
Which brings us to this song. Honestly, I wish I could post "On the Boards," a great-fun vaudevillian song, but alas I can't find it.
Life's a bed of roses
'Til the show you're doing closes
On the boards
But to be fair, this number is far, FAR more typical of the movie. So, it's just as well.
On its own, when you watch it, the song is teeth-achingly pretentious and utterly ego-maniacal. But (though all that is true), you at least have to understand that the writers knew that, that it was the very point of the song. The whole point of the main character is that he is unearthly ego-maniacal and 100% self-indulgent, all the while searching for The Meaning of Life, largely provided that it centers around himself, so they wrote a Big Anthem for him. It's sort of in the vein of Newley's other Big Anthems, "What Kind of Fool Am I? and "Who Can I Turn To?" But -- intentionally -- without the subtlety. This here is the self-centered Heironymous Merkin on a mountaintop talking to God and dismissing Him to His face, singing -- in the kind of egregious staging you can only get from a movie of this era -- that "I'm All I Need."
Interestingly, when you hear the song on an album, without the visuals, it comes across with more of a soul-searching edge. And when you see it in context, you at least understand from whence it sprang. Though it's still quite a...well, spectacle. But on its own, on film, it -- well, as I said, this way it's a fairly worthy representative of the film. Just without the naked women.
But still, the main thing I think of when I see this, or anything from Heironymous Merkin is a full-auditorium of horrified college students aghast at what they were seeing, and me still wanting to shout out -- "Didn't you people KNOW that this was a musical????!!!!!"
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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