Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? | Anthony Newley | UK | 1969 | 106 minutes
All the world’s a stage and a bed for Anthony Newley’s alter-ego Heironymus Merkin. Emily Caulfield explores the truthiness of CHMEFMHAFTH and concludes it is a great time if you can tolerate the shameless hubris.
Is this a movie? Mockumentary? Vaudeville? It’s like Anthony Newley (writer-director-leading man) crammed everything he ever learned about filmmaking from Fellini, Benny Hill, Punch and Judy, and, I don’t know, Jaromil Jireš, into a supercan, shook it up, added some boobs and weird songs and Milton Berle in a devil costume, and out marches Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (henceforth: CHMEFMHAFTH), in its full bawdy, bad-tasting glory.
It’s not a failure, actually, though much maligned. The film: it’s clunky. It’s the exact cinematic depiction of taking such a giant bite of something that you discover you can’t properly chew. It’s a movie, but it’s the making of a movie, and then it’s neither. It’s artifice, but then Newley-Heironymus-Newley stops filming and demands absolute truthiness. It’s self-indulgence and it’s confession, a desperate attempt at immortality and a blithe, grinning, mea culpa. It doesn’t have an ending. But it’s fantastic.
I think its failures are merely the detritus of swinging for the fences, and why wouldn’t he? If Newley lacks anything, it’s modesty, and he’s in no danger of losing confidence.
In 1969, he was married to the painfully beautiful Joan Collins, who plays his sexy but long-suffering wife Polyester Poontang in CHMEFMHAFTH. He had been a child star and actor long before becoming a pop star and composer. He’d won a Grammy for 1963’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?” written for Sammy Davis Jr, and been nominated for a Tony for Stop the World – I Want to Get Off on Broadway the same year. When CHMEFMHAFTH rolled around, everyone shouted “career suicide!” in the theater (better than fire, though), but I believe it was both the newness of the fragmented, genre-bending form and the slightly-off way this Brit interpreted autobiography and New Wave tricks (not to mention the original X rating) that had everyone in a lather.
CHMEFMHAFTH is Heironymus’ life story, played out in front of his two small children and aged mother, as well as a film crew and a trio of irritating film critics. It begins surreally enough, on a deserted beach, where a museum of Heironymus’ life and things are amassed. We go back and forth in time and in fantasy, see his childhood as a limp puppet and his wicked blossoming under Goodtime Eddie Filth, played by Milton Berle (who’s, as ever, the consummate professional but dern it if his heart’s not in this one). We watch, helplessly, as Heironymus plows through scores of chicks and the occasional “exotic fruit.”
There’s a shotgun wedding to Filigree Fondle (Judy Cornwell), their bloodless breakup, and then, the main event: his lifelong struggle to forget the child temptress Mercy Humppe (1969 Playmate of the Year, Connie Kreski), and be happy with Poontang. Absurdism and self-examination to the point of effacement, almost.
Where does the artifice end and reality begin? And does it matter? Because when a story’s going nowhere (and isn’t that the cruel punchline to all life stories), it’s really best to buckle up and enjoy the ride.
On this ride there are many swoops and nauseating swirls: the Jodorowsky picaresque dips into rape territory and out again, sails on great puns and the odd, upsetting jokes of The Presence (played by the Toastmaster himself, George Jessel), and then careens around wide-angle sequences like Terry Gilliam telling a Werner Herzog story, sex sequences in golden wheat fields like New Wave meets the Pirelli Calendar, and then flops, ultimately, around everyone’s ears. It’s a great damn time, if you can stand it.