Uh-oh.

Submitted for your approval: a berk named Merk in bed with his bird. The fuzzy photo cannot really sum up what's going on here. The still I would have preferred is this film's money-shot: a red-cloaked Milton Berle conducting a Satanic mass in convincing Latin. Somehow this is not available on the Internet. Here, instead: a relatively chaste shot of quintuple threat Anthony Newley (actor/director/co-writer/singer/composer) grappling his real-life wife (the beeyoutiful and talented Joan Collins).

The still is a relic of what I've sometimes thought was the worst film ever made by a human being in world history.

Yet such a too-simple view must be swept away on further study. I revisited this a couple of nights ago in a half-full theater of oddball film aficionados. We were prepped for cinematic brain-roasting by the first half of the double-bill, Dennis Hopper's 1971 The Last Movie. The night could have been titled "Auteurs in Agony: Making Movies About How Much I Loathe Show-Business." (This isn't the time or the place, but The Last Movie is hardly as bad as you've heard. The Creature from the Black Lagoon's gal-pal Julie Adams gives the performance of her career, the Andean photography by Lazlo Kovacs is terrific ...all this, despite the last third, which deserved the subtitle 'this film will not end until the audience rises up and rips the screen to shreds'. ) By comparison, Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Hummpe and Find True Happiness? is more compact, more commercial, and far less cryptic. It was called incoherent in its day, but this isn't fair. Here, a demented former child actor spills his guts and bares his butt. Yet he is so very anxious that we won't approve of him ... even as he confesses to chasing an underage girl, and impresarios a "Bride of the Burro" themed musical number.

1969 was an interesting year for the movie industry. The US was in flames from political riot and a bitterly fought election. The world-wide artistic ferment led to Godard's Weekend and Bergman's Shame, and Cassavetes' Faces. Meanwhile they still did things the old way in Hollywood, bringing out lumbering musicals, static westerns, and hippie-flavored kooky romantic comedies. Such a contrast between old Hollywood and the simmering intelligence of films from overseas caused anxieties all around.

One anxious party was Mr. Anthony Newley. A little-remembered figure today, England's Newley was a case-hardened vaudevillian who had been making movies ever since 1948, when he played the Artful Dodger in David Lean's Oliver Twist. He was most busy in the 1960s. With his partner Leslie Bricusse, he had starred and created a theatrical revue called Stop the World, I Want to Get Off , which ran for 555 performances on Broadway. As a white-faced clown called Littlechap, Newley dealt on-stage with the temptations of other women, despite being married to his boss's daughter. Your parents and grandparents were liquefied by this musical's killer last number "What Kind of Fool Am I?," later covered by Dr. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. alike. In it, Littlechap cops a plea: "What kind of man is this? An empty shell, a lonely cell/In which an empty heart must dwell? What kind of lips are these that lied with every kiss?" He was guilty! Thus getting both the fun of the sex and the pleasure of the public confessional afterward, Newley found a successful formula.

While quickly mentioning that this duo wrote the theme song for Goldfinger, let's bypass Newley/Bricusse's subsequent musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, and turn to the performer's on-screen career. Newley wrote songs and side-kicked for the rather hideous musical version of Doctor Doolittle. During the endless shoot Newley artfully dodged a furious Rex Harrison, who routinely Jew-baited him on the set and referred to him as "sewer rat." To return to the subject of '69 and its discontents, the big-budged talking-chimp flopola is used by historian Mark Harris in his book Pictures at a Revolution to exemplify the difference between the stale old Hollywood and the bold 1970s work to come.

Let us turn to another Newley project, Sweet November, remade in 2001 as a Keanu Reeves/Charlize Thereon effort. In the original, Newley is the man who falls for a free-spirited girl (Sandy Dennis) with Hollywood Movie Disease. She has determined that she will go through a new man every month until her final date with the Reaper. These Last Thoughts must have troubled Newley. Approaching age 40, and certain he would have only 25 more years left to live (it was 30, actually), Newley teamed up with Sweet November's screenwriter Herman Raucher. He hired himself a beach, a brass bed, a horse-drawn show wagon, and went to town.

Bringing out his real life children Alexander and Tara, and the famous Mrs. Newley, our auteur takes the role of "Hieronymus Merkin." Sometimes he's dressed in harlequin leotard and clown-white makeup. Sometimes he's dressed in vintage cool-wear: cashmere scarf and suede-denim jacket. Either way, Newley/Hieronymus revisits the story of his life and brilliant career in cabaret form. He's tempted by a devil figure called Goodtime Eddie Filth (Berle) and tantalized by a mysterious toupeed figure called The Presence (bizarre old funnyman George Jessel) who I guess is supposed to be God.

On the one hand, Hieronymus is led through compulsive philandering by the diabolical Filth, who showers him with bikini-clad women. On the other hand, the performer deals with a team of censorious newspaper critics and nervous film producers, who tell him his ideas are disgusting and cliched. To show us the of autopilot-life of a man with compulsions, Newley enlists an alter-alter ego: a living blank-faced mannequin with a key in his back, seen sexing up the endless line-up of women Filth pimps for him. The film was rated X in the day, though it would only merit a hard R today, mostly for long shots of Newley's bared bottom. If you consider Will Ferrell's underwear scenes the funniest thing in the movies today, this one's certainly for you. Newley has true squidge.

Turns out the core of Merkin's compulsions is a very young girl, gallantly referred to as "Mercy Hummpe" (1969 Playboy playmate of the year Connie Kreski). She's depicted seen in gauzy little-girl clothes, riding a merry-go-round hand-cranked by Satan himself. ("Sweet Love Child" is the ballad Hieronymus croons to her.) The emotional strip-tease continues with mention of Newley's dead spinal-bifida baby (true story, according to this bio of Newley). Drugs are part of the equation, indicated with the old Three Stooges gag of smoke coming out of Hieronymus' ears.

Meanwhile, the song and dance man's non-stop trysts aren't stopped by a marriage of necessity to Collins' pregnant character. She is called, I'm sorry to say, Polyester Poontang. Supposedly this marriage was doomed by the stars above. We see why in a horoscope-themed dance routine, which the chorus girls and boys are costumed as zodiac signs; this sequence recalls the famous line in This is Spinal Tap about costumes that look like "Some Australian's nightmare". Collins' number "Chalk and Cheese" describes the unlikely marriage between them.

Cycling between Mercy and Polyester, Hieronymus wears himself out. He finds himself lured to the dark side at Berle's Black Mass. But at dawn, our hero stands, kaftan-clad, on a seaside cliff, maintaining the indomitable spirit of man in a Godless universe...and singing his head off. As a comedy relief entr'acte he later tells the adult fairy tale of a Princess Trampolina who fell in love with a donkey. Anticlimactic, but thank god not explicit. It's always hard to top a Satanic mass.

It's been said that there are as many show-business careers destroyed by therapy as there have been by drink and drugs. Maybe this is evidence. Newley's Hieronymus Merkin... has links to the self-loathing music-hall performer Laurence Olivier played in The Entertainer. Visually, the film is on another wavelength. Working in a field cleared by Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, Newley exemplifies a particular surrealism-goes-to-Soho strain of cinema, that attracted everyone from Ken Russell to Julie Taymore to Baz Luhrmann. From life-sized puppets to water ballet, Can Hieronymus Merkin.... sure looks like Across the Universe almost 40 years before it was born.

Still, this only-in-1969 epic of self-castigation is uniquely drastic. Imagine a world in which, say, Michael Jackson could be permitted to really tell us the whole story of his life in musical form. Ain't gonna happen--too many handlers, too many lawyers. The phrase "self-indulgent" ought to be retired along with the phrase "over the top", since art always needs its space to be large and confessional. And Newley paid the full price for this film: first in divorce with Collins (no surprise there) and then by 6 years in movie jail...followed by yet more nude scenes in a 1975 film wistfully titled It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. (The long-memoried will also recall Newley's vinyl-masked dwarf-ridden swan-song The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.) After making Can Hieronymous Merkin.... a musical expressing every detail of his many affairs and their effect on his wife and family, in a film starring his wife, his family, and his own naked self, Anthony Newley left us with a sad parting comment:

"My only regret is that in a show-business career you can have no private life."
CATEGORIES Features, Cinematical