The Time Anthony Newley Went Too Far

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Today is the birthday of the late Anthony Newley (1931-1999). I have no idea why I’m writing about him today apart from the fact that he had an interesting career, and helped perpetuate old school show biz well into the modern era. And the ultimate legitimizing factor — that I used to see him all the time on television variety shows when I was a kid.

While I’ve often been turned off (and frankly even disgusted) by the “Vegas” thing (which Newley emulated even though he was a Brit), Newley always evinced a little more brains and a little more class than the usual guys in frilly tuxedos with grease in their hair. When I was a kid, I remember liking him — he could be extemporaneously funny, and he made strange, twitchy faces when he sang.

Newley began as a child actor. An early film role was the part of the Artful Dodger in the 1948 version of Oliver Twist. A decade later he made himself over as a heart-throb for teeny boppers with his role in Idol on Parade, which also resulted in his first hit records. In 1961, he co-wrote the musical Stop the World – – I Want to Get Off with Leslie Bricusse, also starring and directing the production. “What Kind of Fool Am I?” was its hit song. In 1963 he married Joan Collins, his wife until 1970. He co-wrote the lyrics to the theme song for the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. In 1964 and 1965, his second hit musical with Bricusse The Roar of the Greasepaint – – The Smell of the Crowd, which yielded the hit songs “Who Can I Turn To?” and “Feeling Good.” Next he appeared in the 1967 film Dr. Doolittle, which featured a screenplay and songs by Bricusse. The following year he starred in the romance Sweet November with Sandy Dennis. And then of course, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for which Newley and Bricusse wrote the songs. Which means he co-wrote not only “Candy Man” but the “Oompa Loompa Song”

What could possibly stop this apparently unstoppable momentum? Perhaps THIS:

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In 1969 Newley wrote, directed, starred and wrote the music for the x-rated musical film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (And thanks, Francis Heaney, for being the first person to ever tell me about this jaw dropping project), which cast his then-wife Joan Collins as a character named “Polyester Poontang” (H’m…I wonder if that’s why they got divorced?), and Milton Berle as the devil, and Georgie Jessel as Death.

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Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film “…an act of professional suicide…as self-indulgent as a burp…” Look, it was a gamble. People were pushing the envelope farther and farther in those days, and some people just went TOO FAR.

Come on. You know you want it:

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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5 comments

  1. When I was a kid the neighbors got a few invitations to studio screenings. I went along to “Mr. Quilp” aka “The Old Curiosity Shop” in which Newley sings the line “I’m so crooked, I have to screw on my socks…”
    And the girl in the movie reminded me of Deanna Durbin.
    At school, we’d copy imperessionists who were copying Newley singing “What Kind of Fool Am I?”

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    • I look forward to seeing the whole movie from soup to nuts. A friend just sent me the link. I predict that I will like it a great deal

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  2. Good stuff. When I was a kid in the 70s, the spectacle of Newley singing “Who Can I Turn To?” on television, with all that mugging and vocal swooping, was the funniest thing I’d ever seen or heard.

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