THE MISADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES (1964)
It’s time for more vaguely science-related shenanigans! In The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, director Robert Stevenson returns to tell yet another story about an absent-minded scientist who has no time for love. This time the brainiac in question is a student, not a professor, and the inventions are mind reading and hypnosis instead of weird flying rubber. Is it any fun, though?
Merlin Jones (Tommy Kirk) is a teenage genius who, over the course of this movie, goes on two misadventures. The first begins when he gains the ability to read minds when his dumb hat malfunctions. This is less fun than it promises to be.
12 minutes in and the film has reached its high-water mark.
Merlin doofs around for a while, experiencing the misfortunes of uncontrollable mind reading. (How can you possibly concentrate when you can’t help overhearing the thoughts of beatniks?!) Eventually, he overhears one of the city’s most prominent citizens plotting a series of crimes. Enlisting the help of his girlfriend Jennifer (Annette Funicello), Merlin sets out to crack the case. Obviously, this entails dressing up like plumbers and breaking into the man’s house, not USING HIS GODDAMN MIND READING POWERS.
I mean, do plumbers even wear those kinds of hats?
This whole affair winds up with a twist that will be painfully evident to anyone who has seen the Twilight Zone episode “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s season 2, episode 16. It’s on Netflix, and it’s a much better time than watching the first half of The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. The resemblance between the two is so strong, in fact, that I’m highly suspicious that Merlin Jones is a blatant plagiarism of the episode (which had come out just three years prior).
Then, at the movie’s halfway point, the mind reading plot ends abruptly, Merlin loses his powers, and the movie starts over with a completely different premise. This time it’s hypnotism.
“You fall into a deep pleasant sleep…”
Oh, so I’m watching The Misadventures of Merlin Jones?
After taking a class on hypnotism, Merlin begins to wonder if he can’t just make the world a better place by controlling people’s minds. This sounds terrifying, but it turns out to just be stupid. Case in point, he starts by hypnotizing a cat into chasing a dog. That’s fun I guess?
Tommy Kirk should be more careful, that could be him in that tree.
Deciding to crank it up a notch, Merlin sets his sights on the college’s resident chimp. After putting the primate into a hypnotic trance, he tells it to stand up for its rights, and to “exert the power of its personality.” Obviously there’s no way for this to go horribly wrong.
“Just promise you won’t go all Rise of the Planet of the Apes on me.”
Predictably, the ape goes ape-shit and conks out its oaf of a handler (Norman Grabowski) and Merlin ends up in court. Instead of convicting him of manipulating an ape for evil like some crazed Fantastic 4 villain, the judge (Leon Ames) makes Merlin a bizarre proposition. The judge wants to know if he could be hypnotized into doing something evil. Merlin doesn’t think this is terribly odd, so he hypnotizes the judge into stealing the chimp and taking him home.
All the way home, apparently.
After that, things just fizzle out, and thankfully the movie is over.
With great power comes great potential to reshape the world as you see fit. Fuck. That’s terrifying. And it’s basically how Merlin Jones operates once he gains the power of hypnosis in the later half of the film. After experimenting on a cat, he almost immediately determines that, “If we could develop a race of super-chimps that could give man competition in the brain department, that would result in everybody’s being better off.”
Umm, could somebody get the Bat-Signal ready…
Thankfully, Merlin’s scheme almost immediately lands him in court, a perfect opportunity for our maverick scientist to get some sage, sober advice from a wise judge who has years of experience wielding power for societal good. But, instead of warning the lad that his plan to create a race of super-apes is fucked up and awful, the judge tries to harness Merlin’s hypnotic power for his own selfish purposes. You know a judge is a good role model when he asks you to hypnotize him into committing a crime, just to see if it will work.
“It’s how I get my jollies!”
So remember, kids, knowledge is power, and power gives you the right to reshape the world to match your own twisted vision! Go ye and impose your mighty will upon those less worthy! Assemble your super-chimps and grasp your destiny!
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
I’m not surprised that Merlin Jones hasn’t gone down in history as a classic. After all, it’s barely a movie. For all intents and purposes, it feels like two episodes of a TV show unceremoniously smooshed together. When the momentum of a film completely dies at the halfway point, and it has to start back at square one, it’s really hard to root for it. And to make matters worse, the first half’s mind reading plot is significantly more fun to watch than the monkey-hypnosis bullshit we’re treated to at the end. This makes the second half drag on in a truly unbearable manner. Really, the two best things the movie has going for it are Annette Funicello’s charm and Tommy Kirk’s funny hat.
Sadly, that just isn’t enough.
- Like Bon Voyage!, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones opens with a jaunty introduction set to a song by the Sherman Brothers. This time, however, the song was more irritating than entertaining, and the cutout animation is kind of creepy. Still, this intro may be the film’s high point.
No, I’m sorry, the movie doesn’t feature a terrifying top-hatted robot.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
Pretty much any story involving hypnosis runs into the problem of consent at some point, but Misadventures takes it to a whole new level. When his teacher hypnotizes him and tells him to “kiss the first pretty girl he sees,” it’s unclear whether Merlin has consented to this action. What is entirely clear is that the girl is completely not okay with it.
Because manipulating one teen into sexually assaulting another is always good for a laugh!
Boring, disjointed, and occasionally creepy, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones just isn’t quite up to snuff. The one thing I can say in its favor is that, while boring, the subject matter is still fairly bizarre. I’d rather watch some weird asshole sit around hypnotizing his cat than watch some cowboys dick around and do cowboy stuff. So hey, if you’re really into mind reading or hypnotism, or if you’re trying to watch the full filmography of Tommy Kirk, give The Misadventures a shot. Otherwise, you might just want to go and re-watch The Absent-Minded Professor.
The Monkey’s Uncle (1965)