Friday, April 21, 2006
The Phynx-Worst Movie of All Time?
As the phoenix is a legendary bird, THE PHYNX is a legendary movie. The main reason is that hardly anyone had seen it until recent years when it’s turned up on the "collector’s market." THE PHYNX is one of those train wreck kind of movies that can aaaaalmost be enjoyable if you go into it expecting the worst…because you certainly do get it. If more than a relative handful of people had ever seen this picture (it was barely if ever released in 1970) it would undoubtedly do quite well in worst film lists. I’ve never considered movies like PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE or ROBOT MONSTER to be all that bad. After all, if you look at the low budget limitations in which the filmmakers found themselves, it’s pretty impressive that they came up with anything at all! No, THE PHYNX was not a low budget ten day wonder drive-in quickie. This was intended as a major release from a major studio with coverage in the teen mags to hype it to its intended audience. That’s why I consider it much more of a worst film candidate than anything Ed Wood ever touched.
Apparently intended by Warner Brothers to introduce the world to it’s Monkees-style made-up band, the Phynx (pronounced "finks"), the project reportedly fell victim to the merger/takeover with the Kinney Corporation that led to Steve Ross’s legendary reign at Warner Brothers (as well as DC Comics becoming part of that growing mega-conglomerate). The old regime’s pictures were either scrapped, tossed away in limited releases or sold straight to television while the new regime started more or less from scratch.
The Film itself? Oh, yeah. It’s essentially a several years out of date spy spoof in which a rock group made up of US agents goes to Albania to rescuer kidnapped American celebrities. Doesn’t sound too bad? Okay, let’s go into more detail. You’ll see.
First off, in a series of unamusing pre-credits sequences, we see crack US government secret agent Lou Antonio ( a fair actor and a prolific director. He of all the people involved should have known better) trying to sneak into Albania and being beaten at every turn by an evil General played by the ever-handsome Michael Ansara. This continues through animated, PINK PANTHER style credits. Finally, Lou visits his boss, the annoying (but Tony-nominated) actor Mike Kellin, who here spends the entire picture doing a really bad Bogart impression. Bogey, as he is even called, addresses a meeting of the government’s most secret undercover operative divisions that include Cuban revolutionaries, priests, hookers, black panthers, klansmen, advertising execs and boy scouts, all with signs like at a political convention. Number One, the leader of the group, a man so secret he wears a box over his head with a face drawn on it while talking like Jimmy Stewart (voiced by Rich Little who had a habit of appearing in barely seen films) appears and the plot, such as it is, is explained.
It seems that America’s most beloved entertainers are being kidnapped and taken to Albania for reasons unknown. In 1970 that would be Robert Redford, Paul Newman, The Beach Boys, Mary Tyler Moore and the like. In the world of THE PHYNX, however, America’s most beloved entertainers included George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame!), Butterfly McQueen (from GONE WITH THE WIND), Xavier Cugat (What? No Charo?), Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Patty Andrews (of the Andrews Sisters), Johnny Weismuller, Maureen O’Sullivan (Note-both Tarzan AND Jane), singer Marilyn Maxwell, Busby Berkley and his Golddiggers, Ruby Keeler (Al Jolson’s widow!), Rudy Valee, Louis Hayward, Andy Devine, Cass Daley, boxing great Joe Louis, Pat O’Brien, the Bowery Boys (Leo Gorcey who refused the chance to appear on the SGT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album cover but accepted this(!) and Huntz Hall) and finally, the Lone Ranger (John Hart who replaced Clayton Moore for one season and would later reprise the role on a HAPPY DAYS episode) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels). All very nostalgic and fun to see for us film buffs but probably completely unknown to this movie’s intended audience! What were they thinking?
The most disturbing image in the picture is the all-powerful computer, M.O.T.H.A Named in the time-honored but, again, out of date U.N.C.L.E. fashion, its name stands for Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans. It looks like a shapely woman with its old-fashioned computer reels encased in Madonna-style cones and topping it like breasts. After you ask it a question, the card with the answer comes directly out of "her" crotch. Ugh!
M.O.T.H.A. tells the agents that the way to rescue the B-list celebs is to form a rock group of specially trained agents and make them so popular that they get invited to Albania. The computer chooses four oblivious college boys who are in short order taken against their will by Antonio and ensconced at a secret military base for training in combat and guitar chords. The young men who will become the Phynx are all pleasant enough although their line delivery is pretty bad. Nerdy A. Michael Miller, Native American Ray Chippaway, stud Dennis Larden and "Negro" ("No! Afro-American?" says Lou Antonio) Lonny Stevens (the only one with credits either before or after this fiasco!). The actors, like the Monkees before them, use their real names in a move apparently designed towards making them as real a rock group as the Monkees became. At the camp, they are trained by more cameo performers including cowboy star Clint "I was drafted…again!" Walker, Richard Pryor (looking at it now the biggest star in the picture, he appears for under thirty seconds), Trini Lopez (a genuinely funny scene in which he attempts to teach them guitar by having them play "the Farmer in the Dell") and for hand to hand combat, Harold "Oddjob" Sakata. When their training is done, Dick Clark himself pronounces them ready for the teens of America.
Legendary record producer PhilBaby is brought in to make their first record. Apparently legendary record producer Phil Spector refused to have anything to do with this mess so his obvious doppelganger is portrayed by Larry Hankin, a Second City vet who survived this and is still acting on TV today! This is probably the best satirical bit in the movie as we see the boys recording an okay piece of unmemorable bubblegum fluff entitled "What's Your Sign?" as PhilBaby demands angel voices and pipes in Guy Lombardo for backup!
After the sessions, the spies force Ed Sullivan into putting the group on his show and create a number of stupid, unfunny events that make them the most popular group of all time in a matter of minutes just so they can move the story along. Richard Nixon, the one celeb who probably didn’t even know he had a cameo in THE PHYNX is even seen signing "Phynxgiving" into law as a new holiday!
From this point on, we hear a number of songs, more than likely recorded by session musicians. They were written by the classic song-writing team of Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber who were apparently saving their best material for something else as this ain’t it. As I said before, it’s mostly harmless pop but there isn’t a catchy riff in the bunch! That doesn’t stop James Brown from doing his cameo presenting Bogey with a gold record for the group, however.
There are supposedly wistful scenes in which one of the guys tries to "go home again" and a ridiculous scene that begins with "Ladies and gentlemen! The US government is pleased to announce…an orgy!" which leads to fully clothed extras writhing around with the Phynx in quick camera cuts for several minutes and Lou Antonio (who’s been wearing a stupid-looking afro wig since the early scenes) ending up with relatively ancient lesbian actress Patsy Kelly. After the "orgy," Lou carts the still clothed girls out with a forklift. Ha…Ha.
Ultimately, the Phynx are invited, as per the original plan, to Albania for that country’s national Flower Day Celebration. First, though, Martha Raye appears at the door and is accidentally shot by Bogey but not before telling the gang about the three map pieces tattooed on her three daughters' stomachs in three different countries. This leads to yet another long (or did it just seem that way) episodic aside in which the popular rock group plays with real X-Ray glasses and then has off-screen sex with hundreds of women in each country in an ultimately successful effort to find the map. What’s the map to? I don’t have a clue. Does it matter? I mean seriously. Are you not paying attention? None of this matters!
Finally we get the Phynx to Albania where we find that the ruler, Warner Brothers vet (and BEWITCHED’s Abner Kravitz) George Tobias has been kidnapping the American stars in order to keep his American wife, the ever-gorgeous (if a tad overweight) Joan Blondell, happy. He says that he’d be surprised if theya ctually wanted to leave as they were being treated so well. (As Joe Louis puts it later, "No income tax.") One by one they’re introduced as they enter for the rock group’s concert and even though it stops the picture cold (not that it ever really got started, mind you) this scene is THE highlight of THE PHYNX. After the group sings a dreadful ballad, the whole bunch of ‘em get homesick and start brainstorming about ways to get out of the country. Leo Gorcey, who hadn’t made a picture in fifteen years due to alcohol issues, starts to say something and Pat O’Brien, his priestly co-star in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, shushes him. Leo responds with an amusing, "Sorry, fodder." Fellow original Dead End Kid Huntz Hall, however, suggests that the Americans all be smuggled out hidden in radish carts which leads to a sloooow, pointless ending. Along that final path, though, we see Maureen O’Sullivan (whose daughter Mia Farrow was a huge movie star at that time) begging long-time co-star Johnny Weismuller for "one last time" in case they don’t get out alive. The legendary jungle king of the movies obliges by saying, "Me Tarzan" to which Maureen responds, "Me Jane."
Even better, though is when the Lone Ranger (and keep in mind, he is, unlike the other celebs, consistently described as actually BEING the Lone Ranger, NOT the actor who played him) outlines his plan for saving the whole bunch of ‘em to his faithful Indian companion, Tonto (ditto. NOT Jay Silverheels but Tonto. Uhhhh-huh.) We’ll save them all, he says and Tonto replies, "Masked man brave." We’ll escape and fight the bad guys, ha says to which Tonto replies, "Masked man fearless." We’ll tackle the tanks with our bare hands to which the ever-deadpan Tonto replies, "Masked man loco."
Towards the end, the Phynx surprised me by doing a familiar song, "The Boys in the Band." While not a hit, this did get some radio play at the time but I cannot recall (or find out on the Net) who recorded it. I sincerely doubt that it was the Phynx version. I tend to believe it was the theme from the movie THE BOYS IN THE BAND, made that same year, and am not at all sure what it’s also doing here.
For many years, THE PHYNX topped my list of movies I’ve always wanted to see along with equally star-studded messes SKIDOO, WON TON TON-THE DOG THAT SAVED HOLLYWOOD (which weirdly reunited about a dozen of THE PHYNX’s geriatric legends) and LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT. I’ve seen them all now. The latter, featuring the C-list likes of Mickey Dolenz and Vaughn Meader was a cheap exploitation movie and actually works on its own terms. WON TON TON was a definite misfire but not as bad as other mainstream films released around the same time and, hey, I actually like most of SKIDOO!
Bottom line-Bland leads, unappealing songs, meandering script, confusing direction (by TV vet Lee Katzin), celebrities so old your grandmother might not have known them even at the time and gags that make SUPER TROOPERS look funny! THE PHYNX is a genuine treat for any bad cinema buff.
Sorry about the lack of pictures in this post but I couldn’t even find any on-line except this one publicity shot of the former Tarzan and Jane from THE PHYNX.