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The Phynx

The Phynx(1970)

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teaser The Phynx (1970)

No doubt there are a number of film fans who are "completists" when it comes to some of their favorite actors or actresses, making it their mission to see every film in that star's filmography. Such an approach can be perilous--not just from being exposed to a rotten movie or two, but because certain titles are difficult or impossible to see. So, pity the hardcore fan of Ruby Keeler or Maureen O'Sullivan or Rudy Vallee or Pat O'Brien or Dorothy Lamour or any of the other Golden Age stars who appear in the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts film The Phynx (1970); not only is it the strangest film on any those participant's filmography--until recently it had also been a virtually "lost" movie for decades.

Recounting the set-up of The Phynx only hints at the delirium reached in its 81-minute running time. In a pre-credits sequence, a spy we later learn is named Corrigan (Lou Antonio) is foiled in every outlandish attempt to break into the Iron Curtain country of Albania. The first words heard are Corrigan's voiceover calling his foes "dirty, lousy Commie" and "slimy, sleazy savage." The animated opening titles continue the theme as cartoon Corrigan makes further attempts by sewer, skateboard, and circus cannon. Back in live-action, Corrigan ducks into an International House of Pancakes restroom, which doubles as the office of his boss at Super Secret Agents of America, Bogey (Mike Kellin doing a not-very-good Humphrey Bogart impression). Bogey berates Corrigan's efforts and brings in the agency's top man, a suit wearing a cardboard box with a face drawn on it (voice of Rich Little, who is doing something between his Richard Nixon impression and his Jimmy Stewart impression). They meet in a large hall with all of their field spies, who are grouped according to their disguises (Madison Avenue executives, Black Panthers, Cub Scouts, Ku Klux Klansmen, Chinese laundry workers, hookers, etc.) to detail their mission and solicit suggestions. Via slides and newsreel footage, it is explained that "important world figures" have disappeared into Albania and the SSA are tasked to get them out past the watchful eye of the Albanian Army's Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara). Wee Johnny Wilson (Ted Eccles) of the Underage Underground suggests that the humanoid SSA super-computer M.O.T.H.A. (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans) be consulted, and the solution is to (what else?) form a pop musical group and get invited to Albania. Johnny sees the sense in this, saying "national boundries cannot separate teeny freaks--do the Beatles need passports?"

The plot of The Phynx is weighed down with needless detail and nonsensical asides throughout, which can probably be chalked up to the fact that screenwriter Stan Cornyn had no previous (or subsequent) film experience--he was an executive with the Creative Services department of Warner Bros. Records. Following the surprise smash success of the Columbia Pictures release of Easy Rider in 1969, most of the big studios tried to tap into the "youth culture" market, so it must have made sense for Warner Bros. to look to their Records division for input and inspiration. In fact, the most coherent and genuinely amusing sequences in The Phynx deal with the creation and promotion of the rock band. M.O.T.H.A. comes up with the band name (a nod to the early-60s youth-oriented "custom culture" icon Rat Fink, created by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth), and chooses the four diverse young men (Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden, Lonnie Stevens) who are shanghaied from their separate lives and thrown together in a secluded SSA training area. Here, in the first major round of offbeat celebrity cameos for which The Phynx is known, the four are drilled in combat techniques by Clint Walker, trained in "hipness" by Richard Pryor, given music lessons by Trini Lopez, and line up for a final once-over in youth appeal by Dick Clark! To produce the debut album, a hot-shot producer named "Philbaby" (played cheekily by Larry Hankin and clearly based on Phil Spector) is flown in by helicopter (as in suspended by cable from the bottom of a helicopter in one of the film's more memorable sight gags). The Phynx album becomes a hit, partially thanks to an aggressive round of nefarious promotion which includes holding a gun on Ed Sullivan while he introduces the band on his variety show!

By the midpoint of The Phynx, the film has fallen into tiresome and familiar spy movie spoof territory, and the finale is an underwhelming set-piece featuring a veritable orgy of gratuitous celebrity cameos. These cameos are the picture's main claim to fame and are by turns inconsistent (Joan Blondell appears, but she is playing a character in the film instead of playing herself as her fellow former Warner Bros. contract player Ruby Keeler does), touching (Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan share some final scenes together), puzzling (why is Colonel Sanders here?), and downright surreal (Butterfly McQueen came out of retirement to trade quips with Rudy Vallee while hiding in a turnip cart). While Otto Preminger's equally bizarre Skidoo (1968) gave his eclectic cast some interesting roles and a lot of quirky action, The Phynx is content to have its cast of cameos walk in single file and sit virtually motionless in chairs. (Some of the other familiar faces on view include Patty Andrews, Busby Berkeley, Xavier Cugat, Fritz Feld, Joe Louis, Marilyn Maxwell, Leo Gorcey, Louis Hayward, Patsy Kelly, Guy Lombardo, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Andy Devine, Huntz Hall and George Jessel).

All of the songs for The Phynx were written by the powerhouse team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Lieber & Stoller's rock credentials were unimpeachable and they knew their way around a movie soundtrack, having written the amazing song score for the Elvis Presley showcase Jailhouse Rock (1957). Their songs for The Phynx are good but remarkably unmemorable and seem to cut across every imaginable outdated pop music genre instead of concentrating on 1970-era rock.

The animated titles for The Phynx were created by the last vestige of the famous Looney Tunes Warner Bros. Cartoon Department, by animator Bill Hendricks' unit that had most recently made the Cool Cat theatrical cartoons of the late 1960s.

By some accounts The Phynx went unreleased or was immediately shelved by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, but it seems to have had at least one well-publicized premiere screening. Contemporary newspaper ads exist that show that the studio at least generated ad art (a cartoon Uncle Sam figure against a brick wall, shielding his face with a poster or album cover of The Phynx), and a tagline ("Of all the American heroes who served their country in its hour of need--only one had a great rock sound..."). A "World Premiere" screening was held in Indianapolis, and the theatre even publicized a local radio-sponsored "Rock & Roll 'Phynx' Contest" with a live performance of the winning band. Evidence of screenings beyond this premiere does not seem to exist and movie posters and other advertising material was not printed in any quantities, so the film was effectively shelved following the premiere. It had a few television showings in the early 1970s but disappeared from view for years, and in the home video era was only available in the form of illegal bootleg tapes--a cult item sought out by fans of "bad cinema." The Phynx was not officially released until Warner Home Archive offered it as a print-on-demand DVD in 2012.

The year following The Phynx, Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley enjoyed a much more successful collaboration, a highly-praised Broadway revival of No No Nanette.

Producer: Bob Booker, George Foster
Director: Lee H. Katzin
Screenplay: Stan Cornyn
Cinematography: Michel Hugo
Art Direction: Stan Jolley
Songs: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Music: Jimmie Haskell
Film Editing: Dan Cahn
Cast: Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden, Lonnie Stevens (The Phynx), Lou Antonio (Corrigan), Mike Kellin (Bogey), Michael Ansara (Col. Rostinov), George Tobias (Markevitch), Joan Blondell (Ruby), Martha Raye (Foxy), Larry Hankin (Philbaby), Ultra Violet (Felice), Rich Little (Voice in the Box), Patty Andrews, Busby Berkeley, Xavier Cugat, Fritz Feld, Ruby Keeler, Joe Louis, Marilyn Maxwell, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ed Sullivan, Rona Barrett, James Brown, Leo Gorcey, Louis Hayward, Patsy Kelly, Guy Lombardo, Butterfly McQueen, Richard Pryor, Colonel (Harland) Sanders, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Weissmuller, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Dick Clark, Andy Devine, Huntz Hall, George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Trini Lopez, Pat O'Brien (Themselves)

by John M. Miller

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