Saturday, March 4, 2017

THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT (1932)

Depending on your view of the current White House resident, your first response to the title The Phantom President might be "If only!" You may even assume it's a horror movie. 

The Phantom President, instead, is a rather sophisticated musical that, 85 years after its original release, offers 21st-century viewers proof that corrupt, contemptuous politics is nothing new. A group of bureaucratic hacks, lead by Prof. Aikenhead, believes that the super-rich Theodore K. Blair would make a splendid president, despite him being a businessman with zero political experience and possessing the charm of lumpy mattress. Impossible!

On the verge of giving up, Aikenhead and his colleagues stumble upon Doc Varney, a charming, smooth-talking snake-oil salesman who is Blair's exact double. Varney is immediately enlisted into taking Blair's place on the campaign trail, with the understanding that he will disappear once Blair is elected. But fate -- and the scriptwriters -- have other plans in store for all involved.


Blair and his doppelganger -- or vice-versa.
The big attraction of The Phantom President in 1932 was its star, the legendary George M. Cohan. At age 54, Cohan was perhaps a decade past his prime as an entertainer -- yet anyone familiar with his biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, will immediately recognize where James Cagney got his dance moves. 


He's not a bad actor, either, playing Blair and Varney with two distinct personalities, right down to the way they talk and move. It's rather confounding that Broadway's most famous song-and-dance man made three silent movies but just two talkies -- only one of which was a musical. (Remember, this is an industry that put Enrico Caruso in five silent movies.)


Especially after she finds out he's a conman. 
A strikingly cynical vibe runs throughout The Phantom President. When Blair doubts the validity of running an entertainer in place of the real thing, Aikenhead assures him, "Voters want a musical-comedy campaign." A shot of a horse's ass dissolves to a close-up of a platitudinous senator speaking at the convention. Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), the woman Blair is in love with, prefers the fast-talking Varney, even after she finds out he's a conman.

Despite George M. Cohan having written some of the most popular stage musicals of his time, there's no way he could have come up with anything as sophisticated as The Phantom President's score, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart during their brief spell in Hollywood before returning to the more worldly Broadway.


"And I'll build a wall around Manhattan!"
While Cohan was best known for flagwavers, Rodgers & Hart's centerpiece number here, "Blair for President," performed at the presidential convention, is a hilarious expose of American politics' art of being everything to everybody. Varney's sidekick Curly (Jimmy Durante) addresses New Englanders in a Down East accent, gives polygamy a thumbs-up to Utah's Mormons, and informs Harlem's delegates that Lennox Avenue will be the new U.S. capital under a Blair administration. (Six decades later, then-Governor Bill Clinton's promised to keep a glatt kosher White House if elected president in 1992Nothing changes.)


You want modern? There's even a Times Square
Jumbotron 60 years before it really happened.
Rodgers & Hart's takedown of patriotism doesn't end there. Blair's number, "Someone Ought to Wave the Flag," is really about getting suckers to fork over money for his phony patent medicine. (Analogy alert!) Even the one "straight" romantic song, the treacly "Give Her a Kiss," is obviously a parody of love songs, to the point of birds and frogs singing the lyrics. (Typical of Paramount Pictures' comedies of the time, there are more surreal touches in The Phantom President than 500 M-G-M movies combined.)

And as for the climax... well, if America and its politics were anything like it's portrayed here, it's astonishing that anyone was elected president in 1932. 

All things considered then, The Phantom President would make a fine half of a double-bill with another 1932 release, the acerbic Washington Merry-Go-RoundBut they'd probably be too sharp for today's audiences. For them, Alec Baldwin wearing a blonde wig is the height of cutting satire.

                                                 *******************************


                                                     

Thursday, February 16, 2017

NIGHTLIFE OF THE GODS (1935)


Nutty professor Hunter Hawk, living in the comfy confines of New York's suburbs, has been driving his relatives even nuttier with his experiments, which inevitably end with earth-shaking explosions. He finally proves his genius by inventing tiny devices that turn people into statues, and vice-versa. This is not what Bob Dylan meant when he sang, "Everybody must get stoned."

After using the device on his relatives -- and, really, wouldn't you like that power? -- Hawk goes for a walk in the woods, where he meets a human-sized immigrant leprechaun and his equally-humanish, beautiful, 900 year-old daughter, Meg, who looks all of 20. (Don't tell President Trump -- he might want to build a wall around Ireland.)

Next time some drunk wants to talk politics
with you, try doing this.
Meg and Hunter hit the town, where they cause a commotion in a nightclub, turning drunks, dancers and cops to stone. Naturally, Meg falls in love him, proving once again that women always go for the troublemakers. 

Believing that the invention can be put to better use, Hunter and Meg stay behind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing time, when they bring the statues of eight Roman gods and goddesses to life, buy them new clothes, and check them into a fancy Times Square hotel. How pathetic is it that statues have it better than I do?

Hunter and Meg (front row, right) party down
with the gods and goddesses.
Now, this might seem a dandy way to spend an evening in New York, until you learn that Bacchus really is a sloppy drunk, and Neptune has a serious fish fetish. Finally admitting that statues should be on pedestals and not pub stools, Hunter brings the gods back to the museum and turns them back to their original forms. As the police close in, Hunter realizes that he's fallen in love with Meg. Not wanting to be separated, they embrace as Hunter turns them both to stone.

By the way, none of this is based on a true story.

When it comes to movies I want to see, Nightlife of the Gods checked all the boxes -- interesting title, potentially fascinating story, pre-code, long-missing. 

By the looks of the P.R. book, they
made more posters than they did
prints of the movie.
Especially long-missing. Nightlife of the Gods disappeared after its original 1935 release. I couldn't even find any images of original, stand-alone posters or lobby cards on the internet -- just a couple of print ads and a page from a Universal Pictures' P.R. book. It was almost like the damn thing never existed... until one surviving print miraculously turned up in the mid-80s. It was polished up by the restoration boys at UCLA, before going into hiding once again, unseen by anyone outside the lab. 

By now, Nightlife of the Gods had entered the mythical plane shared by its titular characters -- no video or DVD, not even an airing on TCM. I hadn't thought about it in a while until I recently went on YouTube -- the unofficial repository of all entertainment previously lost -- and, on a whim, typed in the name, as I had done about 50 times over the years.

And there it was: Nightlife of the Gods, 73 minutes long, posted only a month earlier. 

I nearly choked on my homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. Could it be? Was this for real? Or just a cruel joke by the movie gods? A quick check proved it to be the real thing, alright -- a second or third generation dupe of what appeared to be UCLA's copy, but good enough.

At last, one of the legendary fantasies of pre-code cinema, available for free -- no need to fly 3000 miles and convince the folks at UCLA that I was a dying film scholar, whose final request was to watch the one surviving print of Nightlife of the Gods --and oh, by the way, could you burn me a copy while you're at it? And make it a Blu-ray, if you don't mind.
Mercury, Apollo, and Hebe take a
Roman bath at the Waldorf.

So caught up was I in my discovery that I neglected to take into account one very important thing: almost every "legendary" missing feature that finally turns up inevitably disappoints us salivating movie fans. Nightlife of the Gods, alas, was no different. 

It wasn't for lack of trying. Quite the opposite. Everyone involved in its production tried a little too hard to capture the eccentricity of the original novel, written by Thorne Smith four years earlier. It makes Mary Poppins look like Seven Days in May.

Nah, I think I'll just go to the movie
next door.

Universal Pictures seemed to have been worried by the final productseeing that the movie was slapped with a cutesy pre-credit foreword doubling as a warning and an apology. Its use of "whimsical" was worrisome, as it usually means "too cute by seven-eighths." 

While Hunter's family's dry reaction to his explosive experiments is initially amusing, their arch dialogue ("One doesn't do things about explosions -- they do things for themselves") probably read better on paper rather spoken aloud. In fact, nobody speaks what could be considered even faintly realistic dialogue -- even for a movie about turning people into statues.

The studio also made two big mistake in eliminating the novel's sexuality, and making Hunter Hawk's adventures simply a dream when he was knocked unconscious. As with many movies with this kind of cheap cop-out, it negates any reason for its existence, unless it provides a suitably ironic finale. (For an excellent example, track down the 1945 British thriller Dead of Night.)

This is sexier than anything in the movie.
But, as we were told, Nightlife of the Gods is whimsical. Really whimsical. Like what other whimsical thing can we do kind of whimsical. Meg suddenly stepping out of Hunter's suitcase after he moves to his New York apartment; a cop coming back to life after being turned to stone because he has gallstones (WTF?); Neptune getting into a fish-slapping fight with a fishmonger. Rarely has a movie been so exhaustingly whimsical.

Some people can handle that kind of whimsy. Others... well, I don't think it's a coincidence that both Thorne Smith and Lowell Sherman, the director of Nightlife of the Gods, died within months of each other before the movie's release. Unfortunately, there was no invention to bring them back to life.


                                                *****************************

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

IT'S IN THE BAG! (1945)

If anyone can be considered both legendary and forgotten, it's Fred Allen. For over 15 years one of the most popular of all radio comedians, he's remembered now only by show business archaeologists. 

Allen's sole leading movie role, as Fred Floogle in It’s in the Bag!, made at the height of his radio success, was his last shot at Hollywood stardom

Unfortunately, he would have to be content with staying on radio for another four years. For while there are strange comedies, and there are strange comedies, It's in the Bag! is a STRANGE comedy that probably baffled as many of his radio fans as it entertained. It was probably ahead of its time in 1945; perhaps it still is.

Floogle and Parker look forward to being in-laws.
The story, freely adapted from the 1928 Russian novel The Twelve Chairs, certainly sounds like a wacky comedy. Fred Floogle happily gives up his flea circus when left his uncle’s $12-million estate, allowing his daughter to marry Perry Parker, the son of an allegedly rich insecticide magnate who's actually just as broke as Floogle. 

Unfortunately, most of Floogle's inheritance has been ripped-off by the uncle’s lawyers; all he has coming to him is a pool table and five chairs. It’s only after selling the chairs to an antiques dealer that he learns one of them has $300,000 hidden inside its seat. Floogle has to track the chairs down to their new owners to get the money. 

Crooked lawyer John Carradine has
arranged for Fred to get hit by a car; just one
of the movie's many "comedy" highlights.
It’s in the Bag! starts off promisingly, with Fred Allen (as himself) addressing the audience in his flat, nasal New England twang, as he makes sardonic comments about the cast and crew throughout the credits. 

One of the credits is unexpected: Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, the writer of SuspicionShadow of a Doubt and The Paradine Case. This possibly explains the plethora of murders, both attempted and successful, including that of Floogle's precocious adolescent son, Homer. 

Allen must have realized the final cut was not only a little gruesome but often quite sluggish -- the kind of back & forth dialogue that worked so well on radio grinds many scenes to a halt. Plus, much of it isn't particularly funny to begin with. 

This is where things get strange. Instead of doing re-shoots as is typical, Allen (as himself) added narration throughout the movie while the onscreen actors, including himself, continue to speak their dialogue. This must explain comedy writer Morrie Ryskind’s credit for his “special contribution.” Thanks, Morrie.

"You mean I have to speak even more narration?!"
Initially amusing, then confusing, the narration devolves into irritating, like having to listen to some big mouth in the row behind you trying to impress his date with his alleged witticisms. More than once you feel like shouting, Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie! Even if the original dialogue isn't funny! 

And stranger still, there are prints in circulation missing the narration entirely; perhaps it was added after an underwhelmingly-received premiere. If so, it meant early audiences missed Fred's endless, endless jokes about in-laws, relatives and studio executives. Well, maybe "missed" isn't the right word.

Fred is confused by Jack's rouge and lipstick.
The producers must have been nervous about Allen's potential box-office, since he’s surrounded by a bunch of radio guest stars. In what was clearly a favor to his real-life friend, Jack Benny plays his stereotypical cheap self, only with material that would have worked far better on TV in the '50s; director Richard Wallace appears to hold every shot to allow for audience laughter which never comes. Further distracting is Benny's strawberry-blonde dye job and strangely feminine make-up. 

Minerva Pious plays Mrs. Nussbaum, a regular character from Allen’s radio program. Her appearances were always a highlight, but you'd never know it here, since much of her dialogue is obliterated by Allen’s narration. I bet she loved that. Oddly, her Yiddish accent often sounds like Gilda Radner's Latina Roseanne Rosannadana. I told you the movie was confusing. 

Jerry Colonna is shocked to get better material than
the star of the movie.
The wonderful Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, scores major laughs as a deranged psychiatrist, while Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee’s understated, self-depreciating performances contrast with Allen’s often-sledgehammer delivery. 

William Bendix has just been shot by six other
gangsters. I told you it was a comedy.
Also supporting -- make that overshadowing -- Fred Allen are great character actors, including Sidney Toler (sounding an awful lot like his Charlie Chan alter ego) as a cop, John Carradine as a murderous lawyer, Robert Benchley as Parker, and William Bendix as a delicate gangster who ingests vitamins by the jarful to calm his nerves.

It’s in the Bag!, then, is a veritable time capsule of the 1945 entertainment world, with one of the biggest names of all in the lead. 

But in the end, It's in the Bag! is as much of a chore as it is a comedy. Too much plot, too little story and, if it’s possible, too many jokes. At its best moments, like the hilarious sequence in a movie theater the size of a dirigible hangar, or every time Jerry Colonna opens his mouth, it seems to anticipate Monty Python. 

Then there are other, silly scenes where you just want them to get on with it. After watching It's in the Bag! three times over the years, I've come to appreciate it; I just don't laugh all that much. As his engaging memoirs Much Ado Me and Treadmill to Oblivion demonstrate, Fred Allen was the rare wit who was actually funnier than many of his own jokes.

                                                     *******************

Monday, November 7, 2016

THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER (1962)

In a time when celebrities regularly run for public office solely on the strength of their name, The World's Greatest Sinner appears to have been quite prescient. Clarence Hilliard,  bored with being an insurance salesman, makes the obvious job switch to spiritual leader. Although an atheist, he renames himself God Hilliard, quickly gaining followers in his movement. Today, they're known as Clinton voters.

Succumbing to temptations of the flesh and otherwise, a mysterious stranger convinces him to run for president. But as Hilliard goes further down the rabbit hole of his own strange creation, he commits a blasphemous act in order to force the real God to make Himself known -- and does He ever.

Before going further, it's important to know that your appreciation of The World's Greatest Sinner depends on your tolerance for technical incompetence, as it makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Days of Heaven. Not a minute goes by when you're not in awe of just how badly made a movie can be.

Every possible flaw that a movie can feature is on full display -- bad sound, sloppy editing, out-of-focus close-ups, obvious dubbing, 5-cent special effects, stiff line-readings... No wonder why the guy who scored The World's Greatest Sinner referred to it as "the world's worst movie" on national TV shortly after its release.

BUT... if you can make it past the first 10 minutes -- an admittedly questionable chore if you were expecting a whiff of professionalism -- Sinner provides the kind of rewards offered only by a movie-maker who careens boldly against the cultural tides of his time, putting on screen his deepest personal beliefs, unashamed of his emotions, daring you to experience what he's feeling every second of the time. The World's Greatest Sinner might not be a good movie, but it's definitely a great one.

Timothy Carey welcomes you into his world.
And its greatness is due to star/writer/director/
producer Timothy Carey. Something like the Christopher Walken of his day, Carey was the ultimate idiosyncratic actor. But whereas Walken pulls you in with his quiet, not-of-this-earth delivery, Carey not only wears his emotions on his sleeve, he throws them at you with the force of Nolan Ryan and a deep, rumbling voice that forces you to pay attention, if only because you're afraid what will happen if you don't.

Without his -- and there's no other word for it -- genius, Sinner would be unwatchable. For Carey revealed the power that pop culture had over the masses that few movie-makers did at the time, and transferred it to his character, in a bold, wild fashion unknown in studio movies. 


Shake, rattle and what the hell?
Hilliard, witnessing the mania that a garage band has over its audience, finally finds his ticket to the big time. He hires his own musicians, dons a gold lame suit, and goes on tour. To watch Carey awkwardly shuffling across the stage before dropping to his knees in front of a frenzied audience and screaming "Please, please, please, please, please take my hand!", and writhing onstage like a worm after a dose of meth, is an utterly mesmerizing, bizarre 16-mm fever dream. 

It's also proof positive that Carey possessed more courage in this one scene than most of today's actors achieve in their entire careers. When you think back to the accolades heaped upon Johnny Depp for wearing eyeliner to play a pirate, it's quite sad how easily impressed moviegoers and critics have become.

Next stop: Fox News commentator.
As Hilliard's followers celebrate their own super-beingness by rioting in the streets, he's sweet-talked into entering politics by a proto-Karl Rove-like campaign manager who is ultimately unmasked as Satan. 

This anticipates by two years the California GOP honchos who convinced Ronald Reagan to run for Governor after watching the sway he held over his audience when delivering a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. And no, I'm not saying they were Satan in disguise. Karl Rove, however, is another matter.

Sinner premiere: Carey addresses
the crowd while Zappa waits for
a check that will never arrive.
There's no point in listing anyone other than Timothy Carey in the cast of Sinner; you haven't heard of them. You would, however, recognize the narrator, Paul Frees, who might as well have "Ubiquitous Voiceover Artist" as his middle name. Look at his CV on Wikipedia -- if you lived between 1950 and 1986, trust me, you know him.

Then there's the aforementioned composer of Sinner's score, 21 year-old Frank Zappa. Zappa's trademark atonal music -- and his love for zany xylophones -- are unmistakable. His later unkind words about the movie might come down to not being paid for his work. A thing like that can cloud a guy's opinion.

How can you resist?
But The World's Greatest Sinner belongs to
the incomparable Timothy Carey. A favorite of young, scrappy directors, Carey found success in two early Stanley Kubrick movies, The Killing and, especially, Paths of Glory, where he steals every scene he shares with star Kirk DouglasAlways picky about his work, he turned down roles in the first two Godfather movies, continuing his lifetime choice of concentrating on more personal projects. 

And none were more personal than The World's Greatest Sinner, a movie widely condemned in its day  -- that is, when it wasn't ignored -- but, like Timothy Carey himself, is now rightly considered a legend. 

Even the Beatles were Carey admirers. An alternate cover shot of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reveals his profile to the right of Ringo. 

Carey's photo is a still from The Killing, where he's aiming a rifle. If you follow what would have been the trajectory of its bullet, it leads straight to John Lennon. 

Even his photo was prescient.

                                                  


                                                       **********************

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

CONSPIRACY (1930)

Never judge a movie by its title, poster, or logline. What little conspiracy there is in Conspiracy happens off-screen. The macabre creature hovering over Bessie Love in the one-sheet is simply a shill to get ticket-buyers. And the plot involving breaking up a gang of drug dealers -- always a juicy topic in the pre-code movies -- quickly gives way to a story about a young woman hiding out after murdering the gang leader. 

Nominal star Bessie Love doesn't have a lot to do other than scream, gasp, and sob. Modern audiences will probably have the same reaction when viewing her co-star Ned Sparks.  

Don't let the door slam on you on your
way out, Ned.
A character actor who usually made an appearance, muttered a couple of nasally wisecracks, then vanished for 20 minutes before repeating the process, Sparks is the movie's real conspiracy -- to drive the viewer bonkers. Sounding like a cross between an agitated Paul Lynde and Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants, Sparks won't simply say a line when squawking it will do.

And I usually like the guy. But here, as mystery writer Wintrhop Clavering, Sparks enters a whole new world of irritating, proving that character actors should never have a lead role. Ironically, it isn't necessarily his fault. A brief perusal through the 1912 novel on which Conspiracy is based shows Clavering to be a "queer fish" (as the authors describe him), but also a serious mystery writer/amateur criminologist who could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his meerschaum. 

But the screenplay and direction ditches this angle for "eccentric" -- if eccentric meant aggravating. Do you think it's funny when a character does a silly workout routine every hour, walks around in open galoshes, yells at everyone he encounters, or threatens bodily harm to his black maid? If so, pull up Conspiracy on YouTube this very instant. You won't regret it, until you do.

Yeah, that's a dead body on the floor.
Sparks actually overwhelms Conspiracy's kind of interesting idea. Clavering has hired Margaret Holt as his stenographer, dictating his latest story based on the murder of drug gang leader Steamer Marko -- not knowing she committed the crime herself in order to prevent the assassination of her brother, assistant D.A. Victor Holt. With the help of reporter John Howell, the gang is rounded up and Victor is rescued.



Ned gets a call from SAG revoking his
membership.
When produced as a Broadway show in 1914 (and, boy, is it obvious), the scenes with Clavering essentially explaining to Margaret how and why the murder was committed, even giving a perfect description of the suspect, probably worked quite effectively. If only director Christy Cabanne hadn't decided to go the comedy route -- a path that often leads off a cliff.





She's dumbfounded by his
remarks, too.
It would have been nice, too, if the flashbacks included some of Margaret's memories of the women in drug dens who "do things even savages wouldn't do!" Man, what a tease this dame is. I wanna see it for myself! Instead, we get too many lovey-dovey bits of business of her with John Howell, who tells her plaintively, "Don't look at me with those eyes." You got something else in mind?

The most fun one can have watching Conspiracy is counting the old movie cliches that come thick and fast. The weak-kneed leading lady. The nutty writer. The wiseguy reporter. The dumb Irish cop. The swarthy "Southern European" drug pushers. (Clavering figures out that the murder victim wasn't American because he had a pierced ear. How times change.) A climactic shoot-out in a dark room. 

Martha is knocked over by the force
of Clavering's vitriol.
And then there's Martha, the stereotypical black housekeeper. Pity actress Gertrude Howard, who is given dialogue and clothes that makes her appear she's auditioning for the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind almost a decade too early. Even by 1930 standards, her mush-mouthed, syntax-obliterating speech was dated. 

But not as much as the treatment she receives from Clavering, which is so over-the-top that one has to laugh at the sheer insanity of it. Referring to her as "that black assassin" is nothing compared to "You saber-toothed chimpanzee!" and "You fliggly-eyed flat-nosed daughter of Ham!" At least I think he said "fliggly-eyed". I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but I'm certain it isn't isn't good. I hope Howard received combat pay for the job.

Otto Matieson waits to be discovered by
movie geeks 86 years later.
The next fun thing is noticing certain familiar names and faces. Christy Cabanne, for instance, who directed the Douglas Fairbanks cocaine comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish in 1916Walter Long, Laurel & Hardy's occasional nemesis. And Otto Matieson, whom I instantly recognized as Joel Cairo from the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. You would have too, if you were a fan of weird old movies with nothing else to do. Who else would watch Conspiracy?

                                                                                                                         
                                                   
                                                  ******************

If you absolutely have to see Conspiracy, go here.

THE PHYNX (1970)


The late 1960's saw a strange mash-up of psychedelic counterculture with the nostalgia craze. Every band, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Moby Grape felt obliged to cut at least one 1920s-style song. Stoned audiences attended midnight shows of Marx Brothers comedies, '30s musicals, and the like.

Always sniffing for the latest trend to cash in on, corporate show business entities tried to give the kids what they wanted. Instead, they made The Phynx, a movie that wasn't released so much as allowed to stick its head out of the Warner Brothers gate, before being quickly yanked back in. Forty-two years later, it finally made its official video debut. Too soon!

So what is the titular Phynx? It's a rock band created by the U.S. government, whom it trains to rescue "world leaders" that have been kidnapped by the Albanian military, because their own agents are too inept to do the job. 

The joke is that these "world leaders" are a veritable "Where Are They Now?" list. To name a few: Xavier Cugat, Rudy Vallee, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen, Johnny Weissmuller, Dorothy Lamour, Joe Louis... 

Oh hell, just look at the ad in the upper right. The only "current" celebrity was Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, while Edgar Bergen was the one entertainer still regularly working. And other than Georgie Jessel (you knew he had to be in there somewhere), nobody gets more than one or two lines of dialogue. They were probably grateful.

"I feel good!... Except for appearing in this
movie."
But wait, there's more! Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, James Brown, Dick Clark, and Richard Pryor play themselves as government operatives whipping the band into shape. The only explanation for Pryor's sorry 10-second appearance -- he's actually shamed by one of the Phynx -- is that he must have been paid with a 16-ounce Mason jar filled with cocaine. 

Look fast, folks, you'll never see them again.

The Phynx band members, on the other hand, were unknown musicians playing themselves, hired to fit certain stereotypes. Nervous (Michael A. Miller), intellectual (Dennis Larden), soul brother (Lonny Stevens), and stoic American Indian (Ray Chippeway). Everything but "talented."

Maureen O'Sullivan, Georgie Jessel, and Edgar
Bergen & Charlie McCarthy decide how they're
going to kill their agents.
As with most of Hollywood's attempts at alleged counterculture entertainment, The Phynx's creators had absolutely no connection to their intended audience. Its middle-aged scenario writers and producers, Bob Booker and George Foster, were best known for mainstream comedy albums like You Don't Have to Be Jewish. Their 1968 release, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts, satirizing Jackie & Aristotle Onassis, is prominently displayed in a scene set at a record store. That piece of self-promotion is more clever than anything else in the movie.

Pat O'Brien weeps at what his
career has come to.
First- and last-time screenwriter Stan Cornyn was, in real life, a 37 year-old Warner Brothers Records PR guy. Not coincidentally, The Phynx is a Warners release. This wouldn't be the only time somebody got a movie gig they were totally unqualified for just because of their connections.





Joe Louis, Col. Sanders and Johnny Weissmuller
think, "I got out of bed for this shit?"
Then there are the songs, written and produced by the legendary Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who were responsible for some of rock & roll's greatest hits... of the 1950s. The psych/pop sound required here, however, was way, way out of their league, with only one song of the bunch rising to the level of mediocre. Ironically, The Phynx proves how much better the studio-created Monkees' repertoire was.

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall yearn for their days
on the Bowery.
And speaking of the Monkees, The Phynx seems to be influenced by that band's silly TV show, rather than their trippy movie Head, written and produced by Jack Nicholson. The Phynx's idea of wit includes a government agent named Mr. Bogey, who talks like Humphrey Bogart; eyeglasses that allow the Phynx to see through clothes in order to find secret maps drawn on the stomachs of three women in Europe; and Martha Raye playing a spy. Fortunately, she's immediately shot.

Otherwise, the writers seem to have given up on an actual story by page 20, depending on blackouts, music performances and montages in order to pad it out to 81 minutes. Stills and continuity problems suggest that a lot of footage wound up on the cutting room floor, so be grateful for small favors.

Dennis Larden, Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway,
and Lonny Stevens in their government-
supplied groovy clothing.
It's difficult to tell if the disgust that the bandmates display throughout The Phynx is acting or genuine. Larden in particular appears especially contemptuous of the entire proceedings. Perhaps he remembers being on the cusp of success when his previous band, Every Mother's Son, released the top 10 hit "Come on Down to My Boat" three years earlier, and were never heard from again.

To be fair, there are a couple of amusing moments. One of the military trainers barks at Ray Chippeway, "We're gonna make a real American out of you!" And after Lonny Stevens shoots a beer commercial, the director replaces him with a white actor for TV stations in the South. Oh, and Ed Sullivan being forced at gunpoint to introduce the Phynx, rather than a Dutch elephant act as promised. That's three chuckles, so, technically, it's not a complete washout.

Busby Berkley and Ruby Keeler go from
Gold Diggers of 1933 to Crap Shovelers of 1970.
What's really infuriating, other than the lazy script and unlistenable music, is that there's an intriguing idea lurking inside The Phynx: the CIA is manipulating the idiot masses via celebrities who are secretly on the government payroll. Now that movie, done right, would be worth seeing. In fact, every time I turn on the TV, I think it's for real.

Instead, The Phynx seems to exist only for a climactic reunion of old Warner Brothers stars and their friends, most of whom do nothing but nod their heads in time to terrible music that was dubbed in later.

World premiere at a shopping center in Glendale --
that's really all anybody needs to know.
And if Warner Brothers' record division intended The Phynx to be a launching pad as a real band, it was in for a big disappointment. The soundtrack album, if it even existed, probably appeared in fewer record shelves than it did boxes marked RETURN TO SENDER

It would be easy to write "The Phynx stynx." It's probably already been done. But it's worse, being cynical in its own way as Triumph of the Will. And at least that gave you a chance to cheer Jessie Owens. The only thing to cheer in this movie is that you never have to see it again. In fact, you can just skip it the first time.

Trivia: Leo Gorcey died before The Phynx was released. The official cause was liver disease, but I think it was shame.

                                                                  

                                         ********************************

SON OF DRACULA (1974)

As with a few other movie misfires on this blog, Son of Dracula has a good premise. What if the legendary vampire's son was born of a human mother -- and, over time, acquires human feelings, such as empathy and love? Does he submit, or continue to live the life of neck-biting immortality?

Really, not a bad idea. The problem is everything else.

When you think of vampires, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson probably isn't the first person who comes to mind. Nor is Ringo Starr as Merlin the Magician. But since Ringo was the producer, and Nilsson his drinking/snorting buddy, you have no other choice. Except to avoid it.

He shoulda stayed in bed.
Dracula's son, "wittily" named 
Count Downe, has returned to London for his coronation as Overlord of the Netherworld -- what we in America call Speaker of the House. Unbeknownst to Downe, Baron Frankenstein covets the title for himself. 

But Downe falls in love with Amber, the assistant to Dr. Van Helsing, triggering his desire to become fully human. While Van Helsing offers to perform a vampire-ectomy, Baron Frankenstein plans to make the surgery go fatally wrong. But unlike other Dracula movies, Son of... features a happy ending for the lovers. And audiences, too, because it finally ended.

Trick or treat!
It's difficult to know what exactly Son of Dracula's creators had in mind. The poster sells it as a rock & roll horror comedy, but is played almost completely straight. Downe walks the streets of 1970s London just so he can gaze at the Nilsson album Son of Schmillson in a record store window. Creatures like the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein's monster make appearances, wearing make-up out of a high school play. Son of Dracula is a horror movie, alright, but not in the right way.

David Baille (left) looks for a way off the set.
Further muddying the waters is the cast. Nilsson plays his part very seriously, as if planning on a future in the movie business, but is hopelessly outclassed by British co-stars Freddie Jones, Dennis Price, Suzanna Leigh, and David Baille, who are all way too good for this picture. 

Then, of course, there's Ringo Starr as Merlin, who proves that being an ex-Beatle can take you just so far as an actor -- like playing Ringo Starr in A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

Admittedly, it's kind of clever that the movie is willing to upend the Dracula legend by making Van Helsing the vampire helper rather than hunter. (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Van Helsing is really Merlin in disguise.) And whether intentional or not, Son of Dracula is something of a (very) slight remake of the great 1934 Fredric March movie, Death Takes a Holiday, only with a second-rate script, cheesy monsters, and Keith Moon on drums.

Roll over Beethoven, and tell Bram Stoker
the news.
Son of Dracula's excuse for being a musical is that Count Downe has been studying music for the last century or so, allowing him to occasionally break out in song. Of the seven numbers, only the goofy "Daybreak" was written for the movie; the others originally appeared on earlier Nilsson albums. 

Shot in 1972 but bound & gagged on the shelf for two years, Son of Dracula -- one of eight releases from the Beatles' Apple Films -- is one of those productions that screams "midnight movie," i.e., low budget, badly-made, and meant to be watched under the influence. 

But no amount of insomniac stoners in college towns could make it a cult favorite (another dubious cinematic term), and it soon disappeared into the Netherworld. A faded, slightly damaged VHS copy can be yours to behold on YouTube. 

Or you can just listen to a playlist of Son of Dracula's songs and skip the movie entirely. Otherwise, you'll probably wind up driving a stake into your own heart.


                                                   *********************************