Tuesday, November 1, 2016

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.

                                                                  

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