Jack in the Saddle: BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN (Paramount 1940)

The gang’s all here in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN – Jack Benny’s radio gang, that is! Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, announcer Don Wilson, band leader Phil Harris, comic actor Andy Devine, and crooner Dennis Day all show up for this fun-filled musical comedy romp directed by Mark Sandrich. Even Jack’s radio nemesis Fred Allen is heard (though not seen) cracking jokes at his rival’s expense!

The movie plays like an extended sketch from one of Jack’s radio or TV programs, as the vain Jack falls for pretty Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew), one of a trio of singing sisters (the other two are Virginia Dale and Lillian Cornell) trying to break into show biz. They “meet cute” when Jack accidentally smashes into Joan’s taxi. Jack keeps flubbing his chances with Joan, who only goes for manly, rugged Western types (“I wouldn’t go out with him if he drove up in a sleigh and had white whiskers and toys!”), so Jack goes West, pretending to own Andy Devine’s Nevada ranch to impress her. The cowardly comedian pays off the ranch hands to make himself look tough, but a couple of real-life tough hombres (Ward Bond,  Morris Ankrum) cause trouble for scaredy cat Jack. When the outlaws tie up Joan while attempting to rob the local dude ranch/hotel, the inept Jack manages to rescue her and save the day – with an assist from his pet polar bear, Carmichael!

In between the admittedly thin plot, you’ll find a treasure trove of classic Benny comedy. There’s plenty of bantering with Rochester, wisecracks about his cheapness, vanity, age sensitivity, and of course his ongoing radio “feud” with comic Fred Allen (sourpuss Charles Lane plays Allen’s press agent, out to expose Jack as a Western fraud). Jack in his Western get-up is a sight to behold, and his cowboy song , with it’s refrain “with the deer and the antelope”, is a hoot!

A real treat in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who gets a rare opportunity to showcase his talents. Besides the back-and-forth banter with “Boss” Benny, Rochester even gets a romantic subplot with Joan’s maid Josephine, played by Theresa Harris .  They duet on “My My” (written by the film’s songwriters Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh) which made the Hit Parade that year, and he has a jazzy solo tap number highlighting his fancy footwork. Other than CABIN IN THE SKY, this is Rochester’s biggest movie part, and we can all be grateful he was given this chance to shine.

There are dance numbers by a troupe called the Merrill Abbott Dancers, solo songs from Irish tenor Day, hepcat Harris, and Drew (dubbed by big band singer Martha Tilton) to go along with the crazy comedy. Director Sandrich was no stranger to musical comedies, having sat in the chair for Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics like TOP HAT and SHALL WE DANCE (and later the Christmas perennial HOLIDAY INN with Fred and Bing Crosby). While BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN may not be on a par with those films, it’s an   entertaining vehicle for fans of Jack Benny, and a good starting place for newcomers. Carmichael alone is worth the price of admission!

The Holy Grail of Bad Cinema: THE PHYNX (Warner Brothers 1970)

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(WARNING: The movie I’m about to review is so bad, I can’t even find a proper poster for it. Beware… )

I was so excited when I  found out TCM was airing THE PHYNX at 4:00am!  I’d heard about how bad it for years now, and couldn’t wait to view it for myself today on my trusty DVR. I wasn’t disappointed, for THE PHYNX is a truly inept movie, so out of touch with its audience… and just what is its audience? We’ve got a Pre-Fab rock band, spy spoof shenanigans, wretched “comedy”, and cameos from movie stars twenty years past their prime. Just who was this movie made for, anyway?

The film defies description, but I’ll give it a whirl because, well because that’s what I do! We begin as a secret agent attempts to crash into Communist Albania in unsuccessful and unfunny ways, then segue into some psychedelic cartoons credits, also unfunny. Agent Corrigan (Lou Antonio)has failed, and his boss Bogey (Mike Kellin doing a terrible Humphrey Bogart impression) convenes a meeting of the Super Secret Agency. The agents are disguised as hookers, KKK members, student protesters and riot-squad police, Madison Avenue Ad Men, and even Boy Scouts. Oh, the hilarity! Number One addresses the crowd; his identity’s hidden by a box covering his head, and his voice is Rich Little impersonating Jimmy Stewart (no, I’m not making this shit up!).

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Albania’s strongman has taken “important world figures” hostage. Namely, George Jessel, Butterfly McQueen, Colonel Sanders, and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller… you know, really “important world figures”! Ideas like “parachuting Bob Hope into Albania” are shot down, and the agency goes to MOTHA for help. That’s MOTHA, “Mechanical Oracle That Helps America”, a sexy super-computer with a huge pair of antenna:

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Careful, you’ll poke your eye out! MOTHA comes up with a plan to create a “pop music group and get invited to Albania”. One of the scouts thinks “pop rock secret agents is a capital idea”, so the SSA rounds up four young dudes to star in their spy show. There’s a nerdy campus protester dude, a studly surfer-type dude, a “young Negro, uh colored guy.. African-American” dude, and a Native American dude fresh from college whose dad states, “White man turn son pansy”. Again, I’m not making this shit up!

The four are taken to a secret SSA installation, and train to become rock star spies. Sgt. Clint Walker teaches them discipline, Harold “Oddjob” Sakata karate, Richard Pryor “soul” (presumably by cooking soul food!), and Trini Lopez music. They’re given instruments to learn and yes, of course the black guy’s the drummer! After passing muster by none other than Dick Clark (who pronounces them “unbelievable, freaked out, kookoo”), the agency sends for uber-rock producer Philbaby (Larry Hankin, who’s actually funny as a Phil Specter type), along with his assistant, Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet.

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The Phynx cut a record called “What is Your Sign?” that’s pretty fucking bad. And I don’t mean “bad” as in badass.. I mean it totally sucks!  The SSA gets right to work promoting the boys, starting at the top with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, holding the venerable TV host at gunpoint while he introduces them! The hype is on as SSA agents dressed as 20’s gangsters take over record stores, spelling out PHYNX in machine-gun bullet script. President Nixon changes Thanksgiving to Phynxgiving, and the U.S. Mint begins printing out $3 bills with the band’s mugs plastered on them. James Brown presents the group with a gold record for “the largest selling album in the history of the world”!

Now that The Phynx are ready, the government throws them the world’s tamest orgy, and after another lame tune, the boys head to Europe. They must uncover a secret three part map tattooed on the bellies of the three nubile daughters of Martha Raye. Yes, I said Martha Raye! The girls are scattered across the continent, so it’s off to London, Copenhagen, and Rome. London’s easy, Copenhagen finds them performing sex with thousands of blondes, and in Rome they use their secret weapon.. X-Ray Specs! Honestly, I am NOT making this shit up!

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Now it’s off to Albania at the request of Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara) to help celebrate National Flower Day. The Albanian national flower is a radish. Let that sink in… a radish. Our intrepid heroes tunnel into the palace of the president and first lady (George Tobias, Joan Blondell) and their “hip” son, who speaks in 40’s hepcat slang and is president of the Albanian Rock and Roll Appreciation Society. At last we learn the truth about the missing celebrities.It seems American born Blondell misses her country, and since they can’t leave Albania, they decided to bring washed-up American stars to them! Oh, NOW it makes perfect sense!

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The Phynx perform before the assembled body of guests, and what a guest list. Take a deep breath: Patty Andrews, Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy), Busby Berkeley (with the original Golddiggers), Xavier Cugat (and his Orchestra!), Cass Daley, Andy Devine, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (wearing what looks like their original Monogram Bowery Boys outfits!), Louis Hayward, George Jessel, Ruby Keeler, boxing champ Joe Louis, Marilyn Maxwell, Butterfly McQueen, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Weissmuller, and The Lone Ranger (John Hart) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels). What, Clayton Moore was busy that week, so they had to settle for Hart?

The band plays a ungroovy patriotic tune that has the crowd in tears. Now they all realize they must get back to the good ol’ USA. Huntz Hall comes up with the master escape plan. Let THAT one sink in.. Huntz Hall has the master plan! (And no, I’m STILL not making this shit up!!) The stars hide in carts pulling the national radishes, while The Phynx play their concert. An army of rock fans armed with guitars are able to crumble the wall of Albania with sonic noise, and the pop culture stars escape Communism and are free! Rock and roll saves the world once again!

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The music in THE PHYNX was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, architects of early rock and doo-wop. Unfortunately, times had changed, and the tunes are hopelessly out of date, even for 1970. Even the psychedelic-style song they penned is about three years too late. Lee H. Katzin gets (dis)credit for directing this nonsense, though it doesn’t seem like he did much of anything except say “Action!” and “Cut! Print it!”. The screenplay by Stan Cornyn contains some of the most putrid dialog you’ll ever hear, save for one cute moment between Weissmuller and O’Sullivan that film fans will dig. Warner Brothers quickly pulled the plug on THE PHYNX when it was first released; it’s now achieved cult status and is available on DVD through Warner Archives. I think I’ve finally figured out who the audience for this mess is- bad film connoisseurs like me, who can’t wait to sit through it and pick it apart again!

(FYI- The Phynx were A. Michael Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden, and Lonnie Stevens. Larden was in the mid-60’s band Every Mother’s Son, and had a hit with “Come On Down to My Boat”. Stevens is active as an acting coach. I have no information on the other two Phynx…nor do I particularly care!!)

A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH (United Artists 1939)

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If you think the characters and Western tropes in STAGECOACH are familiar, you’re right. But let’s be clear… STAGECOACH introduced many of these now-clichéd devices to film, and is one of the enduring classics of the American West. Director John Ford was well versed in Westerns, having cut his professional teeth on them during the silent era. This was his first sound Western and Ford was determined to reinvent the genre, with much more adult themes than the usual Saturday matinée kiddie fare. He succeeded with a daring story featuring an outlaw and a prostitute as his heroes, and exceeded his goal by creating a brand new Hollywood star in the process: John Wayne.

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Wayne had been a football player for the USC Trojans when an injury caused him to lose his scholarship. Through some university connections, he was able to gain employment in the film industry as a prop man and extra, working with cowboy star Tom Mix and director Ford, who took a liking to the young man. Wayne was noticed by Raoul Walsh, who cast him as the lead in his 1930 epic THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office however, and Wayne was relegated to budget Westerns and serials at Monogram Studios, then later at Republic. His career was going nowhere fast when Ford offered him the part of The Ringo Kid in STAGECOACH. It was a fortuitous move on both parts, and led to a long and prosperous screen teaming for both men. When that camera zooms in on Wayne early in the film, you knew right then and there this young actor was destined for great things. Wayne always credited Ford for making his career, and he’s right. Without John Ford, there is no John Wayne, at least not the Wayne we’ve all come to know through his movies. Wayne was Ford’s cinematic alter ego, what the director wanted to be, and Ford was Wayne’s movie muse, compelling him to give his best.

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STAGECOACH takes its characters on a perilous journey through hostile Indian territory while the renegade Geronimo is on the warpath. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town, as is the drunkard Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance). Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is an Army wife seeking her husband as she’s about to give birth. Major Hatfield (John Carradine) is a proud Southerner and professional gambler. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey “drummer” from Kansas. Local banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is leaving town with embezzled money. Stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is joined by Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) riding shotgun, searching for escaped convict The Ringo Kid (Wayne). Ringo joins them when his horse goes lame, and he’s taken into custody by Curley. They’re given a cavalry escort to the halfway point, where another regimen is to take over. But the other troop is engaged in battle with the Apaches, and the stage has to go it alone to reach Lordsburg alive.

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This simple story is the peg on which Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols hang their character studies, turning the stereotypes on their ear. Outlaw Ringo has broken out of prison to find Luke Plummer and his brothers, the men responsible for killing Ringo’s father and brother. Booze soaked Doc shows great compassion toward Dallas, while the mannered, courtly Hatfield is filled with contempt. Upstanding citizen Gatewood is a loudmouth and a thief, but whiskey peddler Peacock is a soft-spoken family man. Whore Dallas is treated with scorn by Mrs. Mallory, but when Mallory has her baby, it’s Dallas who takes care of it. Marshal Curley is sworn to uphold the law, yet sets Ringo free to ride off with Dallas at the film’s conclusion. Ford and Nichols give us a reverse view of these individuals, rejecting the notion that everyone’s either a good guy or a bad guy. As in life, the characters in STAGECOACH are colored in shades of grey, not starkly cast in black and white.

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This was Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The breathtaking scenery of this Colorado Plateau, with its majestic mesas and long, lonely plains, gave the director the perfect canvas on which to paint his American West masterpiece.  Ford would return to the Valley numerous times to give his films the authenticity they’re known for, including MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS. Other filmmakers followed suit, and Monument Valley can be seen in such diverse works as Wayne’s ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, the counter-culture classic EASY RIDER, Kubrick’s 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, Eastwood’s THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP. Rumor has it the backgrounds in all those Road Runner cartoons were also based on Monument Valley!

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Any good Western has to have action, and STAGECOACH is no exception. The almost ten minute chase scene features one of the most exciting and dangerous stunts ever performed on film, when Yakima Canutt jumps from his horse onto the coach’s tandem, falls between the horses, and gets trampled over. This stunt was done in one take, and it’s a wonder Canutt didn’t get killed. The former rodeo rider handled the stunt action in over 250 movies, as well as acting and second-unit directing on numerous films. He was given a well-deserved honorary Oscar in 1966 for his contributions to the motion picture industry.

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Besides John Wayne, the players here shine in their respective roles. Claire Trevor received top billing, her name meaning more at the time than Wayne or  the rest of the cast. She was one of Hollywood’s best “bad girls”, later becoming “Queen of Noir” in films like KEY LARGO and BORN TO KILL . Mitchell won his Oscar here,  though he could have just as easily won for the same year’s GONE WITH THE WIND (or as Uncle Billy in 1947’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). Carradine again shows why he was one of the great character stars, before becoming a B horror star. Platt is rather stiff as Mrs. Mallory, but that’s exactly how the part was written. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with a special shout out here to loveable Andy Devine. Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, and Chris-Pin Martin have minor roles, and if you look closely you may spot Dorothy Appleby, William Hopper, Paul McVey, Woody Strode, and Hank Worden.

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STAGECOACH is probably the most influential film in Ford’s canon. It’s been said Orson Wells watched it over and over, studying its composition and pacing before he began working on CITIZEN KANE. It’s been remade twice, in a 1966 all-star version (with Ann-Margaret and Bing Crosby, among others) and a 1986 TV Movie featuring Country Outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. Neither film comes close to matching the greatness of the original. Movie fans of all genres need to watch this one, for its strong acting, beautifully shot scenes, exhilarating action, and the birth of a true Hollywood icon, John Wayne. Do not miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary piece of Americana.

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