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!!)

Rockin’ in the Film World #5: Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK (MGM 1957)

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It’s hard for younger audiences to understand what a truly subversive figure Elvis Presley was in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1960’s he made safe, sanitized films that seem quite tame today, and his later Las Vegas persona has been parodied to death (and indeed, Presley became a parody of himself in the 70’s). But back in the day, Elvis was the original punk rocker, his gyrating hips and perpetual sneer causing quite a scandal among adults brought up on sedate Bing Crosby-type crooners. Teenagers were attracted to this new, rebellious musical style, and Presley became their King. Hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up” topped the charts, and a plethora of rock’n’roll artists jumped on the bandwagon. Elvis had already done two films by the time JAILHOUSE ROCK was released, a triumph of punk attitude about a convict’s rise to the top of the music heap.

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Young hothead Vince Everett (Elvis) kills a man in a bar fight over a woman, getting him ten years in jail for manslaughter. The cocky Vince is schooled in prison life by his cellmate Hunk, an ex-country singer who runs the prison’s black market economy where cigarettes are “the coin of the realm”. Hunk finds out Vince’s a pretty fair singer himself and lands him a spot in the warden’s talent show, being broadcast coast-to-coast to promote a good image. Vince sings “I Want to Be Free” and the jail’s flooded with tons of fan mail. Hunk has it all withheld and concocts a scheme to draw up a 50/50 contract with the brash younger con.

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Eventually Vince is released, and the warden gives him his sacks of mail. Hunk has arranged for Vince to work at the Club LaForito, which turns out to be a sleazy strip joint, whose owner wants him to bar back. He bombs onstage, but PR lady Peggy takes a shine to him, and soon he’s in the studio recording “Don’t Leave Me Now”. Peggy takes Vince to a swanky party hosted by her parents. To say he doesn’t fit in is an understatement, as the guests are discussing the latest in modern jazz. Vince leaves after insulting everyone, and when Peggy follows, he gives her a rough kiss, stating “It’s just the beast in me”.

“Don’t Leave Me Now” becomes a hit, but not for Vince, as the Geneva Records owner steals the arrangement and gives it to his biggest star Mickey Alba. Hotheaded Vince gets hot again and beats the tar out of the weasel. He and Peggy hire a lawyer and begin their own label. Vince records “Treat Me Nice” (one of Presley’s 50’s hits) and go out on the hustle, promoting the disc with DJ’s and stores. The song breaks big, and next thing you know Vince is a national star.

Television comes calling, and Vince is booked to appear in a number titled “Jailhouse Rock”. This is probably Presley’s finest moment in movies, an uptempo rocker set in a cellblock. Elvis choreographed his own dance moves, and though the tune’s a bit Hollywoodized compared to the original recording (adding a con’s chorus and some horns), it captures the spirit of young Elvis Presley at his best:

Success goes straight to Vince’s head. Hunk is released and, learning their jailhouse contract isn’t valid, is made into Vince’s flunky. His womanizing with starlet Sherry Wilson causes a rift between him and Peggy. When Vince wants to sell out his company and leave Peggy in the cold, Hunk loses it. A fight between to the former cellies winds up with Vince getting punched in the throat, unable to breathe. He’s rushed to the hospital with a damaged larynx, and may never sing again. But who are we kidding, of course he does, and we get a happy Hollywood ending with Vince reprising the song “Young and Beautiful”.

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Elvis’s surly demeanor as Vince is right on target. Of all his films, JAILHOUSE ROCK is right up top (along with KING CREOLE and FLAMING STAR ) as showcases for his acting ability. Not only that, he gets to sing some great Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songs. Besides those I mentioned earlier, The King does another of his great rock anthems, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”. The music here’s better than the sappy tunes he sung in his sanitized 60’s films, and only KING CREOLE comes close in the soundtrack department.

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Pretty Judy Tyler (Peggy) was known to 50’s children as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the pioneering TV show HOWDY DOODY. After filming JAILHOUSE ROCK, she and her husband were tragically killed in a car accident, causing Elvis so much grief he never watched this, his best movie. Mickey Shaughnessy (Hunk) was a dependable comic character actor who appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Future Disney star Dean Jones has a role as a friendly DJ, while other Familiar Faces are Vaughn Taylor, Bess Flowers, Percy Helton, Bill Hickman, Donald Kerr , and Glenn Strange. Elvis’s backup band Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana play Vince’s band, aided on keyboards by songwriter Stoller.

Guy Trosper’s screenplay was based on a story by blacklisted former actor Nedrick Young, who would come back the next year working with Stanley Kramer. Director Richard Thorpe was an old MGM warhorse dating back to the 20’s who lensed everything from Tarzan’s swinging adventures to Esther Williams splashtaculars. Producer Pandro S. Berman, another of Hollywood’s old guard, was coaxed into making an Elvis movie by his wife. Berman put his usual care into the production, and came up with another big hit for both the studio and Elvis. Critics of the time ripped JAILHOUSE ROCK apart, but today it’s seen as a milestone of the rock’n’roll movie, and Elvis Presley’s brightest, shiningest moment on the silver screen. Those of you who only think of Elvis as a bloated, jumpsuited Vegas lounge singer need to see JAILHOUSE ROCK to discover why he’s called The King. His loyal subjects (including yours truly) already know.