A Wee Bit O’Blarney with Cagney & O’Brien: BOY MEETS GIRL (Warner Brothers 1938)

Tomorrow’s the day when everybody’s Irish, and America celebrates St. Patrick’s Day! The green beer will flow and copious amounts of Jameson will be consumed,  the corned beef and cabbage will be piled high, and “Danny Boy” will be sung by drunks in every pub across the land. Come Monday, offices everywhere will be unproductive, as all you amateur Irishmen will be nursing hangovers of Emerald Isle proportions. They say laughter is the best medicine, so my suggestion is to start your workday watching an underrated screwball comedy called BOY MEETS GIRL, starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, both members in good standing of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia”!

Jimmy and Pat play a pair of wacky screenwriters working for Royal Studios on a vehicle for fading cowboy star Dick Foran. Pretentious producer Ralph Bellamy has enough problems without these two jokers, as rumor has it Royal is about to be sold to a British conglomerate! While the boys verbally spar with Foran and agent Frank McHugh , commissary waitress Marie Wilson delivers food, and promptly faints. They all think she’s had an epileptic fit, but the truth is she’s pregnant, and about to give birth… right in Bellamy’s office!

The two nutty scribes get a brainstorm… they’ll costar Marie’s kid with Foran in his next picture! Cagney and O’Brien have Marie sign a contract giving them power of attorney, and little ‘Happy’ quickly becomes an eight-month-old superstar, to the chagrin of jealous Foran, who tries to woo Marie with his cowboy “charm”, but she’s fallen for extra Bruce Lester. The writers scheme to have someone go to a gala premiere posing as Happy’s dad, and central casting sends them Lester. The stunt backfires, and Jimmy and Pat are fired, as is baby Happy. Is this the end for Happy, or will there be a ‘Happy’ Ending?

You already know the answer – this is Hollywood, there’s always a happy ending! BOY MEETS GIRL is fast and frenetic fun, with Cagney and O’Brien cutting loose from their usual dramatics and having a grand old time. The two (take a deep breath) talksofastattimesitshardtounderstandthem, and the pace is downright exhausting! Marie Wilson almost steals the show as the dizzy mom, warming up for her later role as Irma Peterson on MY FRIEND IRMA, whom she portrayed on radio, television, and a pair of movies that introduced the world to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. And Foran’s a revelation, spoofing his cowboy star image as the self-centered sagebrush idol.

Fellow ‘Irish Mafia’ members Bellamy and McHugh are also funny in their respective roles, as is Bruce Lester, who had good parts in IF I WERE KING, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and THE LETTER. Harry Seymour and Bert Hanlon play a pair of decidedly non-Irish songwriters, Penny Singleton shows up briefly as a manicurist, young Ronald Reagan is the flustered  radio announcer at the movie premiere, and Curt Bois, Carole Landis, Peggy Moran (Foran’s future THE MUMMY’S HAND costar), John Ridgley, and James Stephenson appear in bits.

Screenwriters Bella and Samuel Spewack adapted their hit Broadway play, peppering it with plenty of Hollywood in-jokes, and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things zipping along. Cagney and O’Brien’s characters are loosely based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, while Bellamy’s producer is modeled after Daryl F. Zanuck. There’s a hilarious faux trailer for Happy’s latest hit movie GOLDEN NUGGET, and the movie playing at the  premiere is an Errol Flynn epic called THE WHITE RAJAH… which was actually the title of a script Flynn wrote himself that Warners rejected as being unfilmable!

So hoist those glasses of Guinness high tomorrow, boyos! And before you  load up on black coffee and greasy food or decide to indulge in some “hair of the dog” Monday morning, watch BOY MEETS GIRL instead. It probably won’t  cure your hangover, but you’ll be too busy laughing to notice!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!

Strange Bedfellows: BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (Taylor-Laughlin Distributing 1977)

Billy Jack, hero of the oppressed, goes up against an enemy he can’t wrap his head around – the politicians of Washington, D.C. in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, the final chapter in the Billy Jack saga. I know I harped on the fact that the last film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK , didn’t contain enough action, and this one has even less, but I liked this film better. It’s a remake of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Capra’s son is the producer), retooled for the modern era and casting Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character in the Jimmy Stewart role. You’d think a forty-plus year old political film would be dated, but truth to tell, not a lot has changed since then… if anything, it’s gotten worse.

When Senator Foley has a heart attack and croaks, the powers-that-be look for a patsy to replace him in order to get their nuclear reactor project passed. The crooked pols (party bigwig Bailey, Governor Hopper, and esteemed Senator Paine) all have a financial stake in the game, and though Bailey wants to pick a pliable judge, the Gov gets the bright idea to appoint… Billy Jack, the mystical ass kicker who’s fresh out of prison, and has no political experience whatsoever! Meanwhile in D.C., lobbyist Dan has swiped Foley’s top-secret nuke file, with all the dirty info, and is looking to play Let’s Make A Deal.

Billy Jack, along with Jean and some Freedom School kids, head for Washington, and Paine and his aide Saunders (who happens to be Dan’s girlfriend) are put in charge of schooling him in the hard facts of political life. Billy has a proposal for a national initiative to build a camp for kids; unfortunately for him, it’s on the same land Bailey and company wants to put their power plant. Dan (remember him?) gets murdered, and Saunders lets BJ know what’s going down. The junior senator from Ass-Kicker Land takes a meeting with power broker Bailey, who explains the facts of life to Billy. He responds by karate chopping a glass table, because he’s Billy Jack!

Since BJ won’t play ball, Paine starts a smear campaign, stating Billy is the secret owner of that land and is out to profit from it (which is actually what the grimy pols are doing!), leading to Senate hearings and investigations (sound familiar?) and Billy about to be expelled from his seat. Billy spends the night wandering Washington and, inspired by the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, decides to fight fire with fire… not with his Hapkido skills, but a filibuster! The exhausted Billy finally collapses on the Senate floor, causing a repentant Paine to confesses his guilt in the whole sordid mess.

Laughlin and Taylor’s earnest screenplay is full of anti-nuke, anti-corruption, and pro-environmentalist polemics, as you would expect. Fitting Billy Jack into Capra’s classic story may seem weird, but somehow the darn thing worked for me. There’s only one action scene for fans, where Billy and Jean save Freedom Schooler Carol (played by the couple’s daughter Teresa) from a gang of thugs with their martial arts expertise – yes, pacifist Jean gets to kick some ass at last! The scene with BJ late at night visiting the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson et al is corny but effective, as is the dark scene where Dan gets killed, allowing Laughlin and DP Jack Marta to show off their talents.

Laughlin rounded up a strong supporting cast for this one. E.G. Marshall adds gravitas as Senator Paine; he’s almost as good as Claude Rains in the original  (Rains is a tough act to follow!). Veteran Pat O’Brien , still with that Irish twinkle in his eyes at age 76, plays the Senate president. Sam Wanamaker as Bailey makes a slimy villain, but Lucie Arnaz can’t hold a candle to Jean Arthur as Saunders (to be fair, the part is split between her and Taylor’s Jean). Others in the cast include Dick Gautier as the Governor, Kent Smith as the doomed Foley, Stanley Brock, Kathy Cronkite (daughter of newsman Walter), Peter Donat, Don Keefer, political columnist Joe Klein (who later wrote the novel PRIMARY COLORS), Sarah Purcell (TV’s REAL PEOPLE), Richard Sanders (WKRP’s Les Nessman), Julie Webb (Jack’s daughter), and Laughlin’s pal William Wellman Jr.

Laughlin and Taylor couldn’t get a major distributor for the movie, not even Sam Arkoff at AIP. So they did it themselves, and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON saw a very limited release, then quietly went away. Laughlin said it was a conspiracy, but in all honesty the studios were probably right. Fans wanted to see Billy Jack kick some righteous ass, not pull a filibuster on the Senate floor. While I personally liked it, I wished Billy Jack would’ve got up and started kicking some Senatorial ass myself! This was Laughlin’s last movie, though in 1986 he did begin a fifth in the series, THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK, but an injury during shooting and lack of funding shut production down, and the film was never finished. The rarely seen BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON isn’t perfect, but fans will find it a fitting coda to the Legend of Billy Jack.

The BILLY JACK Series on Cracked Rear Viewer:

“One Tin Soldier (Theme from Billy Jack)”

BORN LOSERS

BILLY JACK

THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK

Delores Taylor (1932-2018) and Tom Laughlin (1931-2013)

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: THE IRISH IN US (Warner Brothers 1935)

Faith and begorrah! You can’t get much more Irish than a film featuring Jimmy Cagney , Pat O’Brien , and Frank McHugh all together. THE IRISH IN US is sentimental as an Irish lullaby, formulaic as a limerick, and full of blarney, but saints preserve us it sure is a whole lot of fun! The story concerns three Irish-American brothers, the O’Hara’s, living with their Irish mum in a cramped NYC apartment. There’s sensible, levelheaded cop Pat (O’Brien), dimwitted fireman Michael (McHugh), and ‘black sheep’ Danny (Cagney), who’s a fight promoter.

O’Brien, Cagney, and McHugh

Pat announces his intention to marry pretty Lucille Jackson (19-year-old Olivia de Havilland in an early role), while Danny’s got a new fighter named Carbarn Hammerschlog ( Allen Jenkins , who’s a riot), a punchy pug who “every time he hears a bell ring, he starts sluggin”! Danny and Lucille ‘meet cute’ while he’s out doing roadwork with his charge, not knowing Pat’s invited her over for dinner later to meet the family. Being the red-blooded Irish boyos they are, chaos ensues, especially after Carbarn hears a bell ring outside and “starts sluggin'”!

Cagney’s ready to rumble!

The O’Hara’s attend the annual Fireman’s Ball, but when Pat catches Danny and Lucille kissing in the moonlight, he gets his Irish up and slugs his brother, causing Danny to leave the family home. Lucille confesses to Ma that she loves Danny, not Pat, but the fences still aren’t mended. Middleweight champ Joe Delaney agrees to a charity bout for the Policeman’s Benefit, and Pat suggests palooka Carbarn. The night of the big fight finds Carbarn with a bad toothache, which Michael tries to fix with a bottle of gin, leaving both men swacked! A phone rings in the dressing room as the champ meets Carbarn, and the plug takes a wild swing at Delaney, whom promptly knocks his scheduled opponent out cold. Danny subs for his fighter and takes a pummeling, until Lucille pleads with Pat to help his brother. Pat joins Danny in his corner, and tells him he’s stepping out of the way with Lucille. Danny rallies to win the match, and they all live happily ever after!

A meeting of the “Irish Mafia”: Spencer Tracy, O’Brien, McHugh, and Cagney

The three leads appeared together in HERE COMES THE NAVY, DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, BOY MEETS GIRL, THE FIGHTING 69TH, and in various combinations for Warners over the years. Cagney, O’Brien, and McHugh were members in good standing of Hollywood’s “Irish Mafia”, a group of actors who’d known each other since their struggling days that met once a week for dinner and cocktails (presumably, LOTS of cocktails!). Besides those three distinguished gentleman, the club included Jenkins, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Louis Calhern, James Gleason, Bert Lahr, and Lynne Overman. Later in life, Cagney said, “Those were the finest and dearest men I ever knew. How honored and privileged I was to know them”.

Wonderful Mary Gordon, ‘the ultimate Irish mum’

Mary Gordon (1882-1963) is the ultimate Irish mum as the widowed Mrs. O’Hara. The Scottish born actress is usually seen in smaller roles, but she gets the chance to really shine here. Miss Gordon is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson in all those great Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce mysteries. Olivia makes a fine ingénue, and the cast includes former welterweight boxer-turner-actor/stuntman Mushy Callahan as the referee in the big bout. THE IRISH IN US, directed by Lloyd Bacon (42ND STREET, THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS ), was one of many programmers churned out by the Brothers Warner back in the 30’s, a very likeable film with a top-notch cast that’s perfect for your St. Patrick’s Day viewing. Slainte!

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

phynx1

(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:

phynx motha

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!

phynx4

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!!)