Friday, November 16, 2012

THE PHYNX (1970)

 (Image from Vintage
Let us bow our head in thanks to Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, to Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and the late Davy Jones. For they resisted the temptation to make a two-hour Monkees episode and rather made the wonderous Head, effectively destroying the “Pre-Fab Five” for the betterment of all. Because if they’d given the fans what they’d expected, it would have been The Phynx.
Starting with a baffling sequence in which a man who is later revealed to be an American spy repeatedly hurls himself over a wall only to be captured by a foreign general played by Michael Ansara. He’s then summarily booted back over the wall. On the third attempt, the spy goes to a conveniently-located carnival and fires himself out of a cannon. But the wiley General Ansara—I mean, Col. Rostinov—is waiting with a team of men and a fireman’s catch. The spy bounces so hard, he soars into the animated title sequence. Like most animated title sequences, it’s the best part of the movie. 
What seems like days later, he finally identifies himself as “Agent Corrigan” (Lou Antonio). He enters the secret headquarters of the SSA (Super Secret Agency) via a super secret men’s room stall, complete with a pair of decoy feet showing behind the door to deter the … curious? Embladdered? Anyway, he drops a coin, the toilet and wall spin and he’s in the bowels of the agency. No pun intended.
Now make no mistake, the SSA is powerful. They have divisions for everything. SSA “Sock It To Me” Division, a “Bigotry Department” and a “Hooker Division”, a Bureau of Invisible Men,  Madison Avenue Undercover and the Underage Undercover Department (filled with boy scouts).
His superior is Mr. Bogey and is played by character actor Mike Kellin. His impression of Bogart more resembles Wallace Shawn doing George Raft but, you know, whatever. Their superior is “No. 1”, who wears a suit and a box on his head with a face drawn on it. His voice is provided by Rich Little doing an impression of Rich Little. There’s big trouble here in the God-fearing United States, great world leaders are going missing. “World Leaders” in this case being George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Butterfly McQueen, Charlie MacCarthy and Edgar Bergan, and “the one and only Col. Sanders”. Before you can say “No big loss”, the two non-boxed agents rush to MOTHA (“Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans”) to manufacture a plan to rescue their missing leaders. Like Hitchhiker’s Guide’s “Deep Thought”, the computer spits out the strategy: “form a pop group and stage a concert in Albania.”
The SSA “recruits” the disparate young men by abducting them. Michael D. Miller is a student protester hoisting a sign reading “Space Available”; Ray Chippeway is a American Indian college graduate whose father declares “White man make son pansy”; Dennis Larden, college athlete, is working a barbell while his latest conquest is awaiting in bed to be conquested when he is literally sucked into a vent via a giant magnet; and then there’s Lonny Stevens, stutteringly referred to as the “Young Negro”, the “Colored Guy”, and finally the “Afro-American”. Lonny is a seemingly successful commercial actor, doing an ad for beer. When he’s wrapped, a white guy takes his place as the producer announces, “Now let’s shoot one for the southern states.” And that, dear friends, is the height of the satire. 
What follows is a series of gags that are either hysterical or painful depending on your state of consciousness while viewing. Clint Walker is their drill instructor, Richard Pryor serves them “soul food” (looking like he has no idea where he is or how he got there and surely pissed that he didn’t get the punchline), and after they’re thoroughly trained in the art of both military spy-stuff and music, they are given a seal of approval by Dick Clark. MOTHA provides the group name: “The Phynx”. …You know, like “finks”? A ‘60s word for “narc”? “Snitch”? “Stoolie”? Shut up, it’s funny (which I think was the movie’s tag line). 
To make them stars, the SSA hires “Philbaby”, a music guru played by Larry Hankin, best known as Larry David’s first choice to play Kramer on Seinfeld. He creates a wall of sound for their song, “What’s Your Sign?” The Phynx debut on Ed Sullivan (who is held at gunpoint in front of his live studio audience) and the fans go absolutely Beatlemania over their softboiled Rutles song. Their first record leaps to Gold in twenty minutes (awarded to them by James Brown, the Ambassador of the Record Industry of the United States). Soon they’re loved and lusted after all over the world. Which shows the absolute power of Ed Sullivan more than anything else.
Now that they’re pop sensations, now comes the spy stuff, right? The trip to Albania? Well, no. The next hitch in the geddy-up arrives by a staggering Martha Raye (literally staggering because she’s supposed to be dying of some sort of wound—the location of which changes depending on where she’s clutching). There’s something about a map to the palace of Albanian ruler Markevitch (veteran second-to-third banana, George Tobias)—to keep it secret, Foxy (Raye) tattooed a third of the map upon the stomachs of her three daughters, located in London, Copenhagen and Rome. Because she’s in such a hurry dying, Foxy doesn’t give the girl’s names, but does provide three pictures of the girls with their faces obscured.
So before you can say “PG-rated Get Charlie Tully”, The Phynx are off on a girl-filled scavenger hunt, filled with schemes to get endless girls out of their clothes (including a young Sally Struthers in her first big-screen role)—x-ray specs in Rome, a take-a-number bang-me line in Copenhagen (which hysterically leaves the three non-black guys drained of fluid and lividity by around girl 1000. Lonny appears with the right girl and just quietly calls for a medic). This eats up a good chunk of the second act.
Finally they get to Albania and learn that the conspiracy is even worse than they imagined! More world-leaders have been abducted—Joe Louis, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey (the latter two the only reason I watched this in the first place, I’m not ashamed to say), Jay Silverheels and the replacement Lone Ranger, John Hart (identified only as their character names), Buzby Berkeley and his original Gold Diggers—and are being held inside the palace to… sorta hang out with the royal family, including Joan Blondell as the Mrs. Monarch, Ruby. It seems that the actual rulers of the government are being held captive by Col. Michael Ansara, and that it was his plan to bring in The Phynx to “give the proletariat what they want” while still ruling the country on whatever vague form of Communism is being utilized. Fortunately for every one, Huntz Hall himself comes up with the plan to escape: “Radishes!”, he proclaims as a very sick-looking Gorcey hits him with his hat. 
(Image from Age of
Then comes another song, the final escape and, proof that there is a God, the end credits. 

Now, many—okay, few, those who’ve actually seen this mess—have declared this overlong Monkees episode to be one of the worst movies ever made, but that’s not true by half. It’s simply a low-rent, no-budget “star-stravaganza” along the lines of future Love Boat and Fantasy Island. The music comes courtesy of Mike Stoller who, with his partner Jeff Leiber, wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Is That All There Is?” and reams of other pop songs, to The Phynx’s sets are pleasantly familiar-sounding, with knowing little nods to Herman’s Hermets, the Beatles and the Monkees, and the Moody Blues.  (Poster courtesy of Unseen Films)

Veteran TV director Lee H. Katzan does the best with the borcht-belt gags and lame attempts at “hip” humor from writers Bob Booker, Stan Cornyn, George Foster, but much of it is still from hunger because it’s just not that funny. Amusing, yes, at times, if you dig this sort of thing. The biggest problem is with The Phynx themselves. Except for Lonny Stevens, who has actual charisma and was the only one of the four to make a go at a real acting career (near as I can tell), the three other guys are virtually indistinguishable from each other. A running gag has Chippaway bristling at casual “racist” remarks (When one girl leaps onto him with a cry of “Geronimo!”, he mutters, as if afraid he’ll be heard, “Is nothing sacred?”) then proceeds to speak Tonto-ese himself. Worst of all—he has no interplay with Silverheels (also speaking his trademark Tonto-ese) so the gag you figure they’re building toward never comes.

Depending on your affection for the guest stars, you’ll either be angered that their time is utterly wasted or you’ll just end up feeling sorry for them. For many, this was the plumbest role they’d landed in a while (Gorcey, at this point, was incurable alcoholic and was dead before the film was even released; many of the others would follow suit throughout the decade), and for the others you start to wonder if they really had been abducted for the film, being World Leaders and all. Not one of the “special guest stars” is given anything to do. It just seems as if the green room of Laugh-In had been tipped into a cart and carried off into the night.
At the end of the day, during the final tank and radish-cart chase as the end credits scroll, you’ll be no better nor worse off for having seen The Phynx. After many, many years of VHS bootlegs taken from a single television airing (complete with animated station bumpers every ten minutes, no matter who is talking or if they’re done), Warner Brothers Archive has restored the film in all its 1.85 glory and mono-to-stereo sound mix. Now, you too can have The Phynx play for you in your very own living room. 
Meanwhile, the Monkees have reunited for a world-reunion tour after never once doing anything remotely like this again. 
…Okay, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee notwithstanding.

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