Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Phynx

So I watched The Phynx off my DVR, having shown up in Summer Under the Stars for one of the many stars who shows up for the movie's finale to get a one-liner, I can't remember which star was being honored. The movie has a reference for being incredibly bad, but in fact it's not quite that bad.

Somebody is kidnapping the stars of Hollywood's golden age: Maureen O'Sullivan, Rudy Vallee, George Jessel, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, and on and on and on. Actually, it's fairly well known who's doing it: the Communist government of Albania. All attempts to enter the country have failed. So how is America supposed to get its faded celebrities back?

Thankfully we have the folks at the Super Secret Agency working for us. They have a supercomputer named "Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans", for the snazzy acronym MOTHA for advice. MOTHA is, like the supercomputer in Sex Kittens Go to College, shaped like a woman, but this one has the more interesting conceit that MOTHA delivers her answers on punch cards that come out of her snatch, as though she were delivering a baby. Really. Her brilliant idea is to created a pop band, called The Phynx, that the leader of Albania will want to invite over, and the band members can rescue all the celebrities.

We get a good half hour that really drags in which the musicians are kidnapped and trained at a secret base somewhere in the desert; I don't think any of the four musicians were trained actors. Then it's off to England, where they'll get their information on how to find the map of the secret passage into the Albanian castle where the head of state has all the celebrities holed up.

Actually, it turns out that the president of Albania, Markevitch (George Tobias) is being held there along with his wife (Joan Blondell) by the real power, Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara). The Phnyx perform a song, and then rescue the celebrities, end of story.

There's a lot wrong with this movie, and you can understand why it was barely released and lay dormant for decades. The band isn't very good, and the music is ultra-derivative. Lieber and Stoller wrote the songs, and one gets the idea that they felt they had the task to come up with music that would fit as exemplars of a genre, rather than right real quality music. If that was their intent, they at least partly succeeded, for there's one song about traveling that really sounds reminiscent of The Fifth Dimension's hit "Up, Up and Away" -- maddening elevator music with lyrics. Almost all of the name actors are underused, and don't really get a chance to deliver good lines. Especially bad in this vein is what happened to young Richard Pryor, who appears in a scene towards the beginning. When they get to Albania, all the kidnapped celebrities are introduced on the equivalent of a red carpet.

There are, however, a lot of celebrities. I haven't mentioned the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Johnny Weismuller, or even Col. Sanders. And as I said, as they're being spirited back to freedom, the camera gives each of them one shot to deliver a final line.

So what's to like about The Phynx? Well, some of the celebrities do make the most of their limited appearance. Notable among these are Martha Raye and James Brown. There's also an extended sequence in Rome, where the Phynx are looking for the final piece of the map. They're given x-ray glasses to do it (the map is tattooed on a pretty woman's abdomen), and this give the opportunity for several clever sight gags. One has a man chatting up a woman in a club, but when the glasses go on, we see that these are in fact two men, with the one dressed in men's clothes presumably having no idea the other one is in drag. And then there a gag of two young women stopping to talk to a couple of nuns. The other thing to enjoy about The Phynx is that there are so many scenes where you have to ask yourself, "What on earth were they thinking?"

The Phynx has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, for the benefit of those who like to watch movies that are so bad they're interesting.

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