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By Admin | July 14, 2006

BOOTLEG FILES 138: “The Phynx” (1970 comedy-musical with no laughs and terrible songs).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.




(This week, our usual columnist Phil Hall took time off to polish his ego. In his absence, Shane Burridge, Film Threat’s man in China, pops in with a bootleg treat of his own.)

I discovered “The Phynx” by accident. It was on a videotape I’d borrowed off a friend who owned a specialty (i.e. trash) video store. It was his taped-off-TV copy of “The Monitors” that I wanted to see, and the also-taped-off-TV “The Phynx” followed on immediately. “Phynx?” I mused, when I first read the label on the cassette. Had I seen this? No – I was getting confused with minor horror flicks “The Sphinx” and “The Asphyx.” So I let the tape run on without any idea of what I was about to see.

And this is what I saw:

“The Phynx” opens with a pretty basic animated sequence which might put you in mind of the bland cartoon that MGM tacked on to Polanski’s “Dance of the Vampires,” renamed to “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” Even before the movie starts you should consider why studios rename movies or paste on prologues or narrations. Could it be because they think they have a flop (or phlop) on their hands and want to excuse everything that follows as deliberately sly? “We knew this was a bad movie all along, but it’s supposed to be bad, right? Right? It’s camp! WE know that! We’re tipping you off so you don’t somehow get the impression that we made a big pile of crap by accident.”

So anyway: a bunch of Olde Hollywoode stars are kidnapped by Albania because it’s an easier Communist country to attack than the USSR. The SSA (Super Secret Agency) of the USA (Ultra Secret Agency?) comes up with a brilliant scheme to rescue Busby Berkeley, The Lone Ranger, Johnny Weismuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Dorothy Lamour, Martha Raye, Joan Blondell, Xavier Cugat, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, and other old-timers. Also in the mix is Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders (after appearing in a Herschell Gordon Lewis film, he probably thought this was a step up).

Their plan involves fabricating a pop group that will be so successful that they will climb to the top of the Albanian charts and then rescue the couple of dozen or so Celebs of Yesteryear during their resulting concert tour. This idea is so absurdly simple I’m surprised Reagan didn’t use it when he was faced with Iran-Contra, but maybe he already had a better scriptwriter.

The rest of the film plods out in one-two-three-four sequences. We watch while a “computer,” which has the most irritating theme music imaginable and looks like it was made up of anything lying around in the storeroom (was there even conceptual art for this thing?), searches a database of likely secret agents/music superstars. We watch while one-by-one the agency pressgangs unsuspecting civilians into service.

We watch the agency train them in one unfunny gag after another. We watch the graduating agents hunt down, one by one, three different girls that will help them accomplish their mission. We watch them collect the celebs. We watch the celebs contribute their cameo dialogue, one by one. Or maybe we aren’t watching at all by now.

The greatest achievement of “The Phynx” is that it is supposed to be a comedy first and a platform for pop songs second, and it fails spectacularly on both fronts. The actors have no talent for acting funny but it would do them little good in any event as the writing isn’t funny either. As the story progresses, the dialogue gets thinner – no loss here – until the story gives way to a string of musical vignettes.

The comic side of “The Phynx” is a bust, but at least you would think that the musical element of the film couldn’t fail in the hands of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had penned many classic standards in the 50s and already written songs for Elvis movies. Unfortunately, as they’d had no experience with late 60s bubblegum pop, the film’s half-dozen or so songs become as blah as the rest of the movie.

Finally, there are the four members that make up the titular band, who are so lacking in charisma that they should seek medical treatment (their movie careers began and ended with this one shot). I challenge anyone to remember a single one of them a week later. It’s quite an achievement not to be noticed in a movie when you’re the main protagonists, although by being faceless the Flab Four did take a safer route than the rest of the cast who come across as self-conscious or tiresome (I felt like punching that Boy Scout and he only had three lines).

The all-star bit players don’t come off quite so badly as their dialogue is restricted to a few utterances each – and I admit it is kinda nice to see Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan looking into each others eyes one last time. This means that most of the talking is left to Mike Kellin who plays SSA supervisor ‘Bogey’ (sic), but his Bogart imitation is so cornball that I didn’t even catch on who he was supposed to be until someone mentioned him by name. Impressionist Rich Little contributes his Nixon bit for the part of SSA boss ‘Number One’ and is the only performer to emerge unscathed, mainly because he wears a box over his head. The rest of the cast must have been envious.

I now come to the point where I must explain why “The Phynx” is unavailable on the home video market and exists solely as a bootleg item. Unfortunately, this would involve research, and having spent too much time on this film already by watching it twice and then turning out a review I am loathe to invest any more time into it than is strictly necessary. After all, I may be hit by a car tomorrow. So feel free to choose your own reason for this film’s MIA status from the following:

“The Phynx” is unavailable on home video

because there is some legal reason that is too much hassle to sort out.
because everyone connected with the home video industry has forgotten about it.
because no usable prints or negs exist to strike a DVD-quality master.
because Leiber and Stoller have not cleared the music rights and do not want anyone to see this.
because everybody else in the movie does not want anyone to see this – apart from Colonel Sanders, who probably said “Ah declare this is thuh best movin pitcher ah have made since “The Blas Off-Girls,” and Rich Little, because he wore a box over his head.
because the box manufacturers have threatened legal action.
because it’s a dumb movie, and that’s all there is to it.
because “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “Freebie and the Bean” are still not available on DVD and I swear if “The Phynx” comes out before they do I’m going to throw a brick through someone’s window.
Can there be any reason to watch this movie, with so little to recommend it? Maybe just one: to peek into the passing of a bygone time, when such films were not only bankrolled but also capable of assembling a celebrity Who’s Who. Films like “The Phynx” become attractive through their obscurity. It’s the kind of nugget you might discover on late night television by chance, then think about several times over the years, discuss with others who don’t know what you’re talking about, recall hazy moments (What was that movie I saw that had a scene with spies looking for girls with maps on their bellies?), and finally think fondly of for its elusiveness.

The fact it may be like an ephemeral moment in real life – there and gone again, never to be reclaimed – is the only thing “The Phynx” has going for it. Which is just another way of saying that existence as a bootleg might be the best idea for this movie that the producers never had.

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