American Pop Culture Saves Democracy: The Phynx (1970)

You know that dream where you discover a room in your house that you never even knew existed? Well, imagine that room filled with various 1930’s movie stars (including Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen and Pat O’Brien to name just a few) as well as Joe Louis, Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Busby Berkeley, Rudy Vallee and Colonel Sanders (yes, THE real Colonel Sanders), serving up his famous buckets of fried chicken while a young Monkees-inspired rock band restores everyone’s faith in America.

No, this isn’t a dream. This is The Phynx (1970).

The Phynx (1970) has been called the “Holy Grail” of bad movies but it’s not bad at all – in fact, I’d argue that it’s actually pretty groovy. The film was released in May of 1970 but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts pulled the picture after only a few screenings. As it was shelved so quickly, no movie posters were created (hence the banner photo of my physical DVD of the film, in lieu of a proper poster image). It would languish in obscurity in the vaults for forty-two years before Warner Bros. finally released the film on DVD in 2012, as part of their manufactured-on-demand Archive Collection.

But why did Warner Bros. pull this movie when so many worse films have seen wide release? Why, some may ask, did Warner Bros. make the picture at all? Fifty-one years later and counting, the riddle of The Phynx remains unsolved.

In The Phynx, Communists (played by Joan Blondell and George Tobias) are kidnapping American pop culture icons, such as Patty Andrews, Butterfly McQueen, the Dead End Kids (well, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, anyway), The Lone Ranger and Colonel Sanders, and holding them hostage in a castle in Albania. The US government consults with a curvy Marilyn Monroe-shaped robot who advises the officials to create The Phynx, the greatest rock band ever, and send them undercover to Albania to bring back America’s superstars.

Makes perfect sense, right?

With the approval of Dick Clark (“You’re SENSATIONAL!”), our chosen four – A. “Michael” Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden and Lonny Stevens – take over the rock n’ roll world and, with a little help from James Brown, Ed Sullivan and Richard Pryor, embark on a mission to Albania to rescue the captives. Only problem is that maybe the captives don’t even want to be rescued. Hey, if I got to live in a glamourous castle with sexy Joan Blondell, while being treated to dinners of KFC every night by Colonel Sanders himself, I’m not sure I’d want to leave either.

But America NEEDS them! And so, the mop-topped, velour clad Phynx play a groovy song about the good ol’ USA that has our classic movie stars in tears. Hiding the celebrities under bundles of radishes (the radishes were Leo Gorcey’s idea), the Phynx successfully helps them escape while singing another song that literally breaks down walls. Rock and roll saves democracy! Hurrah!

There is no synopsis that can truly convey just how wacky this movie is. As the blurb on the Warner Bros. DVD back cover states, this is a film that must be seen to be believed. One of my favorite scenes involves the band donning X-ray glasses; living out every teenage boy’s fantasy as this enables them to see everyone (except nuns of course) in their underwear. This extended sequence is a visual treat for the audience as most of the extras in The Phynx are voluptuous and curvy 1960’s pinup models.

For all the “far out, man” madcap shenanigans, there are a couple of truly touching scenes in The Phynx, both involving its “old-timey” stars. Joan Blondell began her movie career with Warner Bros. in 1930 and made over fifty films with the studio during the decade. She was without a doubt WB’s most prolific star and her Betty Boop-like beauty and snappy wisecracks came to define the quintessential streetwise 1930’s dame. When she addresses the roomful of celebrities at the climax of this film, many of whom she worked with decades prior, I swear to God that there are genuine tears in her eyes (“Hello, friends”). There’s also another tender moment between Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller (the original Jane and Tarzan). I won’t give away any spoilers here, mostly because I get choked up just thinking about this sweet scene.

It must be said: for all of its reputation as a “bad film”, there is not one wooden performance in The Phynx. Nobody – not the classic stars nor the newcomers – is “phoning it in”. In fact, everyone seems to be having a ball. The “boys in the band” are cute and funny; charismatic Ray Chippeway in particular has Davy Jones heart-throb potential (and the band in general gets extra points for being multicultural, a refreshing change from the many all-white boy bands of the 1960s). And I haven’t even mentioned the music yet – it’s pretty groovy, like Lovin’ Spoonful kinda groovy. The songs are really good which isn’t surprising considering they were written by Mike Stoller, famous for co-writing such chart-topping hits as “Hound Dog” (1952) and “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) with Jerry Leiber. Sadly, it doesn’t look like WB released a soundtrack for the film, although there is a 45 RPM in existence.

So with all its star power and charm, why did The Phynx fail? Well, as the Depression-era stars in this movie bear testament to, success has much to do with simply being in the right place at the right time. Although my partner disagrees with me about this, I truly believe that if The Phynx had been released just a few years earlier, it would have been a smashing success. After all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Party (1968) were pretty wacky too and those were popular films. And the Monkees, the prefab TV band turned real-life band, were one of the most successful groups of the 1960s. Of course, The Phynx patterning itself on the Monkees is part of the answer to the riddle of its failure.

When The Phynx was released in 1970, the pop-culture sensation known as the Monkees was in danger of becoming extinct: the TV show had ended in 1968 after two seasons; Peter Tork left the band in 1969 and Mike Nesmith would soon follow. Their movie Head (1968), a strange and edgy film which greatly deviated from their whimsical TV antics, had bombed at the box office. Head was appropriately angry and cynical for a movie that was made and released during the same year that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Today, Head is considered a cult classic, heck, university professors even write books about it, but in 1968 the movie was the beginning of the end of the Monkees, and the flower power spirit of the 1960s in general. Why Warner Bros. thought it was a good idea to duplicate a band that was about to be taken off of life support is anyone’s guess. The ironic thing is that The Phynx is probably exactly the kind of zany movie that fans were expecting from the Monkees, rather than the sardonic Head.

Perhaps one day The Phynx, like Head, will be considered a misunderstood masterpiece. Until that day comes, I believe there is an alternate universe where The Phynx really are, as Dick Clark would say, a sensation!

Keep on rockin’ in the free world, guys.

By Heather Babcock, 2021

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