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Rock stars rescue faded actors (and Colonel Sanders) in the Austin Powers lead-up The Phynx

Film: The Phynx (1970)

Director: Lee H. Katzin

Choice IMDB keywords: Albania, two word title, espionage, rock ’n’ roll, orgy, kidnapping, Communist 

Plot: For unknown but nefarious reasons, a dastardly Albanian dictator makes off with a slew of “world leaders” seemingly plucked from the pages of ancient back issues of Variety: George Jessel, Dorothy Lamour, Colonel Harland Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Xavier Cugat, Johnny Weissmuller, and plenty more old-timers. Various means of getting these titans out of the Eastern bloc are proposed, from parachuting Bob Hope into Albania to seeking guidance from “M.O.T.H.A.” (short for “Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans”), an early, psychedelic-ized supercomputer with the answers to life’s most vexing questions. 

M.O.T.H.A.’s suggestion is impractical and far-out, encouraging the government to start a pop group that will be invited to Albania and can then figure some way to smuggle the “stars” back to freedom. A foursome is quickly assembled: a college kid who doubles as a professional protestor; a brainiac Native American college graduate who returns home post-graduation to have his disapproving father grunt, “White man turn son pansy”; a jock lothario; and an African-American actor introduced filming a beer commercial. (Then a “Southern version” is filmed, this time with a white actor.)

The hastily assembled group initially does not take well to being kidnapped and ordered to become secret agents and consummate entertainers for the good of their country. But they ultimately don’t have any choice in the matter: They’re going to be freedom fighters and party-rockers whether they like it or not. Then, after undergoing training both rigorous and kooky at the hands of guest stars like Clint Walker and Richard Pryor, these rawest of recruits form a band that tops the charts with a clamorous ditty they perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, after the group’s handlers “convince” Sullivan to host them at gunpoint. 

Sure enough, The Phynx becomes the most popular band in the world. But its members must still find a mysterious map located on the bodies of three foxy mystery dames squirreled away throughout Europe. To help The Phynx find the girls with portions of the map on their bodies, the government throws elaborate orgies that leave the group more exhausted than exhilarated. The Phynx members are also given X-ray glasses to help them in their tasks, which leads to a series of vignettes ostensibly both comic and sensual. 

The Phynx eventually makes it to the castle where the luminaries are being held, and after a spirited musical performance, smuggle the elderly guest stars back to freedom, all in time for a climactic ditty so rocking, it causes the walls of the castle where the stars were being held captive to come down and bring the world one rocking step closer to ending the Cold War. 

Key scenes:  The film opens with an American trying to leave Albania in increasingly wacky ways. First he rappels down a castle wall, only to be picked up by a cop. Then he attempts to flee by smuggling himself inside a coffin. When that doesn’t work, he makes an even-more-fanciful escape attempt by billing himself “Cannonball Corrigan” and getting shot out of a massive cannon, only to end up once again in police custody. At this point, he nonsensically turns into a cartoon character and grooves his way through a Day-Glo animated credit sequence that bears a distinct resemblance to the slightly more heralded opening sequences of The Pink Panther films. 

An agent is brought to an assembly hall by his glowering superior to meet “the top secret agents of America,” a group that includes buxom sexpots representing the “Hooker Section”; gun-toting, sheet-wearing faux-Klansman from the “Bigotry Department”; a group of stereotypical Asians representing the “Laundry Infiltration Group” (The Phynx was released in 1970, several years before the invention of racial sensitivity); mustachioed agents from “Castro’s Convertibles”; clean-cut jocks from “Madison Avenue Undercover”; African-Americans from the “Sock It To ’Em Squad”; priests from the “Church Infiltration Division”; and plain old riot-gear-sporting cops from the “Educational Division.” (’Cause the pigs were all about beating in the brains of college kids, ya dig?) It’s unclear why the various undercover departments all arrived at the meeting in costume, but they clearly take their jobs very seriously.  

As part of their training, the group that will become The Phynx meets intense young instructor Richard Pryor, who wears a chef outfit and introduces himself, “I’m here to teach you soul!” But the film cuts away before the soul lessons can really begin. 

The government ensures in the most thuggish manner imaginable that The Phynx’s album rockets up the charts: They have operatives write “Phynx” on a record-store wall in machine-gun fire after pumping ammunition into the competition. Soon, The Phynx is so popular that Richard Nixon is signing a law changing the name of “Thanksgiving” to “Phynxgiving.” The U.S. mint begins printing $3 bills emblazoned with group members’ faces, and astronauts bring a copy of The Phynx with them to the moon. Before long, The Phynx earns an award for “the largest-selling album in the history of the world” from the music industry’s official ambassador, Godfather Of Soul James Brown.

Once The Phynx finally makes it into the castle where the “world leaders” are being held, the band is favored with the elaborate entrances of a slow-moving parade of Hollywood dinosaurs (true to form, those geriatric rapscallions Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall of The Bowery Boys stomp the foot of the foppish lad announcing their arrival). In fact, The Phynx finds time for shtick from its gallery of faded stars, from Jessel to Bergen, plus the incomparable Butterfly McQueen. “I gotta brainstorm, let’s crack out of this creepy joint!” Gorcey enthuses. Then a more ingenious solution to their dilemma is found: The elderly guest stars are smuggled out of Albania in horse-drawn carriages ostensibly delivering radishes, a fittingly far-out end to a seriously wacky, painfully strained, quasi-hip comedy that at times feels like a weird, embryonic version of Austin Powers. 

Can easily be distinguished by: Its strange, Skidoo-like conviction that there was nothing stoned young hippie audiences wanted more from a comedy than guest appearances from geriatric stars whose careers peaked well before their viewers were born. 

Sign that it was made in 1970: What about The Phynx’s countercultural scramble of rock, satire, and political shenanigans doesn’t scream 1970? If nothing else, appearances from Richard Nixon and a villainous colonel reading Portnoy’s Complaint mark this as a product of that year. It’s a testament to the film’s all-encompassing strangeness that having Nixon (voiced by Rich Little, in his film debut) pop up intermittently with a box over his head to protect his identity only qualifies as the film’s 10th or so strangest component. 

Timeless message: People who are kidnapped by their government can be forced to do great things against their will. 

Memorable quotes: When the notion of smuggling a pre-fab pop group into Albania is proposed, a special agent in the guise of an innocent Cub Scout enthusiastically volunteers, “A pop group playing Albania! My dear adult, it can’t fail! National boundaries cannot separate teeny freaks. Do Beatles need passports? Pop-rock secret agents is a top-10 idea!”