“The Phynx”: Stan Cornyn’s “strange slice of 60s psuedo surrealism”

By and on May 23, 2015

With the recent passing of the great Stan Cornyn — our friend Dr. Demento was kind to offer up a nice remembrance of his former Warner Bros. colleague here — we were also reminded of the 1970 spy movie spoof he’d written the screenplay for, The Phynx, a little pop-rock espionage farce about a band put together by a C.I.A.-type organization to help rescue kidnapped celebrities. We think it deserves to be remembered too.

Have a look at the animated sequence here that opens the film (the rest of it is live-action!), and be sure to check out the exclusive comments we got from Denny Sarokin, and Night Flight contributor Larry Hankin, who were both in the movie.

First of all, let’s just start with this: the reason you may not have heard about The Phynx was that it was not a box-office success, which is understandable, since there was just one screening, the premiere at the Glendale Shopping Center in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 6, 1970, and there may have been just one screening in Los Angeles for cast members — and then it promptly disappeared for decades… or perhaps it was swept under a metaphorical giant rug or something like that (and Cornyn himself may have been the one with the broom in hand; according to music historian and writer Andy Zax, Stan Cornyn — talking about his only produced screenplay at the American Cinematheque in 2000 — said: “Watching this film for the first time in thirty years was the most embarrassing experience I can remember since my first marriage.”)

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The Phynx — named for the movie’s band, and pronounced like “finks,” which in 60s-era slang is similar to “stool pigeon,” “snitch,” “stoolie”… even “narc” — was not entirely forgotten, however. Fans of the movie traded copies on bootleg tapes for decades, first on VHS and then DVD, before it was officially released by Warner Archive for the first time in October 2012. Actual screenings of the film are still pretty rare; when The Phynx was screened in L.A. in 2013 as part of the Cinefamily‘s “Everything Is” film festival, some of the sources we’ve read said it was the first time in more than thirty years since the movie had been seen on the big screen.

The Phynx was really Stan Cornyn’s project from the get-go — based on a story he concocted with writers Bob Booker and George Foster, who were probably best known as gag writers for the Kennedy family parody The First Family, starring Vaughn Meader, in addition to some other political and Jewish comedy albums in the 1960s. The First Family was the only comedy album ever to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, in 1962, and no doubt Cornyn brought them aboard — or maybe he was brought on board by them? — and perhaps it was greenlit by Warner-Seven Arts based on Booker and Foster’s past success and knowing that the movie was going to be filled with cameo appearances by more than a dozen celebrities. Or soon-to-be former celebrities, you decide.

And as for those Phynx’s songs, Cornyn no doubt flipped through his Rolodex and found the perfect team to help come up with the band’s songs, the incredible songwriting/producing team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who had penned bona fied rock ‘n’ classics that we’re sure you have all heard, like “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,”Yakety Yak,” “Spanish Harlem,” “On Broadway” and “Stand by Me.” For this one, the songs don’t really stand out — “I’ve Got Them Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues” and “What is Your Sign?” are probably the stand outs — and some of them were even recorded later by artists as varied as Peggy Lee, Mandy Patinkin, Nancy Wilson and The Boys in the Band (“How About A Little Hand (For The Boys In The Band”) but pretty much everyone agrees that it isn’t Leiber and Stoller’s best work.

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The unreleased Phynx LP, courtesy of Andy Zax, who tells us this album cover was produced as a movie prop. Then they printed up a few more to use for publicity purposes. There was a soundtrack album planned, but it was never fully assembled or released.

The film’s director was Lee H. Katzin, who is probably best remember today as a detail-oriented TV director, although he did direct the 1971 Steve McQueen racing picture Le Mans a year later, a production fraught with issues because it was McQueen’s project and he didn’t let Katzin do what he wanted to do as a director. Katzin, it seems, was known mostly as a director who directed pilot episodes, and often he would only direct a few more episodes for the series, if that, and usually never work on the show again. His résumé looks impressive — he helmed episodes for popular TV shows like “Mission: Impossible,” “Branded,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “Rat Patrol,” “Mannix,” “It Takes A Thief,”Police Story,” and “Space: 1999,” to name just a few — but he’s probably not considered one of the “great” directors.

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In real life, of course, The Phynx were not really a band, and what really may have hurt the project was the casting of relative unknowns in the lead roles. In the movie, the four musicians in the Phynx were all hand-picked by M.O.T.H.A. (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans), a super-sophisticated computer shaped like a woman with tape reels and plastic cones for breasts.

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The band members whose names come out on the punch card come all walks of youthful counterculture life: one is an athlete, another is a campus militant, the third is a black TV model, and the fourth is an American Indian (remember, this was the late 60s/early 70s, and American Indians were in the news on a daily basis, showing up on TV shows and in movies, comic books and just about everything else). The athlete was Dennis Sarokin, credited here as Dennis Larden, who was a founding member of the MGM Records combo Every Mother’s Son. They had a hit song, “Come On Down To My Boat,” which had climbed to #6 on the Billboard charts in July 1967. Larden plays a college athlete, and when we first see him onscreen he is lifting weights before he’s sucked into a vent via a giant magnet. Then, there’s Michael A. Miller, who we first see as a student protester hoisting a sign reading “Space Available.” Next, there’s Lonny Stevens, an actor, and songwriter, who is stutteringly referred to here as the “Young Negro,” the “Colored Guy,” and, finally, the “Afro-American.” And finally, on bass and vocals, Ray Chippeway (not his real last name), who was an active musician, playing the club circuit in New York, including shows at CBGB’s. Chippeway here is playing an American Indian college graduate whose father says things like “White man make son pansy”;

After they’re chosen and thrown together, they’re then given intense bootcamp training. The rugged actor Clint Walker delivers a spectacular cameo in the film, playing a drill instructor who just happens to go by the name of Clint Walker. Richard Pryor plays a cook who serves them up “soul food” and teaches them about “soul.” It’s always fun to see these early performances of Pryor, knowing that he’d go on to much more success. By 1969, when The Phynx was being lensed, he’d already appeared been doing stand-up for more than five years, and had appeared on a lot of TV shows and in a few small parts on the big screen too – The Busy Body (1967) and Wild in the Streets (1968) — and he’d released his first self-titled comedy LP around this same time, and he’d been living in Berkeley, where his circle of intimates included Huey P. Newton and Ishmael Reed. Unfortunately, he’s not given much to do here, and even though his career was on an uptick again by 1970, this movie would have little to no affect on the trajectory of his career.

The boys are also taught self defense by Harold “Oddjob” Sakata, best known as one of the most famous henchman of the entire James Bond series. Finally, they’re taught music by, who else?! Trini Lopez! After all this, they’re then inspected by Dick Clark, best known at the time as “the world’s oldest teenager” and the host of  TV’s “American Bandstand,” who deems them ready for whatever is coming next. Then, the Phynx are very quickly making their debut on Ed Sullivan’s TV show — poor Ed is seen being held at gunpoint in front of his live studio audience in order to make this happen — and the album sales push the album to gold record status in twenty-minutes time.

Assorted hijinx continue, including a girl-filled scavenger hunt, which of course is basically a scheme to get an endless series of nubile young groupies out of their clothes. After a farewell orgy, thrown by the government, they’re first sent to London, where they meet with a double-agent, played by a mouthy Martha Raye, who reveals the secret map to their destination is tattooed on the bellies of her three daughters. The gags keep coming fast and furious: the x-ray specs in Rome, a “take-a-number bang-me” line in Copenhagen, etc. etc.

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Finally, the real reason for the band’s manufactured appearance is made apparent when they’re sent by the U.S. government to go behind the Iron Curtain, to the tiny communist country of Albania, where their musical mission is to play a concert in a secret Albanian castle — at the behest of Albanian Army Chief Rostinov, played by the great character actor Michael Ansara — and then rescue a group of kidnapped American celebrities, all of them cultural icons of note. When the Cinefamily had their screening in 2013, they said this: The Phynx is not just an avalanche of cameo porn — it’s a cameo porno holocaust, with crusty stars of yesteryear crammed in next to Baby Boomer hepcats, and, yes, even the real-life KFC maven.”

We’re talking about a wide array of Hollywood talent here, and this is just a sampling, in no particular order: recording artists James Brown (who plays the Ambassador of the Record Industry of the United States); crooner Rudy Vallee; comedic character actor Andy Devine; Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller; Jay “Tonto” Silverheels and the real replacement actor for TV’s “The Lone Ranger,” John Hart (they’re identified only as their character names); actresses Butterfly McQueen (from Gone With The Wind), Dorothy Lamour and Maureen O’Sullivan; boxer Joe Louis; fast food giant Harland “Colonel” Sanders; Patty Andrews (of  The Andrews Sisters); bandleaders Xavier Cugat and Guy Lombardo; choreographer Busby Berkeley and his original Gold Diggers; Pat O’Brien (who quips that if fate had been kinder, Ronald Reagan would be there instead of him!); “Dead End” kids Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (credited here as “the Bowery Boys”); comedian George Jessel; celebrity gossip queen Rhona Barrett; and, last but not least, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his pal Charlie McCarthy. We’ve even left a few out. There were other actors you’d recognize in key roles — like Lou Antonio, Mike Kellin, George Tobias, Joan Blondell, Larry Hankin, Teddy Eccles, Ultra Violet, Pat McCormick, Joseph Gazal, Bob Williams, and Barbara Noonan — but we think it’s safe to say that none of them were exactly box office heavyweights either.

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Typical of the humor is the fact that we get to see/hear a newsreel referring to Colonel Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Edgar Bergen, and others as “world leaders.” By the way, this turned out to be the final film appearance for several of the veteran performers in the cast, including Gorcey, George Tobias and Marilyn Maxwell, but it was also the feature film debuts of impressionist Rich Little (as the “Voice in the Box”), and future “All In The Family” TV starlet Sally Struthers.

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One of the best performances was by one of our favorites here at Night Flight, Larry Hankin, as record producer “Philbaby,” who is meant to represent, of course, the legendary Phil Spector.  His Philbaby character might have something of a “God complex” (we don’t see him walk on water, though, but we do see him fly over it). Philbaby creates a “wall of sound” for the band’s song, “What’s Your Sign?” and gets violently ill if he touches money, so he has to have his purple-haired assistant, played by Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, collect his fee.

We asked Larry — who played the part that was originally offered to Spector, who turned it down — what he remembered about working on The Phynx:

“I was this ersatz Christ rock n’ roll figure white robe, and I walked around barefoot. Ultra Violet was there, and the script called for me to suck her toe, so that’s what I did. We filmed that in an actual recording studio, in the soundbooth, and I’m picturing that it was the one on Santa Monica Blvd., a few blocks east of Vine. And then there was a scene where we were out on Venice Beach, and I was flown in by helicopter. Actually, I was suspended below the helicopter, by cables. I remember that we flew in from the ocean and they dropped me off at the beach. Once I landed, it was supposed to be a publicity stunt of some sort, and I walked on the beach — I don’t even think I had sandals on — and I was supposed to be a rock ‘n’ roller with a lot of money. It was such an obscure movie, that I don’t remember much about it. I think I saw it once, and generally if there’s nothing about it to further my career, I just dump stuff like this out of my head.”

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We also spoke to Denny Sarokin — we contacted him by phone at his home in Nashville, Tennessee — and he had a lot of great comments to make about the film. Take it away, Denny:

“I was living in New York at the time, and I was in between bands. Every Mother’s Son were over, and I was looking for something to do. I was just thumping around. I’d left college for that band, and I didn’t want to go back to college. I’d been using the name Larden because there was a time when my brother Larry and I were doing a folk duo thing and this guy who booked the Brooklyn cabana club had suggested we use a different last name, and so I used Larden as my last name, a contraction of our names Larry and Den.

Our manager Peter Leeds found out about this movie that Booker and Foster were working on, they had an office in the same building. You know how that is, they’re talking at the water cooler and somebody asks if our manager knew anyone, and I was looking for something, so my manager told me about it. These guys, Booker and Foster, they were ‘Laugh-In’ writers, and they’d been gag writers for Bob Hope. Nobody gave a shit about Bob Hope’s USO shows except our parents… and everything these guys wrote just sorta missed the train. It wasn’t funny. They came from that old school badaboom rimshot school of corny comedy writing, chasing whatever was wacky at the time, and ‘Laugh-In’ was popular and so was nostalgia. All these old actors were popping up in TV commercials, and they were working on this movie that was built around celebrity nostalgia, that was the whole point, to have Charo and her dog, and whatever.

So, anyway, they flew me out to L.A. to do this musical audition, and for me the best parts of the experience were working with the great musicians, Hal Blaine and Jerry Scheff and the Wrecking Crew. I did this super amphetamine version of ‘Get Together’ and I remember that went well, and then I found out that there were some other actors up for roles in the movie, including Mac Davis.

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Mike Kellin

I got the gig, and I didn’t even want to be an actor, I was a musician, and for me that was the attraction, working with Leiber and Stoller, and the session musicians. Jerry Scheff, Artie Butler, — he’d done the horns for Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’ and a lot of great tunes — Larry Knechtel, Jimmy Gordon. That was my biggest thrill, hanging out with them. Mike Stoller was very quiet, and Jerry Leiber was a class clown type, they were both very funny. I’d go over to this house they’d rented in Beverly Hills, I think it was, and I’d learn the songs and I remember them giving an impromptu reading of ‘Is That All There Is,’ I think it was Jerry who sang it in the office, and he couldn’t sing but he gave it sort of a street sound, and it was so great. These songs for the movie weren’t really their best songs, of course, but it was great just hanging out with them, being with them while they were writing the songs.

We had rehearsals over on Hollywood Blvd., across the street from the original Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie store. They gave us these musically garbage Vox instruments, and I remember we were all knocking our heads against the wall, trying to get these guys up to speed. At some point they brought in Jimmy Haskell to do the arrangements for Mike Stoller because it was proving to be too much for him, writing the songs and arranging everything. I was the only guy in the band who was a musician, really, so I was kind of the lynchpin, and I was by no means in the same league as the session musicians, but I could hold my own, I was a well-rounded enough guitarist. I did a couple of the vocal arrangements and I’d be in the studio with the guys all day and they’d bring in the other guys just to do their vocals, but I’d be there all day. And we did all of the recordings that we were going to lip-synch to in the movie.

The other guys were Lonny Stevens, he was an actor guy, a kind of a Sammy Davis Jr. ‘How are ya, baby?’ kind of guy. Michael was a surfer guy, he was a roadie for Buffalo Springfield, and he was friends with Neil Young and Stephen Stills and those guys. His mom owned Redken — Paula Kent Meehan — which was sort of the Vidal Sassoon of its day, before Vidal Sassoon. So he lived in that world, and let’s see… Ray played bass. He and I got along well. I still talk to Michael every couple of years.

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Rehearsals were uneventful, except that while we were rehearsing and getting ready to shoot, the Manson murders happened. And we were really in the middle of that — I’m not exactly saying we were hanging in the same exact crowd, but if we’re talking random, it could have just as easily been something that could have happened to me. Working on a Hollywood film, parties with producers, writers, stars… I remember having dinner at Carol O’Connor’s house in Malibu, he was just a character actor at the time, this was way before ‘All In The Family’, and I was thinking, we were talking about it, it could have happened to any of us. It was surreal.

The director, Lee Katzin, he was a dork. And they really treated us all bad, kind of crappy. It was always ‘hurry up, get in, get out’, and we were basically treated like set dressing. We were like sock puppets. And it was funny, because I didn’t have any acting experience, but I was kind of a funny guy, and as life went on, I wrote screenplays and I married a sitcom writer, and I was naturally funny, and I’d sneak in all this stuff, and then, because they were writing it all along, I’d start to get more lines and I was suddenly getting more and more to do. And the other guys, they started to realize this was going on, so they’d call their managers and complain and the managers would then call the writers and then, they’d sorta even it out. At one point, it wasn’t just like a straight line of four people, it was actually more like a pyramid, and I was at the top, and then after they called and complained, then it went back to more of an equal thing, a straight line, each of us the same. Then I’d call to my manager and say ‘I was funny’ and they liked what I was doing, but he told me not to cause any trouble, and he didn’t care, he was getting his percentage, his ten percent or whatever. He didn’t give a shit. I still did little things on camera, like we’d all leave the scene and I’d go last and do this little Charlie Chaplin waddle, or they’d be talking to all of us and I’d be doing something with my fingernails, looking down at my nails.

It was really a nightmare, just a goofy story, a ‘laughable musical romp’ or a satire, and you know, the story was ridiculous. They had this one guy, Mike Kellin, a really good actor, but they had him playing this Bogart-voiced character the whole time. The whole movie he’s doing this bad Bogey impression, on purpose, it was really stupid. Clint Walker almost walked off the set because he was playing this tough drill instructor guy and he was a real right wing kind of guy and thought they were making fun of the military, and he almost left the film.

The whole story — ‘America is outraged!! All of our old stars are disappearing! They’ve been kidnapped! What do we do?! We’ve got to get our Tarzan and Jane back!’ -- and then they have this robot, this female robot with fucking spinning tits and punch cards coming out of her snatch, and the card says ‘create this band and send them to Albania to the Albanian Radish Festival to play!,’ or whatever it was, and that was the premise. It was all built around that sock-it-to-me cornball humor.

We shot on the Warner lot, and in Rome, London, and in Madrid and Segovia, in Spain, and we lived for two weeks in the castle in Ávila, which is where Cary Grant and Sophia Loren filmed ‘The Pride and the Passion’. But we were props, really, and there was no creative energy from the four of us as a band. And the soundtrack, it wasn’t Leiber and Stoller’s best work, for sure.

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My most memorable event that took place during the movie was when I ended up smoking hash on a break with Tonto [Jay Silverheels] and Huntz Hall. The other guy, Gorcey, he was a big boozer, and they were going to throw him off the film and Martha Raye too, she was drunk a lot and they’d stick her head in a bucket of water. I had another great experience which happened when the cast were taken out to lunch, at Scardinos, and I was seated beside Colonel Sanders, and at the restaurant I noticed he order the filet of sole and I asked him if he ate chicken and he said he never did. On the way back, we were in the limo, and I noticed looked out and across the street was a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so I got out, and went inside, and I ordered a meal, like a number three or whatever, and it came with a breast, leg and thigh, let’s say, and I asked to substitute for three breasts, and they said ‘We can’t do that?’ and so I argued with them about it and I finally said, ‘Well, the Colonel lets me do it,’ and then I went out to the limo and got him and brought him in and he said to them ‘Give him what he wants!’

And then the real problem was, this was the last film for Warner-Seven Arts, and then Warner-Kinney took over and they looked at the film and said ‘what’s this little piece of shit?’ and I don’t think they screened it at all, maybe for the cast. But they didn’t put it out. They had our film and the Woodstock movie, and they were more focused on that and their new projects, and this one just sorta was set aside. When they put it out on DVD it was put down as kind of a so-bad-it’s-great movie, ‘The Monkees meets ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ or whatever.”

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The people involved in making the 1968 movie Head – all four members of the Monkees, along with Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson,  and Jack Nicholson — did a much better job of using a pre-fab pop band to move along an essentially incomprehensible counterculture-laced plot that might be lampooning any number of thing that need lampooning, including the popularity of Cold War-era espionage movies, the essentially hit-motivated and soulless music industry, the rise and fall of celebrities in popular culture, etc.

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If you’re looking for a comparison here, the film we’re mostly reminded of was Otto Preminger’s 1968 acid-drenched box-office disaster Skidoo, which featured a great score by George Tipton and Harry Nilsson, and scads of great celebrity cameos too, but it suffered — as this one does — from a little bit of TTH (tryin’ too hard) in the attempt to be funny. By 1970, it’s fair to say that Booker and Foster’s (and Cornyn’s) gags weren’t working like they used to work. Like just about everything about this movie, having them working on the project probably looked good on paper, but the results weren’t as necessarily successful on celluloid.

Coming just a few years after movies like Head and Skidoo, The Phynx feels like another case of a movie coming a little too late and not being funny enough, but we still think you oughta take a look and decide for yourself.

We’ll let Denny Sarokin have the last word on The Phynx:

Sarokin: “I’ll tell you this joke that illustrates this movie. It’s a variation on an old joke, a classic Hollywood joke. There’s this film director, this 95-year old Cecile B. DeMille guy, and he dies, and he goes to heaven, and St. Peter meets him and says ‘We have this movie we’re doing and we’d like you to direct it.’ And the director says ‘I’m afraid not, I’m really exhausted’ and St. Peter says ‘Shakespeare is doing the script,‘ and the director says ‘Shakespeare!’ but then he says, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m going to have to pass,’ and then St. Peter says ‘Wolfgang will be upset’, and the director says ‘Wolfgang?’, and St. Peter says, ‘Wolfgang, Mozart, he’s doing the music’ and the director says, ‘I need time to rest…I’m exhausted’ and St. Peter says ‘Michelangelo… he’ll be so sad’ and the director says ‘Michelangelo?’ and St. Peter says ‘He’s the art director’, and the director says ‘Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo…and me? OK, I’m in. I’ll do it.’ And then St. Peter says, ‘There’s the one little thing, God has this girlfriend who sings….’ And that’s what this movie was, The Phynx, it was like God’s girlfriend who can’t sing…’ the metaphorical symbolic God’s girlfriend who can’t sing, there’s always a Hollywood X-factor, from the suits and the back office, the thing that blindsides the project.”

Thanks, Denny!

Denny Sarokin has written for, and recorded and toured with Every Mother’s Son, Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and Buddy Jewell, and written and recorded hundreds of songs for TV and soundtracks. He’s a producer, studio musician, and a regular on the Nashville “Writers-In-the-Round” circuit, and he’s one of Nashville’s premier guitar instructors: he is available for private consultations, critiques, and demo production. His book Songwriting in 3D is available at his website, right here, and you’ll be able to find additional info there about DVDs and other books he’s written.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Bill Shute

    I’ve always been a fan of Dennis Larden/Denny Sarokin (from his great work with Rick Nelson and Every Mother’s Son), so it’s exciting to get his insider perspective on this fascinating train-wreck of a film. It is kind of like a second-string Monkees crammed into Skidoo, but with so much talent involved, it is worth watching for that alone. An excellent piece….many thanks.