Maureen O’Sullivan

The Phynx (1970)

Before I get into this review, let me just say one thing about what I am about to describe: I’m not making any of this up. I’m well aware of how bizarre this is all going to sound, but I promise you, all of this actually does happen.

When several influential world figures such as Colonel Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Dorothy Lamour, Xavier Cugat, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), and Johnny Weissmuller are kidnapped to Albania, a band of secret agents gets together to find a way to bring them back. This band of secret agents is led by some guy with a box on his head and the band of secret agents includes hookers, the KKK, some guys who work on Madison Avenue, and some boy scouts. One of the boy scouts suggest they ask a computer named MOTHA (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans) what she recommends. MOTHA comes up with the elegantly simple and failproof plan of manufacturing a rock band and have them become successful enough be invited to perform in Albania so they can free these world figures.

MOTHA also gives the names of the people she has chosen to be in this fake rock band, which she has decided will be named The Phynx. Once they’ve all been officially recruited, they start training to be rock stars. Naturally, they end up being a huge success in America and in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, other world figures like Joe Louis, Busby Berkeley (and the original Gold Diggers), Maureen O’Sullivan, Patty Andrews, and Pat O’Brien have also gone missing. Luckily, by then, the band has gotten successful enough for the Albanian Minister of Culture to want them to perform at their national flower day event.

Once in Albania, the band sneaks into a castle where an Albanian leader and his wife, played by Joan Blondell, are keeping all these world figures. They’re also treating Colonel Sanders like a servant. It turns out they kidnap these stars because Joan Blondell’s character is American and misses American culture, so they bring it to Albania. In addition to all the stars already mentioned, they’ve also kidnapped George Jessel, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Ruby Keeler, Cass Dailey, Rudy Vallee, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, just to name a few.

The Phynx decides to play a song for all the stars in hopes of inspiring all the stars to return to America. The plan is a success and the stars are moved by this song. First, George Jessel says they should leave and Butterfly McQueen seconds the idea. But how will they get out? Huntz Hall suggests they all sneak out by hiding in carts full of radishes and I guess nobody else had any other ideas, so they went with it, leading to a moment where Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan reprise their famous “Me Tarzan, Me Jane” lines in a radish cart. The plan is a success and all these influential figures return to America!

…No, really, I did not make any of this up. This actually is what happens in The Phynx. I have absolutely no explanation as to why this movie was ever made. I have no idea why all these people agreed to be in this movie. (In addition to all the kidnapped stars, people like Richard Pryor, Dick Clark, and Ed Sullivan all make cameos. Why? I don’t know.) It’s one of the most completely incomprehensible movies I’ve ever seen, but the fact that it exists at all absolutely delights me.

The Phynx didn’t have much of a release back in 1970 (now that, I can understand) and was never officially released on home video until Warner Archive released it on DVD a few years back. It’s kind of dull in the beginning, but if you stick with it to the end, it goes completely and totally off the rails with this cavalcade of movie stars and other celebrities. Some of the stars make total sense to have together like Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller; Pat O’Brien, Leo Gorcey, and Huntz Hall; and Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell (alas, there were no scenes where Berkeley, Blondell, and Keeler actually interact with each other). But somehow, it all seems so incredibly thrown together and random. As a fan of so many of these stars, I loved getting to see them all together, even if it was in such a nonsense movie. If nothing else, I was excited to see that Ultra Violet makes an appearance in this because it means The Phynx is a movie that appeals to my interests in Busby Berkeley musicals and Andy Warhol’s factory scene. Because, really, how often do I get to combine those interests?

I’m just going to leave you with a few screencaps of my favorite moments from this movie, if for no other reason than to prove that these things actually happened. This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Phynx Leader Box Guy

The leader of the band of secret agents.

Joan Blondell Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joan Blondell with Colonel Sanders, which is my new favorite picture.

Joe Louis Johnny Weissmuller Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joe Louis and Johnny Weissmuller looking serious with Colonel Sanders in the background.

Maureen O'Sullivan, George Jessel, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy The Phynx

Maureen O’Sullivan, George Jessel, and Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley The Phynx

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley reunited

The Phynx Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Phynx Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller

Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller having a Tarzan reunion in a cart full of radishes.  (OK, this moment was cute.)

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall The Phynx

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall

Shout out to Danny from pre-code.com for bringing this movie to my attention and inspiring me to write my most baffling review ever.

Pre-Code Essentials: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate Weissmuller O'Sullivan

Plot

Some time has passed since Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) gave up on civilization style to live in the African wilderness with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and she couldn’t be happier with her new life. Some of Jane’s old friends miss her and when Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) and Marlin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) return to Africa to find an elephant graveyard so they can collect their tusks, they also plan to return with Jane. They bring her some of the latest fashions, cosmetics, and music, and although Jane is happy to have a little taste of civilization again, she wants to stay with Tarzan.

Harry and Marlin are also hoping Tarzan can lead them to the fabled elephant graveyard, but when Tarzan learns they plan to take the tusks, he refuses to help. When Harry and Marlin go ahead to the elephant graveyard anyway, he arrives with a herd of live elephants to stop them; forcing them to give up the ivory. Unfortunately, Harry and Marlin aren’t willing to go down without a fight, but they fail to realize the kind of power Tarzan has on the other jungle inhabitants.


My Thoughts

Adventure movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but I do have a soft spot for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. Even some of the lesser Tarzan movies are still pretty entertaining. But Tarzan and His Mate is without a doubt one of the best of the series; I like it even more than Tarzan the Ape Man. It’s got plenty of action and excitement and is very fun to watch.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Without a doubt, that distinction goes to Jane’s infamous nude swimming scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Some movies have one scene that is so infamous, that one scene alone is enough for them to be considered an essential pre-code. Just like Miriam Hopkins’ undressing scene made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde an essential pre-code, Jane’s nude swimming scene puts Tarzan and His Mate in that same level of notoriety.

Although many people think Maureen O’Sullivan did her own swimming in that scene, Jane’s swimming skills can actually be credit to Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. Quite famously, three different versions of this scene were filmed and sent out to different areas. Of course, there’s the version where Jane swims completely nude. In another version, Jane is topless, but has a bottom on, and in the third version, Jane swims in her usual outfit. The fully nude version of this scene wasn’t rediscovered until the 1990s and has since been restored.

As much attention as the nude swimming scene gets, Tarzan and His Mate is one of the few (if not the only) pre-codes I’ve ever seen that has gratuitous male undressing scenes in it.

Pre-Code Essentials: Skyscraper Souls (1932)

Warren William Skyscraper Souls

Plot

There are only two things bank owner David Dwight (Warren William) cares about: women and his hundred story skyscraper in New York City. He’s married to Ella (Hedda Hopper), but as long as he keeps paying her bills, she doesn’t mind if he steps out. He’s been carrying on an long-term affair with his secretary Sarah (Verree Teasdale), who really wants to get married, but David has no interest in doing anything more than give her a trust fund. Instead, David is far more concerned with protecting his prized skyscraper from bank inspectors, who are after him for taking out a huge loan from his own bank to pay for the building.

To get the investigators off his back, David merges the bank with another one and conspires with the president of the other bank to inflate their bank’s stock, then sell it short, even though it would ruin the other investors. Meanwhile, Sarah’s secretary Lynn (Maureen O’Sullivan) has been dating bank teller Tom Shepard (Norman Foster), although she’d much rather be married to a rich man. After Lynn and Tom have a fight, Sarah talks to him and gives him a tip about investing in the bank, not realizing what David plans to do. Hoping to get enough money to marry Lynn, Tom buys the stock only to end up being just one of many people financially destroyed by David. Everyone is angry at David, except for Lynn, who David has been setting up to replace Sarah as his next girlfriend. But Sarah cares too much about Lynn to let David ruin Lynn the way he’s ruined everyone else.


My Thoughts

Before there was Michael Douglas in Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, there was Warren William in Skyscraper Souls to serve as the cinematic poster boy for corporate greed. Considering what a contemptible person David Dwight is, it’s rather baffling that this is such an overlooked movie nowadays when people start talking about portrayals of corporate greed in film. Over 80 years later and I’d say Warren William remains the king of playing cold, ruthless characters. But as great brilliant as Warren William is in this, I also really love Verree Teasdale as Sarah. I love how in the end, as devoted as she was to David, she was even more devoted to and protective of Lynn. You just don’t see that kind of relationship often enough in movies.

The movie on the whole is very much worth watching. It has a bit of a Grand Hotel vibe to it, but on a smaller scale. It really deserves to get more credit for being a great movie in general, and not just for being a great pre-code.

And be sure to keep an eye out for a particular dress worn by Anita Page. Perhaps you might recognize it from another certain MGM hit from 1932…

Anita Page Joan Crawford Dress


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Murder, suicide, unscrupulous businessmen, prostitutes, cursing, womanizing…let’s just say that if we had a game of Pre-Code Bingo going, you could fill up your card really fast by watching Skyscraper Souls. Pretty much the only ways this movie could get more pre-code is if they had worked in some drug use, gay characters, or some kind of blasphemous statement.

The Tall T (1957)

The Tall TWhile making a trip to buy a seed bull, cowboy Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) loses a bet with his former employer and has to give up his horse.  Pat starts walking home and along the way, he’s passed by his friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt), who is driving a stagecoach with newlyweds Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Willard Mims (John Hubbard) on board.  Ed offers to give Pat a lift, but when they arrive at a way station, a group of three men — Frank Usher (Richard Boone), Billy Jack (Skip Homeier), and Chink (Henry Silva) — holds them at gunpoint and tries to rob them.

Ed tries to reach for his gun, but is shot down.  Willard, who has only married Doretta for her money, tells the robbers that they could get more money by sending a ransom note to Doretta’s father than they could by robbing stagecoaches.  Frank writes a ransom note and sends Willard and Billy to deliver it while the others leave for the robbers’ camp.  Willard and Billy arrive at the camp the next day with news that Doretta’s father has agreed to pay a $50,000 ransom and Willard gets permission to leave camp, but is shot dead before he can get very far.

When Frank leaves to get the ransom from Doretta’s father, that leaves Billy and Chink to keep an eye on Pat and Doretta.  But luckily for Pat and Doretta, their captors are easily manipulated and Pat comes up with a plan to break free.

I quite enjoyed The Tall T.  Randolph Scott is fantastic in it and Budd Botticher’s direction is excellent.  It’s a fast paced story loaded with grit and suspense; there isn’t a single moment that left me looking at the clock wondering how much of the movie was left.  The Tall T is one of those westerns that makes it very easy for people who aren’t typically fans of westerns to enjoy it.  Definitely keep your eye out for this one on the TCM schedule.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

After spending seventeen years in prison for being wrongfully accused of robbing a bank in Paris, Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes along with Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scienist.  The two of them make their way to Marcel’s home where his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has been carrying on his work.  Marcel’s big mission has been to find a way to shrink human beings down to the size of dolls.  Marcel has good intentions for this idea, but Paul sees it as a way to potentially get revenge on the three people who framed him for that bank robbery.

When they successfully shrink one of Malita’s maids, it turns out the shrunken humans can be manipulated through mind control.  Marcel doesn’t live to enjoy his success, so Paul and Malita go to Paris to carry on his work and so that Paul can carry out his revenge scheme.  By then, news of Paul’s prison break has made the news and there’s a big reward for anyone who can capture him.  Victor (Arthur Hohl), Emil (Robert Greig), and Charles (Pedro de Cordoba), the men who framed Paul, are worried that Paul is out to get them.  To avoid the police, Paul disguises himself as a kind old lady named Madame Mandilip who owns a toy store.

However, the one person in Paris Paul really wants to see is his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan).  He hasn’t seen her in years, but finds out that she hasn’t had an easy life and is very bitter and angry toward her father.  More determined than ever, he sets out to get back at the men really responsible for the robbery.  Disguised as Madame Mandilip, he brings one of the shrunken humans to Victor at the bank, convinces him it’s a doll, and gets him to invest in the dolls.  When Victor stops by the toy store, he gets turned into a doll.  Later, Paul sells a doll to Emil’s wife and manipulates it to steal her jewelery and inject Emil with a drug that leaves him paralyzed.  By then, Charles is so terrified about what might happen to him that he breaks down and confesses to everything.  With the truth finally being made known, the only thing left for Paul to do is make sure Lorraine is all right.

The Devil-Doll is certainly an unusual movie. After all, just how often do you get to watch Lionel Barrymore play an elderly woman?  This movie could have easily been a complete mess, but leave it to Tod Browning to make it work.  The performances are good, it’s got plenty of creepy horror moments, but there’s some real heart to it, too.  It’s one of those movies that you really just have to see.  If you’re a fan of The Unholy Three, The Devil-Doll will probably be right up your alley.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

When Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) finds out that some people working for a circus have come to his jungle to capture animals for their show, he warns them to leave.  They agree, although, Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is very curious about the airplane they came in and keeps trying to hang around it.  Just as the circus workers are about to go back to America, they see Boy near their plane.  Boy shows off some of the tricks he can get the animals to do, and one of the workers realizes that he’d be a great asset to the circus so he takes him to New York with them.  When Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) find out where their plane was headed, they trade in some gold for new clothes and plane tickets and head on over to New York with Cheeta along for the ride.

Naturally, there are lots of opportunities for Tarzan to be confused by civilization and for Cheeta to wreak havoc.  They manage to find out where Boy is, but they have to go through the courts to get him back.  Tarzan and Jane are honest when questioned, but Tarzan doesn’t like it when Jane has to admit they aren’t Boy’s birth parents and decides to get Boy back his own way.  He jumps out the window and starts swinging between the skyscrapers and later ends up diving off the Brooklyn Bridge to get away from the police.  He makes his way back to the circus and nearly rescues Boy, but the circus workers trap him.  Tarzan and Boy manage to escape with some help from their animal friends and although the Judge sentences Tarzan to jail, he suspends the sentence, allowing the happy family to return to the jungle.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure is hardly great cinema, it’s not even the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies.  It’s completely silly and ridiculous, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for it just because it really makes me laugh.  Cheeta’s antics were pretty amusing and the scenes of Tarzan swinging his way through New York City were pretty cool.  Tarzan’s New York Adventure is noteworthy for being the last Tarzan film made at MGM and for being the last time Maureen O’Sullivan played Jane so this was a fun way for them to end their time with Tarzan.  Not quite as good as Tarzan, the Ape Man or Tarzan and His Mate, but  lots of fun nonetheless.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

About a year after the events of Tarzan the Ape Man, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) returns to the African jungle with Martin Arlington to go back to the elephant graveyard to gather some ivory.  But Harry isn’t just hoping to go home with some ivory.  He’s still in love with Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and wants to convince her to come back with him.  In hopes of winning her over, he’s brought along lots of beautiful clothes, stockings, perfume, and records to remind her of all the things she’s missing back in civilization.

Since Harry has made the trip before, he knows one thing for sure — they won’t be able to make it to the elephant graveyard without help from Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller).  They set out on their expedition and naturally, it’s very treacherous.  Eventually they meet up with Tarzan and Jane and despite Jane very firmly insisting that she’ll never leave Tarzan, Harry tries winning her over anyway.  He shows her all the fashionable gowns he brought for her and although they are tempting, Jane has become too fond of jungle life and of Tarzan. The expedition continues and Tarzan is only too happy to help them along the way.  At least he is until he finds out that they’re planning to take ivory from the elephant graveyard.  After that, he wants nothing to do with them. But Martin is determined to get to that elephant graveyard and shoots one of Tarzan’s elephant friends, knowing it would go there to die so they could follow it. 

The plan works, but before they can take any of the ivory, Tarzan and Jane come charging in with a herd of elephants to put a stop to it.  To get him off their case, Martin and Harry say they won’t take any ivory with them when they leave, but the next day, Martin shoots Tarzan and leaves him for dead.  When Jane realizes Tarzan is missing, everyone searches for him, but can’t find him anywhere.  She can’t help but fear the worst when Martin tells her he’s dead.  With no other option, a heartbroken Jane starts to head back with the expedition party.  But along the way, Cheeta comes to tell Jane that Tarzan is still alive after all!  He had been found by some chimpanzees who nursed him back to health.  She goes to find him, but the expedition party is suddenly attacked by a native tribe.  Just when it looks like this is really the end for Jane, sure enough, Tarzan comes swinging in on a vine to rescue her.

Tarzan and His Mate is one of those rare sequels that is just as good, if not better, than the original.  It’s got all the action, adventure, and hilarious rear projection shots that made Tarzan, the Ape Man entertaining, but with even more risqué pre-code stuff.  There’s lots of innuendo between Jane, Harry, and Martin.  Maureen O’Sullivan spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing, or in one memorable scene, nothing at all. Surprisingly, for once, the skimpy outfits and gratuitous undressing aren’t only for the women.  Johnny Weissmuller isn’t wearing very much either and early in the film, there’s a gratuitous shot of a man getting undressed and sitting in a bath.  This is my favorite of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films.  Anything after this one is a little hit or miss, but Tarzan, the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate are the two Tarzan movies most worth seeing.