Ruby Keeler

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: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

Dames (1934)

Dames 1934 Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley loved to taunt censors and uptight people, so I guess it’s no big surprised that he did a whole movie making fun of the morally self-righteous.  In Dames, Hugh Herbert plays Ezra Ounce, an eccentric millionaire with exceptionally high moral standards.  He’s looking for family members he can leave ten  million dollars to in his will and it looks like his cousin Matilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) is one of his few options.  The catch is that he wants to leave his money only to the most upstanding family members, so nobody like his distant relative Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), who has his career in showbiz.  To make sure Matilda and her family meets his high standards, he goes to New York to live with them for a while and his stay is a disaster before he even arrives.  Matilda’s husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) accompanies him on the trip by train and returns to his cabin to find showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) sleeping in his bed.  She needed a way to get out-of-town after her show closed so she snuck into his cabin.  Trying to avoid a scandal, Horace gives her $200 and tells her not to mention it to anybody.

Meanwhile, Horace’s daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) has been having an affair with Jimmy (they’re 13th cousins) and wants to star in one of his shows someday.  With Uncle Ezra in town, it’s a challenge to keep all these juicy details from costing them their inheritance.  Especially when Mabel comes back and blackmails Horace into giving her the money Jimmy needs to put on his new show so that she can star in it.  When the press writes about the new show, they say it’s positively scandalous and that it’s being backed by a mysterious millionaire.  On opening night, Horace, Ezra, and Matilda show up just to see how bad it is.  The first musical number doesn’t shock them too much, but then Barbara does her first number and they’re pleased with how harmless it was.  By the end of the show, they think it’s great!  But their change in mood also had something to do with the fact that they spent the entire show drinking a health tonic that happens to be 23% alcohol.  But at long last, Uncle Ezra realizes that being high and mighty is awfully overrated!

1933 was a truly spectacular year for Busby Berkeley.  He added his signature touch to three of the most iconic musicals of all time, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, all in the same year.  With a year like that, it should come as no surprise that by 1934, he’d be slowing down just a little bit.  Dames most definitely doesn’t live up to the standards of Footlight Parade, but in all fairness, it would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to anything he had done the previous year.  The story and the musical numbers simply aren’t as solid or memorable as some of his previous efforts.  I’ll walk around with The Shadow Waltz stuck in my head all day, but Girl at the Ironing Board doesn’t have the same effect on me.  Even though we get to see a lot of the classic stars of Busby Berkeley movies like Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, they just don’t shine as brightly as they had before.  But with all that being said, I did enjoy Dames.  I loved the Dames number and I Only Have Eyes For You.  It was also very funny.  Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade definitely had comedy in them, but Dames was a lot sillier than either of those.  And just because the stars didn’t have quite the same spark as they had before, they certainly weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a fun three-star follow-up to an unbeatable four-star streak of movies.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with Busby Berkeley musicals.  42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, I love them all.  I can’t watch one of his musical numbers without wondering what on Earth was going through Berkeley’s mind when he came up with these kaleidoscopic extravaganzas.  As much as I love 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, if I had to take one Busby Berkeley musical with me to that deserted island, I think I’d go with Gold Diggers of 1933.

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