Japanese Chaplinese

Tash would constantly be at us to check out these silent one and two-reelers playing at some rundown theater in L.A.”  This reminiscence was told to me by the brilliant animator Bob Clampett about his days and nights at Warner Bros. Termite Terrace back in the 1930s and ‘40s.  “After a long – and I mean LONG – day’s work, the last thing we wanted to do was to watch twenty-year-old movies into the early morning hours.  Back then, it was the only outlet for seeing these pictures.  Frank would remind us that it wasn’t just Chaplin and Keaton – but scores of other fantastic then-forgotten comedians…All that second-tier Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stuff…I guess he had the last laugh.”

To be sure, there are many laughs to be had with the Olive Films/Paramount Blu-Ray release of 1958’s THE GEISHA BOY, one of the director’s finest (of eight) collaborations with frequent star Jerry Lewis.

Frank Tashlin, whose Looney Tunes are among the funniest cartoons ever made, dreamt of breaking into live-action comedy – a goal realized by his contributing inventive visuals for the Marx Bros. and, more prominently, Bob Hope.  Tashlin’s work on A Night in Casablanca encompasses its most memorable gag.  A cop approaches Harpo, who is leaning against a brick structure.  “What are ya doin’, holding up that building?” he asks the mute funnyman, who ecstatically nods.  Need I divulge the punch line?

Ben Hecht wrote that one of his more pleasurable Hollywood writing sojourns occurred when shacked up with Harpo and Tashlin in Marx’s abode hammering out a 1949 silent feature to star the clown sans his siblings.  Once the sleazy producers sold the project to UA as a Marx Bros. comedy, both Hecht and Tashlin (with Harpo’s blessings) left the now-unhappy former labor-of-love project, which ironically became known as Love Happy.

Tashlin’s ideas for Hope translated into mucho critical and audience acclaim via his cartoonish bits for The Paleface.  When The Lemon Drop Kid started to drag in the rushes, Hope asked Tash to step in and pep it up without credit.  The picture was huge, and Hope rewarded the former animator with Son of Paleface; the rest be history (Clampett told me that at Tashlin’s 1972 funeral only three members of the show business community were present: himself, Hope and Ray Walston).

That Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis should collide like two locomotives hellbent for mischief was a near-given; how unsurprising is it that this former Merrie Melodies master would be best remembered for his big screen efforts starring either Lewis or Jayne Mansfield – the movies’ closest evocation to live-action cartoons.

Tashlin’s first Jerry adventure had been the 1955 Martin & Lewis Technicolor riot Artists and Models, arguably the team’s best movie (with a plotline concerning the effects of comic books on America’s deteriorating youth).  Now working as a single, Lewis chose Tashlin to helm 1958’s Rock-A-Baby, a strange re-working of Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.  Lewis, who increasingly disliked his position in the Hollywoodland pecking order as what he termed “…a second-class citizen.” was due to the fact that his vehicles were often remakes of earlier movie triumphs – with the comedian’s roles having been previously enacted by African-Americans or women (Scared Stiff, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young).

By 1958, Jerry had risen to the position of one of the top entertainers in the world – and here his desire to emulate the great Chaplin surfaced with a vengeance.  Tashlin thus concocted a story wherein Lewis – an inept magician, known only in the picture as The Great Wooley – finagles a USO tour of Japan.  His numerous faux pas, mostly regarding lewd sexual confrontations with a buxom Hollywood starlet, bring unprecedented joy to an orphaned Japanese boy – thereby setting up the narrative.

One might think this poignant twosome betwixt the big kid and small one would be lip-bitingly cloying, but they amazingly work.  The scenes involving Lewis and the child actor Robert Hirano make the fast and furious sight gags ring louder than the bells of Notre Dame.

And dames there are plenty.  The child’s aunt is the ridiculously beautiful Nobu Atsumi McCarthy, who instantly becomes devoted to Lewis.  Ditto the female sergeant assigned to the tour – Suzanne Pleshette in her screen debut (who looks like she’s all of 15 years old).  Finally, there’s the literal butt of all the pic’s jokes – the mercifully good sport Marie McDonald, who was saddled with the moniker “The Body” throughout her Tinsel Town tenure (comedy fans might best remember her as one of Abbott & Costello’s island objects of affection in 1942’s Pardon My Sarong).

As reel after reel unspools, McDonald, thanks to Jerry, is embarrassed in a bathhouse, has her clothes repeatedly torn off, gets Barton MacLane shoved into her business and is booty-bounced down an airplane gangplank – much to the giggling delight of the up-till-now solemn tiny tot Mitsuo Watanabe (Hirano), whom Lewis hilariously name-mangles as Mitzvah Wet-Nebble.

As with most Tashlin pics, the underlying sexual material is as eyebrow-raising as it is obvious.  This is immediately evidenced via the lush main titles, which are akin to the director’s attempt to do a color video promo for Naruse’s subsequent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Tashlin’s credit is plastered over a gorgeous geisha’s bare breasts).

Pleshette, who already has mastered the disbelieving Oliver Hardy double take (which she would further hone on The Bob Newhart Show), gets some big yuks in an essentially thankless role.  Her seriously disturbed “ewww” looks at Lewis whilst he tosses a salad (in the most extreme clean slapstick sense of the word) skillfully underlines the joke.  Ditto her deadpan response to Lewis’ fears of being captured and brainwashed by the communists (“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”).  Less so is her Fifties feminine politicizing once she realizes that Lewis and Kimi (McCarthy) are becoming an item.  Eschewing all that “women’s emancipation” jazz, Pleshette vows to be submissive to the next man she meets…like all the Japanese girls.  She really needs to see a Meiko Kaji/Lady Snowblood movie.

The hysterical head-on meets with Kimi’s behemoth boyfriend, the pituitary Great Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura) represents Tashlin and Lewis in high gear.  It also punctuates the fact that THE GEISHA BOY is an incredibly smart movie for 1958.

The American obsession with the Japanese post-war culture that began specifically with two Brando pics Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara is continuously stated via the color scheme and set design.  Suburban homes were regularly hanging multi-hued paper lanterns over their patios, and becoming kimono-obsessed.  Furthermore, the influx of the Kurosawa imports on Yankee shores were reaping hefty profits.  That Ichiyama is a Japanese baseball player and, in the course of events, gets pitted against the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers (who guest star) is another shrewd marketing move.

The supreme coup is the casting of former silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa as Kimi’s stern father.  His efforts to cheer up his grandson result in the picture’s biggest single laugh:  his using slave labor to construct a mini bridge on the River Kwai in their backyard.  Hayakawa, dressed in the identical military uniform that he had worn a year earlier in the David Lean WWII epic, had them falling out of the aisles in 1958.  A friend of mine once told me that he and his mom were passing by a theater playing THE GEISHA BOY and you could hear the laughs out on the street.  The manager told his parent, “It’s the bridge scene.  This is a very funny movie.”

In contrast, Lewis’ devastating treatment of Mitsuo – even when prefaced by his “I hate to do this” twinge of conscience does grate on one’s nerves, bringing to mind the occasionally leaked episodes of the comedian’s dark side.  The adoring idolizing child is crushed as Lewis all-too-realistically delivers the ultimate snap:  “I don’t like you anymore.  I don’t want you anymore.  You’re not my son.  I don’t love you!”  Little Mitsuo’s pained reaction suggests he’s a tick away from committing hara-kiri – or, perhaps more appropriate in his case – hara-kiri, jr.

The last but not least facet of THE GEISHA BOY’s success is the connection between Tashlin and his Warner Bros. roots – the astounding non-human sidekick, Harry Hare (whose “introducing” card in the credits gets larger billing than Pleshette’s).

Per capita, Harry probably ratchets up more chuckles than Lewis and the cast combined.  In a series of impossible visuals, Harry Hare proves himself a master of comic timing.  Reportedly when an adolescent once asked Lewis about the rabbit, the comedian replied, “What do you mean ‘rabbit’?”  He then went on to terrify the youth by disclosing that there were multiple bunnies utilized for the picture – since the hot lights and hours had them dropping like flies.  Whether he was being sarcastic, bluntly honest or simply Jerry, he set the stage that undoubtedly culminated in years of therapy for the inquisitive sprout.  If indeed true (and we hope it isn’t), our hats are off to Harry and all the other Harrys who, unbeknownst, gave their lives for their art.

The final denouement comes when Lewis discovers that Mistuo has stowed away and is ensconced with Harry in the rabbit’s carry-on traveler.  Strapped on top of a fast-moving taxi, this simultaneously becomes both a harrowing Mitsuo and Mitt Romney moment.  Oh, yeah, and speaking of taxis, we can’t sign off without mentioning Sid Melton as a wise-cracking cabbie – a plus if ever there was one!

Like Rock-A-Baby, Olive Films’ 1080p anamorphic transfer of THE GEISHA BOY is A-1 from the get-go.  Haskell Boggs’ VistaVision cinematography is so sharp and detailed that it borders on the outrageous (and revealing, as in the one teeth-grinding occasion where viewers can clearly see wires stringing up Harry for a gag).  The Technicolor pops with rich comic strip swatches, especially in Lewis’ Great Wooley red carry-on, the deep blue skies and nighttime Japanese lanterns adorning the Hayakawa’s pond.  Walter Scharf’s mono score sounds terrific with its buoyant riffs and Asian motifs.

All said, THE GEISHA BOY is a Jerry Lewis vehicle that even his non-fans will find hard to resist – although I’m sure they’ll try.

THE GEISHA BOY.  Color.  Letterboxed [1080p High Definition].  UPC# 887090034906; CAT # OF349.  SRP:  $29.95.

ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD:  UPC#887090034907; CAT# OF348; SRP: $24.95.

Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

geishaboyCOVER

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