Sunday 16 September 2007

The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) Daniel Mann

Talk about misconceptions. I thought this was a serious film, something like Sayonara, also with Marlon Brando, but it took about two seconds to realise that it's nothing of the sort. It's a comedy for a start, and it plays like the pilot for a sitcom, just one with a ridiculously talented cast. The war is over and Okinawa has been conquered again, this time not by Japanese warlords or English missionaries but by American marines. Brando plays our host, a native Okinawan named Sakini who is the camp's interpreter, and he explains to us how the Americans are bringing them democracy, which process is as inept as inept could be.

After attempting to learn about the career of Marlon Brando, often described as the greatest American actor of them all, by watching films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and The Godfather, seeing him play Sakini seems utterly ludicrous. He plays the part as if he was Charles Bronson attempting to be Charlie Chan's Number One Son, and that's as bizarre as it sounds. The portrayal ought to be completely racist but it isn't because Sakini is the brains behind everything, even while appearing to be subservient in every way. Think of him like Colonel Hogan or Sergeant Bilko, both highly appropriate for the type of material.

It's also highly appropriate, given much of the cast. Sakini works for Colonel Wainwright Purdy III, played by Paul Ford, most famous for his role as Colonel Hall in The Phil Silvers Show. Purdy's assistant is Sergeant Gregovich, played by Harry Morgan, who was hilarious opposite John Wayne in The Shootist, but will always be remembered as Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H. The other leads are major names in film though, much as Brando was himself.

Sakini is hoisted onto Captain Fisby, newly transferred in from psychological warfare after being requested to request a transfer for his bad luck and complete ineptitude. Fisby is sent to Tobiki to bring them democracy by building a pentagon shaped school and organising a ladies league for democratic action, and ends up starting geisha classes and building a teahouse. Glenn Ford plays Captain Fisby like you'd expect Fred MacMurray, and he receives a host of gifts from the villagers. Beyond the cricket cages and chopsticks, the most obvious gift is a geisha girl called Lotus Blossom, played by no less a talent than Machiko Kyo, who I hadn't realised had appeared in western film at all.

Casting Glenn Ford and Machiko Kyo in what plays like a pantomimed sitcom pilot is either as ludicrous or as genius as casting Brando, and which it is can only be determined by how successful it is. When I catch the last five minutes, which got dropped off the end of my recording, I'll let you know. Right now, on viewing one, I thought it was surprisingly cool.

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