Wednesday, 13 April 2011

AFED #103: Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera [Lemonade Joe] (Czechoslovakia, 1964); Dir. Oldřich Lipský

I was commenting just a couple of weeks ago (with regard to Sexmission) how eastern European comedy comes across as very broad and affected to western sensibilities, at least during the Cold war era.

Probably the closest we've seen to an English language film done in the same style would, for obvious reasons, be Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, which for all its visual flair and Komeda's wonderful score falls rather flat with the slapstick pratfalls.

As I mentioned last time the prominence of this kind of humour probably owed a lot to the censorious climate, where more subversive wit was usually frowned upon. A good example of this is Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball, which although not especially radical by our standards was criticised in Czechoslovakia for its veiled attack on the petty bureaucracy of communism.

No such ire was directed towards Lemonade Joe, which was released a few years earlier; perhaps because it does precisely the opposite and takes a sideswipe at American values. It's a slick parody of the silent westerns, mixing slapstick with musical numbers, with an endearingly irreverent sense of fun.


Set in the evocatively named Stetson City, an archetypal frontier town, the titular Joe (Karel Fiala) is a clean-living young gunfighter who takes on a town of whiskey-sodden cowboys. His exploits go down well with the local evangelist and his pretty blonde daughter (Olga Schoberová), who have been trying to impress upon the residents the virtues of temperance.

When Joe attributes his sharp-shooting to drinking (*ahem*)'Kolaloka' lemonade the evangelist sets up an establishment to rival the local saloon and a trade war ensues with its villainous proprietors. Yet it transpires Joe's motives aren't completely honourable; he's also the regional salesman for Kolaloka!

It does an excellent job of capturing the style and flavour of the old, melodramatic westerns that the deftness and moral ambiguity of its satire might well be lost on many modern viewers. We're so accustomed to the ubiquity of capitalist values that it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking Joe is the good guy rather than a flipside of the same coin.

The film is beautifully shot in tinted monochrome and with obvious affection for the genre. Throughout the narrative is regularly interrupted by musical numbers and there's also some very surreal humour, as when one of the villains adopts a blackface disguise for no apparent reason (think of the League of Gentlemen's Papa Lazarou).

Given the subject matter Lemonade Joe would make a fabulous double bill with Billy Wilder's scattergun satire One, Two, Three, in which James Cagney played a Coca Cola executive trying to sell his product in East Germany. Are you listening, BFI?

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