My Geisha (1962)

Land of the Rising Fun!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Oh man, these are the kinds of quirky film concepts I live for, definitely up there with films like The Major and the Minor, The Whole Town’s Talking or Sylvia Scarlett. I’ve never previously been a Shirley MacLaine fan but My Geisha may have converted me. Unlike many dual identity films, I actually found the premise here believable, in that Lucy’s husband Paul Robiax (Yves Montand) wouldn’t recognise her disguised as her alter ego geisha by the name of Yoko – At times I found myself MacLaine is pretending to be a Geisha. Ok, the illusion might not work for everyone but it did for this viewer. Also on a more superficial appraisal, omg Yoko is so cute! I was also surprised and delighted that Edward G. Robinson actually has almost as much screen time as MacLaine, making the two a great comedic pairing. I stated in my review of The Whole Towns Talking (1935) that Edward G. Robinson appeared in some very quirky comedies in his career but this film just furthers that statement, My Geisha is by far the quirkiest of them all.

However, it’s not just goofiness for the sake of goofiness, the dual identity set up actually allows for a deep and complex plot. For starters it examines the business of film by acknowledging the dilemma of casting white actors as non-white characters; you can’t get a large budget for a film unless it stars a big box office draw, most of who in the early 1960’s where white. The other surprising area of depth that comes out of the goofy plot is the examination of the husband’s ego, tired of being in the shadow of his wife’s success and desiring the more conservative nature of Japanese society, a nature which Robaix acknowledges is disappearing from Japan as the country becomes increasingly westernised. Another point of interest if the moment when Edward G. Robinson’s character receives the news that Lucy’s husband has discovered the truth about Yoko, Robinson asks to be taken to the fourth floor of the hotel. The Japanese tend to avoid the use of the number 4 due to superstitions regarding the number as unlucky.

My Geisha would unsurprisingly not be made today would be seen as politically incorrect with its use of so-called “yellowface”, not to mention Bob Cummings in the role of somewhat creepy adulterous movie star Bob Moore who doesn’t quite understand boundaries. Yet even a film of this manner was made today, you know the film world come to a halt for 20 minutes when Lucy’s secret is revealed (otherwise known as the dreaded cliché of the liar revealed) in which one character would tell the other about how they’ve been betrayed and they never want to see each other again even though they get back together at the end. Not here though, when Lucy’s husband discovers she is Yoko (which I should add is done a very clever manner) he quietly accepts that he was fooled and there’s no big pointless, drawn-out argument scene. Sorry, classic movie fanboy rant.

I wonder what the Japanese reaction to this was. I assume this is an idealised, tourist brochure version of Japan but either way this film sure looks beautiful. I believe this could likely be credited to the surprising choice of director, Jack Cardiff, normally more famous for his work as a cinematographer. The entire film is a feast for the eyes and ears with its eye-popping colour and score by Franz Waxman (even the film within a film looks incredible and is itself emotionally moving). Not to mention to the costume design by the great Edith Head, it’s clear in classic Hollywood films that costumes were no afterthought. My Geisha is another obscure, quirky gem which I adore.

The African Queen (1951)

Steamboat Bogie

The African Queen is one of those perfect, anti-boring and instantly emotional engaging films that you never want to end. I never did I want to see Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn leave that tiny broken down old boat in an African rain forest – The African Queen is the film I measure all “man and woman who hate each other at the start but gradually fall in love” movies against. With the power of these actors, this transition comes off completely organically without a contrivance insight – even the point at which they fall in love can be pinpointed to an exact moment.

In showing how he was one of the most adaptable actors in cinema, Bogart leaves his usual urban dwellings and into the African jungle in the role of Charlie Allnut – the scruffy, carefree canuck of whom the recently commenced Great War in Europe means nothing to him nor does he appear to grasp its importance. It’s not until Rose (Katharine Hepburn) awakens a patriotic duty out of him does he perform his part to take out the German army. The scene in which Bogart goofs around with his intimation of various animals is surely the silliest moment of his career, but it’s all good fun – although I do have to ask am I the only one who gets some Bugs Bunny vibes with his performance here?

Katharine Hepburn’s Rose is one tough dame and does not appear to be a very likeable character during the first portion of the film. She doesn’t treat Charlie with any respect because he won’t agree with her demands, takes him granted and is interfering with what ain’t her property! But she’s Kate, she can do whatever she wants and get away with it, and we still love her for it (or at least that’s the case with me). Ultimately she makes more of a gentleman out of the scruffy, alcoholic slob – showing behind every great man is a great woman. Hepburn often played roles tailored towards her oddball personality, so I wonder if she held any hesitation portraying a Christian missionary and a more conservative, prudish woman (the film even features a recreation of the Walls of Jericho from It Happened One Night).

Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography has such striking vibrancy, a style distinctive from Hollywood Technicolor and one which captures Bogart and Hepburn’s rough, beat-up faces (devoid of any make-up) in such detail. Along with the sound effects of nature in the background and the occasional bit of wildlife, The African Queen is as close as a movie can get to make me feel like I’m a riverboat in East Africa. The African Queen was one of my earliest exposures to classic cinema, aeons before these movies took over my life and although I only saw the remaining 40 minutes, it stuck with me. In particular, the scene in which our duo starts getting eaten by insects; that scene always gives me the heebie-jeebies (even if it’s not a great special effect). The African Queen is within that rare category of films in which every viewing feels like a unique viewing experience, no matter how many times I watch it.