Director: Oldrich Lipský
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If I made films, I’d want to make ones just like Lemonade Joe. I’d want to see “Réalisé par Ferdy”—and isn’t it better to realize something than to direct it, as though you freed your film into the world the same way Michelangelo freed his sculptures from a hunk of marble instead of arranging it like a collage from scraps of old magazines—and then watch a screen filled with comic actors of the first order doing stock Western characters in styles ranging from slapstick silents and singing cowboys to Billy Wilder and Krazy Kat, with a dash of John Ford to keep things respectable.
Like any self-respecting European in the 1960s, Oldrich Lipský was keenly interested in all things American, particularly the American West. For Lipský, however, Westerns were fodder for humor and parody. Lemonade Joe, a short-story character that appeared in Czech magazine in the 1940s, surely must have made an impression on the adolescent Lipský. He worked with the author of those short stories, Jiří Brdečka, on the screenplay for the film. In true-blue American tradition, they start this film with a dedication:
“This film is dedicated to the rough diamond heroes of the Wild West who avenged wrongs and defended the Law.”
That dedication will be the last time the film plays this Western straight.
Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl), owner of the Trigger-Whisky Saloon, runs the town Stetson City, Arizona, the setting for our story. We open on a highly spirited barroom fight moving to the incessant honky-tonk piano in the background. As bottles are broken over heads and tables thrown through windows, the bartenders nonchalantly wash their glasses and duck as though they know where the next swing is coming from. Doug sits with equal nonchalance at a table, watching his mad dog lackey Old Pistol (Josef Hlinomaz) take apart several cowpokes, drink some Trigger Whisky, and chew and swallow a good chunk of the rocks glass. The fighting goes into a lower gear when showgirl/call girl Tornado Lou (Kveta Fialová) comes out to sing “When the Smoke Thickens in the Bar,” one of the many songs in this horse opera that take their inspiration from a variety of sources, including Weimar cabaret.
Into this den of iniquity come Mr. Goodman (Bohus Záhorský ) and his virginal, blonde-haired daughter Winnifred (Olga Schoberová) bringing their message of temperance to the drunken masses. They get nowhere; in fact, Old Pistol eats Mr. Goodman’s violin. Just then, a wiry, blond-haired figure dressed in white, with a six-shooter strapped to each leg, walks through the door. He bellies up to the bar, where Winnifred and her father are standing uncomfortably surrounded by crazy varmints and orders lemonade. “We don’t stock lemonade,” says the bartender. “That’s all right. I always “carry my own supply.” He pulls out a bottle of Kolaloka lemonade and downs a long draft. “You’re Lemonade Joe,” someone shouts. In case there is any doubt, Joe demonstrates his skills by shooting Old Pistol’s belt loose. The vicious consumer of objects runs upstairs at double-speed with a tablecloth covering his drawers. Naturally, both Winnifred and Tornado Lou fall in love with Joe on the spot.
Just at that moment, the bank is being robbed. A gunfight in the streets ensues as the law-abiding citizens of Stetson City try to stop the bandits. Joe protects Winnifred behind a water tank; his horse, which has ducked for cover with them, gets a gentle stroke on the cheek as it lays its head in Joe’s lap. Suddenly, Joe goes into action, appearing in stop-action shots on rooftops, in doorways, on the street, confusing the robbers and allowing him to pick them off one by one without even aiming. When Joe proclaims that his surefire aim is a result of swearing off spirits for Kolaloka, the townspeople abandon the Trigger-Whisky Saloon in favor of the white-as-snow Kolaloka Saloon that opens in quick order. Doug Badman sits atop his piano in his now cobweb-covered saloon. He tells Old Pistol, “Business is bad, but I’m still stinking rich.”
Soon, another player comes to town, a slimy thief, murderer, and debaucher named Hogo Fogo (Milos Kopecký), who we’ve learned earlier is Doug Badman’s brother Horace because they each have a round birthmark on their left forearm. A master of disguise, Hogo Fogo tricks Joe into drinking spirits, which makes our hero collapse in a catatonic trance. He reestablishes the primacy of Trigger Whisky, as a fickle public return to Doug Badman’s saloon. Hogo Fogo goes after the winsome Winnifred, chasing her around the tombstone of her dead mother:
Hogo Fogo: Of course you’ll be mine. Here, on holy soil, my dove.
Winnifred: You spider!
Hogo Fogo: My little fawn!
Winnifred: You reptile!
Hogo Fogo: Enough zoology!
Further perils, shootouts, disguises, and general silliness ensue to a final, climactic confrontation between Hogo Fogo and Lemonade Joe in which Joe is pumped full of lead. Of course, the end of Joe is never the end of a legend—thanks to Kolaloka lemonade and very fortuitous family ties.
This film is Blazing Saddles, only way better. This movie trades in every corny joke around—for example, Stetson City’s sheriff handcuffs Hogo Fogo, only to find a false hand hanging from one of the cuffs and the villian’s real hand emerge with pistol blazing. The opening bar fight looks like a loving ripoff of a Keystone Kops routine—indeed, Czech film specialist Peter Hames believes this film owes something to a 1911 film called Arizona Bill. The film also uses full-screen tints, which were popular in silent films for signaling night, day, and ambient lighting. The violence is very cartoonish—Lipský was an in-demand writer and director of animated films—and indeed, the film contains small moments of animation mixed with live action. For example, when Hogo Fogo is trying to cheat a gambler at poker, his brother blows smoke rings that spell out what the patsy has in his hand. Even the famous cartoon company, Acme Tool, can be found in Stetson City.
Two moments are especially ingenious and, I think, unique in film. The first is an extreme close-up of the interior of a mouth showing a vibrating uvula as a musical note is struck. The camera slowly pulls back so that we can see it is Lemonade Joe bursting into song as he rides the range. The other is a ground-level shot showing Joe prepare for a gun duel, his boot-shod feet resounding against the dusty street. The camera shakes with every step. Another shot that seems prescient has Joe looking into the sky, seeing what looks like Tower Bridge superimposed on the sky (the original London Bridge moved to Arizona in 1971) and then Winnifred in need of rescue.
Lemonade Joe may be different from those films of the Czech New Wave directors who were working at the same time, but it shares with them an anarchic sensibility even as it spins the American West into the East of Europe. A great send-up of American capitalism that not-so-subtly skewers that great ambassador from the West, Coca-Cola, a Western family more fractious and loyal than the Ewings, and a script to die for make Lemonade Joe a naturally sweet delight.