Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The highly enjoyable Lemonade Joe (the original title translates as Lemonade Joe, or, a Horse Opera) is a creative comedy from the fertile 1960s in Czechoslovakia. It's an overtly cartoonish takeoff on old-fashioned, naïve American westerns, on the level of Rustler's Rhapsody but much wilder and faster. Czechoslovakia is the home of immensely creative cinema magicians like Karel Zeman and Jirí Trnka. In a way Lemonade Joe is an extension of an animated Trnka short called Arie Prerie (Songs of the Prairie) from 1949. It even uses the same partly yodeled nonsense song for its hero's main theme.
Unfortunately, this Facets Video release has a major drawback for DVD fans. See below.
The Trigger Whiskey Saloon of proprietor Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl) dominates Stetson City. Doug only has eyes for his sultry torch singer Tornado Lou (Kveta Fialová). Teetotalers Winnifred (Olga Schoberová; a.k.a. Olinka Berova) and her father call for abstinence from alcoholic beverages and are roughed up for their trouble. To their defense comes Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala), a white-suited, two-gun hero who never misses and drinks only Lemonade, Kolaloka Lemonade to be exact. Winnifred's dad opens a Kolaloka salon, and with Lemonade Joe's example the men desert the saloon. But Doug Badman is given a second chance when his evil brother, notorious cheat, cardsharp and murderer Hogo Fogo (Milos Kopecký) appears, determined to use his dirty tricks to win Winnifred and put Lemonade Joe in his grave.
Joke westerns have a way of running out of steam before they're finished, as happens in the amusing Rosemary Clooney musical Red Garters. Lemonade Joe has enough invention and variety in its spoof of Oater conventions to stay the course. It too is a musical, and the songs are appropriately styled to the characters; when it comes to parody, the Prague hipsters definitely "get it." Tornado Lou's big number is a takeoff on saloon chantoosies, while our hero Joe begins one yodeling song showing us his tonsils. The bad guy warbles a complicated number explaining his life of evil -- "Master Criminal of the Old West" -- while we see a parade of his many disguises.
Both the bad girl -- Tornado Lou -- and the good girl -- Winnifred -- fall head over heels in love with Joe. Winnifred's radiant guise of purity doesn't make her Lou's moral superior, as a lot of Winnifred's adoration seems aligned with business interests. Winnifred also double-crosses a trio of bad guys by shooting them with a gun hidden in a camera.
The comic invention is like Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones rolled into one. When Lemonade Joe ducks behind a water trough to avoid stray bullets, his horse ducks with him. His bullets are sometimes tracked with animated dotted lines, just as the bad guys cheat at cards by blowing smoke rings with hidden messages. When one bad guy freezes with fear, another exits by picking him up and carrying him out slung under one arm, like a stiff manikin. The story has great fistfight and horse stunts that are presumably performed by circus acrobats. Pixillation, jump cuts and slow motion are used to make Joe seem like a dervish and to give variety to stunt fights. In keeping with the silent movie theatrics, scene tints change regularly.
Doug Badman's thug Old Pistol "tortures" Joe by burning a hole in Joe's perfect cravat and pouring chocolate syrup over his head. With his hat brim torn off and a moustache painted on his face, Joe looks more like an demented Cossack than a noble cowboy. He eventually changes to a black outfit, more suitable for his last-act revenge. Lemonade Joe has some really odd structural parallels with Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars, filmed the same year.
The farce has a decidedly anti-capitalist sense of humor inoffensively clever enough to be appreciated by both sides. In his One, Two, Three Billy Wilder imagines that the biggest crisis facing the "free world" is deciding whether the dominant beverage will be Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola. Writer Jirí Brdecka invents a Wild West that's really a marketing battleground between "Trigger Whiskey" and "Kolaloca (get it?) Lemonade." Not only is Lemonade Joe a walking advertisement for his preferred drink, Joe backs the temperance folk that open a Lemonade salon putting the Whiskey bar out of business. In one pointed joke, two alcoholic cowboys exit to the street for a deadly gunfight. They're so crocked they can't even draw their guns. So they lock arms and go back to the saloon as buddies. When Kolaloca Lemonade takes over, the same two angry cowpokes exit alert and sober. They draw their guns beautifully, shooting each other stone dead. Lemonade Joe rejoices --with Kolaloca, you never have to call the doctor!
Kolaloca Lemonade is shown to have curative powers, including raising the dead -- a side benefit seemingly reserved for the top cast. Like Popeye, Joe is knocked out cold when someone sneaks Whiskey into his Lemonade bottle ... and only a jolt of the Kolaloca can revive him. We eventually discover that Joe is an authorized district salesman for Kolaloca, and his father is the owner of the company, which completely undermines his honest Cowboy image. He's a complete fraud!
Joe's nemesis Hogo Fogo is a dastardly knave, the film's Professor Fate counterpart to Joe's The Great Leslie. Hogo Fogo employs magic tricks to cheat at cards and similarly outwits the sheriff by using a false arm when being handcuffed (shades of Fantomas!). He also poses as a blind piano tuner, telling his story of evil in song. Hogo Fogo repeatedly tries to slaughter the hero in various Wile E. Coyote ways. As in the lowest of farces, it's then discovered that most of the main cast are actually siblings, separated at birth by a prairie tornado that scattered them across the west.
Lemonade Joe ends a little bit like The 3-Penny Opera with Trigger Whiskey and Kolaloca coming together to create a new combo soft drink to satisfy drunks and temperance advocates alike: WhiskeyKola. The west is won with a monopolistic merger.
Karel Fiala is a funny blond hero who looks and acts like a slightly lobotomized Steve Martin. Milos Kopecký (villain Hogo Fogo) is best remembered as the title character in Karel Zeman's Baron Munchausen. In one not-so-funny gag, Hogo Fogo appears in Blackface for several minutes. We can't tell if the script is making fun of the racist convention, or using the "black" disguise for a cheap laugh of its own. Beautiful Olga Schoberová is Winnifred; fantasy fans may know her better as Olinka Berova, Playboy model and star of The Vengeance of She.
Facets Video's DVD of Lemonade Joe is a crying disappointment. Facets puts out a great many Czech and Polish rarities that otherwise might not be available in Region 1, but the so-so quality is way below that seen in importers like Home Vision Entertainment, Blue Underground, and NoShame -- that price their wares much lower. Lemonade Joe is intact but the transfer is dull and lacking in crisp contrast, indicating that it's an existing old home video master just repurposed for DVD.
Far worse, although the main titles are given a proper anamorphic squeeze, the rest of the transfer is a sloppy 1:66 Pan-Scan of a 2:35 original. The movie has a lot of fast action and many shots with complex compositions, and we're constantly losing important information. Action gags frequently stretch across the screen, as when a cowboy comes flying out of the swinging bar doors (far left) and then does a flip over the hitching rail (far right). In this scan, both actions are practically out of the frame. Every third gag is compromised in this way. When the busy fight scenes and crowded music video images in the songs get going, forget it. This movie needs the whole frame to make its jokes work.
It's perhaps unfair to blame Facets, but what can we do? The original Czech source providers may have offered the masters on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. This bad release will dampen R1 interest in Czech movies and make it difficult for anyone else to bring a proper version to the marketplace. We became interested in DVD largely because it abolished transfers like this one. 1
Subtitles are burned-in. Author Peter Hames provides a useful set of insert notes that tell us a lot about the film's background. Facets Video doesn't provide full packaging with their review screeners, but they did send the insert as a helpful aid for the review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lemonade Joe rates:
Supplements: Insert production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 10, 2006
1. This note and links from trusted European correspondent (X), 5.12.06, tell us that a fine Lemonade Joe disc exists and is available: Hello, Glenn! Just in case nobody else notified you about this Czech release, reviewed at DVD Beaver. It's available in the U.S. at : Exploited Cinema. I personally don't think Facets are using imported Czech masters. The quality of many of their Czech discs is questionable, with burned in English subtitles etc. Also, many of their titles are not available here at all (and probably won't be for a time to come because of rights, costs...). Regards (X)
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson