Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Woody Allen's rise to prominence was a skyrocket that by his own assessment only took ten years to
arrive. But in 1965 he was suddenly hot as a comedy scriptwriter and a performer. In 1966 he
indulged this creative bit of defacement on a Japanese spy film called Key of Keys, using
an off-color title that winked at his first hit,
What's New, Pussycat?,
and produced a very original and economical fringe hit. Subsequent redubbing comedies pile
the jokes on faster, but What's Up, Tiger Lily? is still an hilarious, non-P.C. party picture.
'Lovable rogue' secret agent Phil Moscowitz (Tatsuya Mihashi) runs into danger while
trying to retrieve a stolen egg salad recipe sought by crook Wing Fat (Susumu Kurobe) and gambling
ship gangster Shepherd Wong (Tadao Nakamura). Aiding him are spy vixens Suki Yaki (Akiko Wakabayashi)
and Teri Yaki (Mie Hama), and various gadgets and disguises.
Possibly getting his cue from television's Fractured Flickers, where Hans Conreid mocked
silent pictures with silly voices and added verbal jokes, Allen and a group of friends/conspirators
turned a movie that was obviously already a comedy, into a very progressive farce with
an anarchic streak of humor well-appreciated by fans of Mad Magazine and
Rocky and Bullwinkle. The jokes fly fast and loose here, from the basic concept of giving
the Japanese cast various New York accents, to the grab-bag, anything-goes willingness to try
any gag that fits, whether silly, off-color, demeaning to minorities, you name it. The list of
writers doubles for the voice artists, and one can imagine Allen's round-table improvisatory blitz to
come up with off-the-wall ideas to fit the moment. It's really the kind of 'standup comedians
versus movie' thing that later became standard fare with The Firesign Theater's
J-Men Forever, Mystery Science Theater 3000,
and those groups that go to midnight shows to perform live redubs of pictures like The Hideous
The jokes, of course, range from awful to fall-down funny. Naturally, sitting by oneself
in front of a DVD doesn't have the effect of a theater full of laughing people, which is how I
experienced What's Up, Tiger Lily? on more than one occasion. When cornered by a seductress
wearing only a bath towel (Kumi Mizumo), Phil is asked to "Name three Presidents." A cabdriver,
snarling in Woody Allen's voice, radios his dispatcher: 'I've got a fare here who wants to be
abducted!" And there's a brilliant bit where a diplomat explains that he's got the entire population
of a nation-to-be packed in crates, waiting for a spot to open up on the map. Thugs talk in idiot
voices, Peter Lorre imitations, and anything else that sounds incongruous; the two femme leads (the
same pair of Toho beauties from
You Only Live Twice) pause to ask each other
idiotic sexist questions, like, "Are you wearing a girdle?"
Allen gets to indulge his two favorite subjects, sex and foreign movies. Little animatged censorship
over the bared breasts of a cabaret dancer, and Phil's date, left behind when he abets a prison
escape, shouts after his car, "Hey, you've got my vibrator!" Suki describes herself as "a great
piece" at one point, and Phil invites a girl up to his room with an offer to show her his "collection
of off-color Italian hand gestures."
For film references, Allen has his gas-masked safecrackers suddenly stop to do movie star impressions,
and the director's egotistic walk-through is noted at one point. During a tense moment, Allen interrupts
movie with a false projector breakdown, and does the Tex Avery struggle-to-get-the-hair-out-of-the-gate
The level of humor is so sophomoric, it's pointless to take offense at the blatant ethnic jokes. The
whole concept makes fun of Japanese movies and their dubbing into English, but the noses
that turns up at the idea of Charlie Chan aren't going to be pleased with jokes that make fun of
Japanese pronunciation: the three Presidents turn out to be "Washington, Jefferson, and Winkon".
The two baddies ask Jewish-comic questions about who's Japanese and who's Chinese. When a masked
prison escapee turns out to be sexy Akiko Wakabayashi, the hero looks her straight in the face and
exclaims in surprise, "An Oriental!"
The original film appears to have been a fairly silly, light spy spoof with lame gags and humor that
translate well to the U.S. It would complicate the P.C. lobby too much to realize that the Asian
sensibilities they're protecting, considered this sexist, racist film just fine - and it has Japanese
actors playing demeaning Chinese and Indo-Chinese stereotypes.
Allen's crack comedy writing/voiceover team includes Louise Lasser, frequently associated with
Allen films as well as TV's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, And Mickey Rose, Allen's co-writer
on his early comedies. Julie Bennett, Frank Buxton and Len Maxwell have lengthy credit sheets as
voice talent for 60s cartoons.
It's possible that What's Up, Tiger Lily? originated with the producing/importing team of
Reuben Bercovitch and Henry G. Saperstein, who co-produced the movies that became (in their recut
versions) Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas. 1
Krown recut those films as well as this one. Besides chopping the original movie up at will, the
recut inserts new main titles, two or three brief 'interview' segments with Woody, and a couple
of performance scenes with the Lovin' Spoonful. The band looks pretty silly, but their rock / blues
soundtrack isn't bad at all. 2
Allen reserves the final joke for himself, lying on a sofa watching
China Lee undress over some faux end
credits. These suggest the existence of an 'uncut scene' extra which unfortunately is not included!
Image's DVD of What's Up, Tiger Lily? is almost perfect. Until a few years ago, this title
only seemed to exist on bad, grainy pan'n scan 16mm, which is how we showed it in the dorms
at UCLA. The picture and sound are very good, with the caveat that some of the compression here and
there is slightly inadequate, producing some softness and occasional minor breakup. But overall, it
looks fine - even dark scenes.
Video Watchdog noted a few years back that some tv versions of the film had different jokes and
dubbing inserted here and there. An extra on the disc is the inclusion of the second alternate
track that has these differences, plus a comparison feature that highlights three-score or so
instances of dubbing replacement. There's no overall explanation for any of the changes that I could
find, which leaves us grateful for the original track but wondering why things were changed in
the first place. Any analysis of the pattern will be appreciated. One thing that stuck out for me is
Woody Allen's last line, delivered as he interrupts China Lee's sexy strip to say, "I promised her
a part in the picture." In both versions, it appears to be spoken by someone else, when I distinctly
remember it being said by Woody. That's how it goes, I guess.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
What's Up, Tiger Lily? rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: 2nd audio track, audio versions comparison
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2003
1. It looks like ownership
has bounced around somewhat, as the film is now 'presented' by Julian Schlossberg but copyrighted to
2. The Lovin' Spoonful and John Sebastian's really good scoring effort
was on Francis Coppola's hilarious, endearing You're a Big Boy Now from the next year.
Helpful note from Stuart Galbraith IV, 7/12/03:
Thought you'd be interested
to learn that the picture was actually compiled
from two completely different films, albeit it in the same Toho series,
"International Secret Police," all of which starred Tatsuya Mihashi.
Most of the early scenes in the picture are actually from the third film in
the series, Kokusai himitsu keisatsučKayaku no taru (International Secret
PolicečKeg of Gunpowder, released in 1964), directed by Takashi Tsuboshima,
who was primarily a comedy director. I've seen this picture in its original
form. It's intentionally funny, and pretty good, too.
The rest of Allen's "film" is from International Secret PolicečKey of Keys
(Kokusai himitsu keisatsučKagi no kagi, 1965), directed by Senkichi
You're right. The idea originated with Henry Saperstein. When I interviewed
him in January 1994 he claimed to have been talked into buying these films
and decided the only way to sell them in America was to make a spoof. He
also claimed to have approached Lenny Bruce prior to Allen. Whether that's
true or not is anyone's guess, but the project did indeed originate with
Saperstein, not Allen. Saperstein's relationship with Toho goes as far back
as "Godzilla vs. the Thing" in 1964 and Benedict Pictures was one of his
company's many names. Incidentally, Nick Adams co-starred in the last one in
the series. Oddly, that's never turned up in America in any form. - Stuart
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson