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One of Jerry Lewis's funniest films, 1958's The Geisha Boy serves also as a showcase for the wild imagination of its writer-director, the incomparable Frank Tashlin. Viewers that experience difficulty accepting the Jerry Lewis style of screen clowning will respond immediately to Tashlin's hilarious sight gags and exaggerated slapstick. One of the top creators of early Warner Bros. cartoon short subjects, Tashlin took every opportunity to invest his live action comedies with the surrealism of animated cartoons. This Japanese romp is Jerry and Frank's fourth film collaboration.
Comedy storylines simply don't come any thinner than this. Magician Gilbert "The Great" Wooley (Lewis) sneaks his peculiar rabbit Harry Hare aboard the Air Force U.S.O. plane bound for Tokyo, and proceeds to cause so much havoc with the movie star Lola Livingston (Marie McDonald) that Major Ridgely (Barton MacLane) drums him out of the troupe. But WAF Sergeant Pearson (Suzanne Pleshette, in her first film) takes pity on Gilbert and intervenes. Separated from the other U.S.O. performers, Wooley is parachuted into Korea to entertain troops right in their foxholes. Back in Tokyo he meets Japanese interpreter Kimi Sikita (Nobu McCarthy) and becomes emotionally attached to the young orphan Mitsuo (Robert Hirano). Complicating things is Kimi's boyfriend Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura), an enormous, jealous baseball player. Her father Mr. Sikita (Sessue Hayakawa) is more understanding. But the desirable Sgt. Pearson is disappointed that Gilbert should fall for a Japanese girl: she's already lost one boyfriend to a local woman.
Why do film critics love Jerry Lewis movies, especially those directed by Frank Tashlin? Not since The Marx Brothers has screen comedy relied so thoroughly on what are essentially surreal effects. The slight narrative of The Geisha Boy simply shows Gilbert's affection growing for the cute Mitsuo. Jerry maintains some of his patented zaniness, but Gilbert is somewhat more mature than earlier, terminally infantile Lewis characters. In Tashlin's hands, Jerry's spastic displays are centered around women: he behaves naturally with Kimi, is slightly dense with Sgt. Pearson, and transforms into a nervous disaster area in the presence of the hyper-glamorous Lola Livingston.
For much of the movie Jerry Lewis serves as a guest star in a parade of Frank Tashlin's personal obsessions, which either lampoon feminism or endorse it, depending on one's outlook. The publicity-hungry Hollywood babe Lola is a focus of Tashlin's gentle derision, as was Jayne Mansfield in the director's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The sweet alternative Sgt. Pearson, figures she can't compete for men unless she abandons her personal integrity: "I'm going to forget that so-called American emancipated woman type of independence". Although the jokes aren't as sexual as in Tashlin's Fox comedies, the spirit is still there: when Gilbert and Mitsuo take a meal in a Geisha house, the director can't resist including a scene where the little boy is attended by a trio of five year-old Geisha girls.
Wild cartoon gags are found in almost every scene. Gilbert's bunny aide Harry Hare figures in at least 20 rabbit jokes, many of which could be straight from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Besides the usual gags with a magician's hat, Harry shows up in odd places, rides atop vehicles and even gets a suntan at the swimming pool -- in his case, turning from fluffy white to bright red. Tashlin gets easy laughs just by manipulating Harry's ears with filament threads. Many jokes appear to be accomplished with substitute Harry mannequins, including a rabbit that executes a funny banister slide. Harry Hare makes a big hit -- we only wish that he were in the picture more. When the story turns to Gilbert's sentimental predicament, the rascally rabbit goes missing for almost a reel.
Tashlin has great fun when the enormous Japanese baseball player Ichiyama leaps into a bathhouse pool - the flood inundates an entire neighborhood. Some subdued gags are equally effective. Mitsuo's habit of following Gilbert around reminds us of that little lonely cartoon penguin, the one that cries with tears that come out as ice cubes. But other concept-oriented jokes are downright prophetic. Tashlin plays a gag with Bob Hope dubbed in Japanese on the TV, and has a scene where Gilbert can't communicate with some non-English speakers because the wrong subtitles are being used. One elaborate joke with Sessue Hayakawa references a recent epic movie, including a brief film clip appearance of Alec Guinness.. Mount Fuji turning into the Paramount logo is a bald steal from The Road to Utopia, but Tashlin can claim his own heritage when he echoes the last shot of a Warners Merrie Melody: "That's All, Folks!"
Hollywood treatments of Japanese themes weren't always in good taste, but Lewis and Tashlin's comedy is unusually respectful. The only clownish character is the enormous Ichiyama, and he comes off as sort of a Japanese Rondo Hatton. Kimi Sikita is not a bargirl, but a dignified interpreter. The then-controversial issue of intermarriage is accepted without comment, unless we count a joke or two aimed at Marlon Brando and Sayonara. The earnest attitude makes up for the lack of any footage actually filmed in Japan. Burbank's Lockheed Terminal stands in for both American and Tokyo airports, Hollywood's Bronson Caverns subs for a Korean battlefield, and various private gardens serve as the Sakita residence. The prominently billed Los Angeles Dodgers are supposed to be playing exhibition games in Tokyo, but their scenes were filmed at their local field (Dodger Stadium had not yet been built). Adorable newcomer Suzanne Pleshette still has that baby-fat look; old-time Warners baddie Barton MacLane is well chosen as a fall guy for Gilbert's slapstick antics. Playing a Japanese detective is Teru Shimada, who has been appearing in Hollywood movies since the early 1930s.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Geisha Boy is a stunning transfer of Paramount's brightly colored comedy, originally filmed in VistaVision. The art direction can be described as Cartoon Casual ... military locales and the airport look fairly normal, but nighttime lighting schemes are frequently augmented with bright pools of primary color. The uncluttered, graphically direct compositions heighten the film's slightly comic-book look. They encourage the surreal effect of many shots, such as the odd sight of Mr. Sakita standing serene and contemplative in his airy garden, watching a duplicate of a familiar bridge being built across his koi pond. Many Jerry Lewis fans rushing to see The Geisha Boy will also discover the wonderfully anarchic Frank Tashlin.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Geisha Boy Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.