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What's Up, Tiger Lily?

What's Up, Tiger Lily?
Image / Castle Hill
1966 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 80 min. / Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi / Street Date July 15, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Tatsuya Mihashi, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, John Sebastian, Tadao Nakamaru, Susumu Kurobe, Woody Allen, Frank Buxton, Louise Lasser, Len Maxwell, Kumi Mizuno, China Lee
Cinematography Kazuo Yamada
Editor Richard Krown
Original Music Jack Lewis, The Lovin' Spoonful
Written by Bryan Wilson, Julie Bennett, Frank Buxton, Louise Lasser, Len Maxwell, Mickey Rose, and Woody Allen
Produced by Woody Allen, Henry G. Saperstein
Directed by Woody Allen, Senkichi Taniguchi

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 Sun Demon.

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 stars flit 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 the movie with a false projector breakdown, and does the Tex Avery struggle-to-get-the-hair-out-of-the-gate gag.

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 wouldn't 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 Editor Richard 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 stripper 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
Sound: 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 Benedict Pictures.

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 keisatsu�Kayaku no taru (International Secret Police�Keg 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 Police�Key of Keys (Kokusai himitsu keisatsu�Kagi no kagi, 1965), directed by Senkichi Taniguchi.

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

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