Thursday, September 7, 2017

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (Benedict Pictures, National Recording Studios, Toho Studios, American International Pictures, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier, while making my home-care client his salad and doing his laundry, I had recorded (and watched most of) the 1966 film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, the famous (and odd) experiment in which Woody Allen bought the American rights to a Japanese spy movie called Kagi no Kag (Key of Keys) and wrote his own dialogue for it, having his own crew of actors dub their own jokey dialogue in English in place of the original soundtrack. The resulting movie — in which the hero and two groups of villains are chasing each other for a secret microfilm containing the recipe for the world’s greatest egg salad — isn’t terribly sophisticated but it is funny (and it’s nice to glimpse the Lovin’ Spoonful, who not only did the soundtrack music but actually appeared in the film, getting themselves spliced into a cabaret scene in what was probably the only new footage actually photographed for this film, aside from an opening narration in which Allen tells us that Gone with the Wind was actually a Japanese movie — “They just dubbed in American voices, Southern voices” — a fact that had to be covered up once America and Japan found themselves at war with each other). — 7/7/96


I ran Charles the film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen’s 1966 comedy in which he took a 1964 Japanese spy film, Kagi no Kagi (Key of Keys), erased the soundtrack and dubbed in his own dialogue. (I’m indebted to Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide for supplying not only the name of the original Japanese film but also its director, Senkichi Taniguchi, and its stars, Tatsuya Mihashi, Miya Hana, Eiko Wakabayashi and Tadao Nakamura — all of whom are dismissed as “a no-star cast” in Allen’s version.) Allen also shot a few new sequences of his own, one in which he and another person explain the concept of the film (the same two people appear midway through and get the biggest laugh of the film when the interlocutor points out the complexity of the plot so far and asks Allen if he would explain it so the audience will know what’s going on, and Allen says, “No”) and a couple of numbers featuring the Lovin’ Spoonful, who not only appear in the film but provide the background underscoring (one of the more creative touches). Some of the new Allen-penned dialogue is genuinely funny, some of it is just silly, but it works mainly by adding intentional humor to a film which even in its original form was really stupid and without Allen’s intervention would have probably come off to Western audiences as an occasion for Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style camp treatment (and it’s only one step from talking over a film MST3K-style to erasing its entire soundtrack and replacing it with jokes). It’s also interesting to note Allen’s subsequent obsessions with sex and young Oriental women manifesting themselves this early in his career! Oddly, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wasn’t the first film to use this gimmick: two years earlier, in 1964 the American distributors of an Italian sword-and-sandals costume film starring Pedro Armendariz and directed by Duccio Tessari — described by always helpful Leonard Maltin as a “costume picture about evil King Cadmus of Thebes, who defies the gods and faces the wrath of the Titans” — had dubbed a comedy soundtrack onto it — a Jewish one, judging from the title they appended to their version: My Son, the Hero (though, according to Maltin’s book, this film, unlike Kagi no Kagi, was subsequently released “straight” in the U.S.). — 12/22/02


At 10 p.m. I ran Charles and I a “feature” I’d recently copied to DVD from an old VHS tape I’d recorded off the Bravo channel (I regret the passage of the Bravo channel): What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, a 1966 release by American International that was Woody Allen’s first film as a director … sort of. AIP had acquired the American release rights to a Japanese spy movie, a James Bond knockoff called Kagi no Kagi (“Key of Keys”) dealing with a battle to the death among good and bad spies for a secret microfilm. Rather than do what they usually did with Japanese movies they released in the U.S. — slap a cheaply recorded and ineptly dubbed soundtrack on it so it would be in English but at least retain the sense of the original — the people at AIP decided that since the plot was too confusing for American audiences to follow, they’d hire a bunch of comedians to insert English dialogue satirizing and ridiculing the movie. According to one “Trivia” poster, they originally offered the job to Lenny Bruce, but he turned it down and recommended Woody Allen — who at the time was clawing and scratching his way into feature-film prominence. He had a recording contract to make stand-up albums for United Artists (he did three, in 1964, 1965 and 1968, that were later repackaged into a two-LP set in the early 1970’s after Allen had become a feature-film star and director) and a film contract with veteran agent Charles K. Feldman, who’d pioneered the “package” concept by which an agent would put together a director, writer and actors from their contract list, assemble a package and offer it to studios on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Alas, Allen’s films with Feldman, which included What’s New, Pussycat? (1964) and Casino Royale (1967), weren’t very good and didn’t really showcase him. 

Allen was looking for a way into the movie business as director and writer as well as star, and he grabbed AIP’s oddball assignment and ran with it. The result is an engagingly funny spoof of spy pictures with some of the sorts of quirky Allen-style lines we’d grow familiar with from his best films, as well as some pretty lame sex jokes. Given the scandals Allen has been involved in since, notably breaking off with long-time personal and professional partner Mia Farrow to take up with her teenage adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn (a native Korean), there’s a rather uncomfortable edge to all the sex jokes in this film involving Asian women — particularly the two female leads, Teri Yaki and her sister Suki Yaki, whose escape from prison goes haywire when she jumps from the prison wall onto the car of the film’s hero (to the extent it has one), Phil Moscowitz, who asks her who arranged for her escape. “I had an idea it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir... but they have no motive,” she says. (Earlier the prison warden has taken over the prison’s P.A. system to warn her not to try to get over the wall: “Do not try to escape. You haven’t got a chance! We have the prison surrounded. No one can get over the wall. We’ll have more reasons why you’ll never get away in a moment. But first, here’s Len Maxwell with the weather.”) What’s Up, Tiger Lily? wasn’t even the first movie made using this concept; two years before it, another team of filmmakers had bought an Italian sword-and-sandals non-epic and dubbed in Jewish-American comedy dialogue, calling the result My Son, the Hero — I’ve never seen it but I’ve got a VHS of it I recorded from TCM somewhere in the backlog.  

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? emerges today as a funny film but not as funny or clever as Allen and his colleagues clearly thought, and it’s clear that in addition to dubbing new dialogue to the Japanese original Allen and company also edited it severely, not only shortening it (the original Kagi no Kagi runs 93 minutes and What’s Up, Tiger Lily? only 80) but inserting new footage, including two numbers by the Lovin’ Spoonful (as well as the theme song, which the Spoonful perform under the opening credits and again later in the film without being shown), and recutting the film to make hash — or should I say egg salad, which is the big secret the various characters are hunting for? — of whatever continuity it originally had. The film opens with a few clips from Kagi no Kagi —including one in which the heroine is being menaced by being strapped to a table with a giant buzz saw on it that’s about to dismember her (gee, that’s so Snidely Whiplash! At least in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger they updated it to a laser beam!) — and then a sequence in which Allen and an interviewer are discussing the concept behind the film and Allen explains that this isn’t the first time this was done: he says, “Gone with the Wind was actually a Japanese film, only they dubbed in American voices — Southern voices,” adding that because the U.S. and Japan soon found themselves as enemies during World War II this had to be kept quiet. Later on we cut back to Allen and the interviewer, who complains that the plot is confusing and asks Allen to explain it to the audience. “No,” Allen deadpans. Charles said it was a surprise to see Woody Allen this young and realize he was already balding! I suspect that if the original Kagi no Kagi had received a more “normal” release in the U.S. instead of Woody Allen getting hold of it, it would have ended up a “target” on Mystery Science Theatre 3000; it’s the sort of film that almost invites bad jokes — though I understand a DVD of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is available that gives you the option to watch Kagi no Kagi au naturel, in Japanese with English subtitles — and one of Allen’s inserts replaces a half-naked woman in a discothèque dance sequence with a half-naked man: definitely an improvement in my book, though the film includes some surprisingly homophobic jokes for Allen, who would show in later films like Radio Days and Whatever Works that he can deal sensitively and sympathetically with Queer people. — 9/7/17