It’s not news that the 1960s were an extraordinarily fecund time for cinema in Czechoslovakia; the output of the filmmakers connected to the FAMU1-centred Czechoslovak New Wave has been celebrated unstintingly, at home and abroad, from the get-go. While (re)discoveries from that movement even now keep emerging to fanfare, that era’s popular cinema has all awhile been critically neglected and under-exported, notwithstanding that it routinely featured personnel, on-screen and off-, common to New Wave productions. A high-art/low-art divide between the two has been lazily propagated and gone too long unchallenged.
This is a great shame, as Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera (Lemonade Joe, Oldřich Lipský, 1964) attests. Commonly considered a parody of the crooning cowboy B-westerns of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter (yet made for, and beloved of, audiences unversed in the tropes of such films, as was the case with many subsequent Czechoslovak films assumed to be spoofing Western genres), it is no less formally innovative or technically playful than works by that subset of the canonical New Wave directors whose avant-garde tendencies have been acclaimed far and wide: Věra Chytilová, Jan Němec, Juraj Jakubisko, et al. It is also scarcely any less subversive.
Lemonade Joe is set in 1885, in the frontier town of “Stetson City” in Arizona – actually Prague’s Barrandov Studios, with additional scenes shot in the aptly named Velká Amerika (“Great America”) limestone quarries in the Bohemian Karst region, located appropriately to Prague’s southwest.2
A clean-shaven, whiter-than-white stranger (Karel Fiala) enters the whisky-soaked town saloon and, touting benefits to his formidable sharp-shooting, praises a hitherto unknown soft drink, “Kolaloka.”3 It’s promptly stocked by an establishment run by a father-daughter temperance union, immediately giving them all of the saloon bar’s business. Complications and fierce rivalries emerge when the saloon owner’s ultra-villainous brother Horace Badman, aka master-of-disguise Hogofogo (Miloš Kopecký), arrives in town, determined to enforce a return to a whisky-based economy and to have his wicked way with Winnifred (Olga Schoberová) from the rival establishment. She, inevitably, is interested only in Joe.
The film’s ostensibly simple Manichean oppositions, common to the westerns it apes, are regularly subverted. The virtuous, teetotalling stranger is in fact a clandestine soft drink salesman – a closeted capitalist! Yet when he outs himself thus to the pure Winnifred, she is none deterred; in fact, she starts bargaining with him for a cut of his takings…
As Cynthia J. Miller noted, “Good and evil, here, are merely rival entrepreneurs, with the town’s legal, moral, and economic worlds inextricably linked.”4 Indeed, the more that capitalism – and the American frontier mythology it underpins – is painted as a decadent, corrupting ideology, the more it seems worth the while of those corrupted to pursue it. This mixed messaging reaches a hilarious zenith at the film’s close which, after submitting Joe to a brief Passion Play(!), introduces a deus ex machina of breathtaking chutzpah which synthesises good and evil, and sin and abstinence, under the sign of the almighty dollar. Not the messaging one might have expected from a film fully subsidised by a Communist state…
In Lemonade Joe’s immediate wake came an almighty slew of Eastern European westerns, likewise with all the ideological complexity and ambivalence such a denomination suggests, if typically mined less for comedic and satirical value.
Yet Joe’s creator Jiří Brdečka revered westerns. As his daughter Tereza Brdečková has written,
Risking jail [owing to their illicit status once the US had entered WWII], my father gorged himself on Hawks’s and Ford’s westerns and their heroes. Unlike him, they lived in a vast, free country, with the sky as their only limit. Their world had clear divisions between villains and heroes. They were free to go wherever they wanted and were free to never return. […] It is these forbidden dreams of America as the promised land of freedom that explain the almost absurd attachment of Central and Eastern Europeans to westerns.5
When the weekly he wrote and illustrated for asked him to devise a series of parodies of Wild West stories, Brdečka created Lemonade Joe, who appeared in the pages of Ahoj magazine between 1943 and 1944.
His creation had many lives before its feature film fruition. The first of many successful theatrical adaptations was launched in 1944 in Prague’s Větrník Theatre; famously, it opened in medias res with a frenzied barroom brawl6, mirrored by the bravura opening of 1964’s film adaptation. Lemonade Joe was also novelised in 1946, featuring Brdečka’s own illustrations, before inspiring a brilliant short puppet animation collaboration between frequent colleagues Brdečka and Jiri Trnka7, Árie prérie (Song of the Prairie, 1949). Árie introduced the song later made a standard by Karel Gott as the theme to the 1964 film, “Sou fár tu jú aj mej” – a song sung wholly in nonsensical cod English.
Brdečka’s Lemonade Joe stories even inspired other superb short animated westerns in the Eastern Bloc: the Yugoslav cartoon Cowboy Jimmie (Dušan Vukotić, 1957) and Witold Giersz’s camera-less, paint-on-film, Polish short, Maly Western (A Little Western, 1961). With all of these animated forebears, and with Lemonade Joe’s highly cartoonish aesthetic, perhaps it’s little wonder that so much credit for its success is attributed to Brdečka, a renowned animation auteur atop his fame for the written word and illustrations. But this erases the contributions of director and co-screenwriter Lipský, cinematographer and trick photography specialist Vladimír Novotný and editor Miroslav Hájek, as well as those of a splendid cast including Květa Fialová as the fallen barroom singer Tornádo Lou, surely riffing on Marlene Dietrich’s Frenchy in Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939).8
Lipský’s work as director of Lemonade Joe (and subsequent films) has in fact often been outright derogated. “Oldřich Lipský’s direction was rather mediocre”, wrote the animation scholar Giannalberto Bendazzi, “while Brdečka’s screenplay and dialogues were whimsical and sprightly.”9 Or from pre-eminent anglophone Czechoslovak film scholar, Peter Hames: “Although Lipský’s direction is rather functional, the film has plenty of ideas, many of them derived from animation.”10
Yet, under Lipský’s direction, Lemonade Joe made relentlessly inventive use of the full CinemaScope frame (even featuring extreme close-ups of Joe’s throat, mid-yodel), independent of similar innovations and revisions to the western being introduced at the same time in Italy by Sergio Leone in Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964). By default, Lemonade Joe’s every artful frame is sepia-toned, with occasional shifts in tint to reflect shifts in narrative tenor. The result not only harks back to film’s silent era but also gives Lemonade Joe an acid pop art-ishness when combined with all the undercranking, stuttering freeze frames, tilting camera angles and the Karel Zeman-meets-The Goodies slapstick and trick photography substitutions.
Lest further evidence really need be proffered of how accomplished Lipský, Novotný and Hájek were, the next film to unite their talents, 1967’s Happy End, should silence any doubters. The film relates the story from death to birth of a murderous middle-aged man, but told from the protagonist’s perspective as if these same events charted his birth (when his head joined his body beneath a guillotine blade) through to his death. Accordingly, most of the footage in the film runs in reverse. It is a dizzying accomplishment demanding multiple viewings to parse, and as radical as any New Wave film.
Note that between Lemonade Joe and Happy End, Novotný worked on Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ Oscar-winning Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street, 1965) while Hájek edited several of the ‘60s most seminal New Wave films including Miloš Forman’s Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, 1965), Jan Nemec’s O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests) and Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966).
In summary: viva Lemonade Joe! And viva Jiří Brdečka, but viva also Oldřich Lipský, Vladimír Novotný and Miroslav Hájek. And boo to false dichotomies elevating the New Wave perforce above the popular cinema of that same, unrepeatably productive, time in Czechoslovak film history – not least as oftentimes the film artists involved were one and the same.
Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera (Lemonade Joe, 1964 Czechoslovakia 95 min)
Prod Co: Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: Karel Feix, Miloš Brož Dir: Oldřich Lipský Scr: Jiří Brdečka, Oldřich Lipský, based on a play by Jiří Brdečka Phot: Vladimír Novotný Mus: Jan Rychlík, Vlastimil Hála Ed: Miroslav Hájek, Jitka Šulcová Art Dir: Karel Škvor Jiří Trnka, Břetislav Pojar Cost: Fernand Vácha, Nita Romaničová, Eva Lackingerová
Cast: Karel Fiala, Miloš Kopecký, Květa Fialová, Olga Schoberová, Rudolf Deyl ml., Bohuš Záhorský, Josef Hlinomaz, Karel Effa, Waldemar Matuška, Eman Fiala, Vladimír Menšík, Jiří Lír
- FAMU is the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. ↩
- Little wonder then that the “Fata Morgana Valley” scenes shot there include a mirage of Prague Castle, amidst even more absurd visions like the Great Sphinx of Giza and London’s Tower Bridge. The latter, moreover, hadn’t yet been constructed at the time the film is set. ↩
- The allusive naming of this drink doesn’t require much explication but it does bear mentioning that an affordable, carbonated, cola-like drink named Kofola hit the market in Czechoslovakia in 1960. ↩
- Cynthia J. Miller, “Comedy, Capitalism, And Kolaloka: Adapting the American West In Lemonade Joe (1964)” in International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier, Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin van Riper, eds. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2014), p. 108. ↩
- Tereza Brdečková, “Jiří Brdečka and His Worlds” in Jiří Brdečka: Life – Animation – Magic, Tereza Brdečková, Jiří Brdečka, Giannalberto Bendazzi and Jiří Kubíček (Prague: Limonádový Joe, s.r.o., 2015), p. 24. ↩
- Zdeněk Hedbávný, Divadlo Větrník (Prague: Panorama, 1988), pp. 118-119. ↩
- With Břetislav Pojar, another venerable figure in Czech animation, Trnka art directed Lemonade Joe’s ingenious animated special effects. ↩
- Joe’s favouring of soft drinks reminds one, furthermore, of Destry’s (Jimmy Stewart) preference for a glass of milk over alcohol. ↩
- Giannalberto Bendazzi, “A Director of Animated Films” in Jiří Brdečka: Life – Animation – Magic, Tereza Brdečková, Jiří Brdečka, Giannalberto Bendazzi and Jiří Kubíček (Prague: Limonádový Joe, s.r.o., 2015), p. 166. ↩
- Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 50. ↩