‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ starring Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford

I’m currently going through the 2006 The Marlon Brando Collection, which I picked up a few weeks ago. While the set does include Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s fantastic adaptation of Julius Caesar, the rest of the films are completely new-to-me. Yes, I have somehow never seen the ’62 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. The other three films are The Teahouse of the August Moon, Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Formula.

teahouse

There is a good reason why I haven’t seen the others so far. Reflections in a Golden Eye is a pretentious, painfully slow movie from John Huston. The next one I checked out was Teahouse, which was painfully bizarre.

Based on John Patrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and directed by Daniel Mann, Teahouse is set in Okinawa just after the end of World War II. Captain Fisby (Glenn Ford) is assigned to help democratize the village of Tobiki. He has the help of translator Sakini (Brando), but quickly learns that the residents would much rather have a teahouse than a school. They would also rather have their women become geishas after Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo) arrives. Col. Purdy (Paul Ford) is so angered by the lack of progress that he later sends psychiatrist Captain McLean (Eddie Albert) to check Fisby out, but even McLean is convinced to do other things besides his assignment.

Watching this film today is incredibly uncomfortable. Brando at least tries to be more respectable than Mickey Rooney would be in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he is terribly miscast. Comedy was always Brando’s kryptonite and having to do it under all that make-up only highlights that. Supposedly, Brando spent two months in Okinawa to get accents and acting right, but he couldn’t fix his comedy skills.

It’s also sad to see Machiko Kyo wasted as just a pretty face. She starred in some incredible Japanese films, including Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Gate of Hell. In Teahouse, she does little more than chuckle and wrestle Glenn Ford.

Speaking of Ford, he’s the one consistently bright spot. His banter with Paul Ford (who is reprising his Broadway role) is particularly funny. You also end up wishing that Eddie Albert came in earlier.

The film does work on one level at least. It’s a blistering satire of America’s occupation of Japan. This actually makes it relevant today, because we still assume we can sweep into anywhere around the world and the people there will just accept democracy. Sure, the way Teahouse goes about making this point seems a bit weird, but the message is not one to ignore. We need to be more caring about the needs the people want, not what we want them to want.

Warner’s DVD of this MGM movie includes a neat featurette called Operation Teahouse, which shows the cast and crew arriving in Japan.

Teahouse was a huge success on both stage and screen with audiences in the ’50s. But it would be interesting to see this topic handled today with Japanese actors. Sadly, we’re a bit too serious today to laugh about things like occupying other countries, which might explain why Teahouse has fallen into the dustbin of history.

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