Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera [Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera]
“What was before my eyes was both familiar and eerily strange.”–Danilo H. Figueredo, in Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West, on the experience of seeing Lemonade Joe in Cuba
DIRECTED BY: Oldrich Lipský
FEATURING: Karel Fiala, Olga Schoberová, Rudolf Deyl, Miloš Kopecký, Kveta Fialová
PLOT: A lemonade-drinking cowboy rescues a beautiful temperance worker from rowdies in a tavern. Impressed with his heroism and trick shooting, the town opens an all-lemonade saloon, which upsets the local whiskey barons. With the help of a prostitute Joe has scorned, they scheme to kill the teetotalling hero and make Stetson City safe for intoxicating spirits once more.
- The word “limonádový” actually translates to “soft drink,” not “lemonade,” but there can be no doubt Lemonade Joe has a better ring to it than Soft Drink Joe.
- The Lemonade Joe character began his life in a series of stories by satirist Jiří Brdečka. The stories were then adapted into a 1946 play, a short series of animated shorts, and finally into this hit movie.
- Co-screenwriter/director Oldrich Lipský was the artistic director of Prague’s Satirical Theater. He went on to direct several popular and critically successful films, including Happy End (a 1966 experimental film that plays backwards) and Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981).
- Although the Western had been a popular genre in Czechoslovakia in the early part of the 20th Century, largely due to the writings of German pulp author Karl May, Western films had been banned through the German and Soviet occupations. They only began to be screened again (and then rarely) in the 1960s.
- Czechoslovakia submitted Lemonade Joe to the Academy Awards, but it was not selected for the Best Foreign Language Film competition.
- This movie was a huge hit in its home country—the biggest-drawing film of the 1960s—and remains a cult movie there to this day.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lemonade Joe and his nemesis—who is outfitted in blackface because he has been posing as Louis Armstrong for a duet with Joe at the piano—square off in a shootout. The gunfire’s path appears onscreen as dotted lines so that we can see that the bullets are striking each other in midair, leading the duel to end in a draw.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fiddle eating; Czech blackface; dotted bullets
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Communist propaganda, surreal Czech sensibilities, and an honest appreciation for the entertainment value of early Hollywood films collide to create a homegrown retro-Western musical spoof that could almost have come from the mind of Guy Maddin.
Clip from Lemonade Joe
COMMENTS: You hear the names Milos Forman, Vera Chytilová, and Jaromil Jires whenever the is discussed, but Oldrich Lipský is seldom brought up. Perhaps Lipský is considered part of the Old Wave, having directed his first feature in 1951. Perhaps he is not taken as seriously as the others because he primarily made comedies and produced hit films that appealed as much to the masses as to dissident intellectuals, or because his work was not politically controversial enough to earn him the endorsement of the censors. This oversight is a shame, because Lipský’s 1960s work shares the same bold spirit of experimentation as his younger contemporaries, with a visual imagination worthy of Chytilová and a sense of casual absurdity that surely paved the way for those who came after. Lemonade Joe may be an early ripple in the coming Wave, but it hints at what the Czechs and Slovaks were capable of when they allowed their rich national heritage of fantasy and surrealism to seep onto film.
At a superficial level, Lemonade Joe is a simple parody of an American Western, particularly of the silly “singing cowboy” films of the 1930s by Gene Autry and imitators. Stylistically, however, Joe is very dense, drawing on Hollywood inspirations not only from Westerns but also from silent comedies and Looney Toon cartoons, and throwing in whatever anarchic idea best suits its purpose at the time. Most noteworthy is the tinting, which is an antique sepia for most of the running time but which changes to suit the film’s mood: red for Tornado Lou’s torch songs, steely blue for the sober scenes inside the Kolaloka Saloon, lemonade yellow for the sunny desert scenes, midnight blue or green when the villainous Hogofogo Badman is working one of his schemes. The film begins with a riotous, intricately choreographed barroom brawl, which doesn’t phase the cigar-chomping piano player. It includes undercranking and a cowboy hung from his suspenders on a bison horn. Later, disguised as a trumpet player, Hogofogo appear in blackface (another nod to silent comedy, and perhaps a dig at American racism); his subsequent jumps and jives take advantage of sped-up and reversed footage just as a Keystone comedy might. Other deviations from physical reality are even more free-form. Cigar smoke spells out secret messages. While riding the range, Lemonade Joe passes the Sphinx in the distance. Death is an illusion in this cartoonish caricature; a sip of salubrious soft drink is sufficient to resuscitate a felled cowpoke.
Mixed in with the obvious lampooning of cowboy tropes—the hero in the white hat, the hooker with a heart of gold, the yodeling—is an only slightly subtler satire of American capitalism. Straight-shooting Joe originally seems to be a selfless crusader for temperance. He favors lemonade, he says, because it keeps his wits straight and his reflexes fast. But not just any old lemonade: he endorses a particular brand, Kolaloka. Impressed by his pearly white teeth and his ability to silence flies with his six shooter, the townsfolk abandon the vice of whiskey and flock to the newly-opened Kolaloka saloon. Their switch in brand loyalty is not without some fallout, however. Carefully paired scenes show whiskey-drinking cowboys, too soused to shoot straight, making up and hugging each other after a drunken argument. Meanwhile, the sharp-witted lemonade drinkers fire so straight that no one survives a dispute (“when a drinker of Kolaloka shoots, no need to call a doctor!”, explains teetotaling Mr. Goodman with pride). Initially, the increased mortality rate of straight living may strike us a simply humorous irony; but is Joe’s image authentic, or is he engaged in some more sinister creative marketing? In the closest thing Lemonade Joe has to a twist, it turns out that the hero is not only a champion of justice, but also the regional salesman for Kolaloka! Perhaps Joe is only sober and virtuous because it’s an essential part of his brand identity. (It’s all a bit confused, however: Joe’s aversion to liquor does seem real, because later whiskey acts like Kryptonite on him).
Most critics stress Lemonade Joe‘s capitalist satire, but it is far rarer for a reviewer to mention the film’s less prominent but equally obvious Christ allegory. Not only is Joe a paragon of virtue, he undergoes his own mini-passion in the desert. After being betrayed by a trusted confidant, he is tied up against a tree in a crucifixion pose. He is mocked and his clothes are spattered with mud; he bears his punishment stoically. His now remorseful betrayer begs his forgiveness, which of course saintly Joe grants. He even literally dies and is resurrected. Of course, we might say the Christological nature of the cowboy hero is embedded in the classical Western genre: a wanderer, a righteous and chaste outsider, arrives in a corrupt town and saves the downtrodden from their oppressors, risking his own life in the process. But seldom does an oater dare to so explicitly re-enact (parody?) the crucifixion as does Lemonade Joe. Even in an officially atheist society, this symbolism could hardly be missed, but from a 21st century post-Communist perspective, we now struggle to understand how the authors intended it, or how the audience responded to it. Is it satire, deliberate blasphemy, or a sneaky way to play to religious sentiment in a society that officially forbade it? Perhaps the most we can say with certainty is that, looking at the genre as outsiders, Brdečka and Lipský explicitly recognize the cowboy Christ connection as an essential part of the Western myth and couldn’t make a proper parody without referencing it. Besides, what would a weird movie be without a Christ allegory somewhere in it?
In the end, much of Lemonade Joe‘s overarching attitude is confusing to us today. It’s a take on a familiar genre from a very different, ideologically opposed, culture. The film’s ludicrous Old West setting is at the same time an affectionate homage and a deconstructionist satire. The American frontier is shown as an exciting horizon promising excitement and freedom, but is it all just a facade for a soft drink ad? Joe is genuinely likable, the villains deliciously despicable, but by the end they merge into a single company of capitalist lackeys. These tensions make Lemonade Joe a gold rush for film studies prospectors seeking to mine academic nuggets. Yet, I suspect that despite its nuances, the movie is at its heart simple, and its contradictions not as irreconcilable as they appear. Brdečka and Lipský make fun of capitalists because they’re Communists. They also genuinely like Westerns because cowboys are cool, and they admire Joe because the non-capitalist virtues he embodies—temperance, justice, consideration for the less fortunate, skill at arms—are honorable ones, no matter what time or place you come from. As scathing Marxist propaganda, Lemonade Joe is a failure, but that’s because its primary aim isn’t to indoctrinate, but to delight. For this reason even the reddest, whitest, and bluest American patriot, the die-hardest capitalist running dog, could hardly be seriously offended by Lemonade Joe‘s gentle anti-consumerist ribbing. The movie is pure entertainment, and although ideology drives the plot in some wild directions, it only makes it all the weirder and more wonderful.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the strangest films—let alone westerns—ever made.”–Time Out
“Visually this movie puts the Acid in the Acid Western genre… like watching a psychedelic television serial; an old Flash Gordon or Tarzan, but through a lens of Soviet deconstructionism.”–Joe Sylvers, Doormouse Etc. (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Lemonade Joe (1964)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Lemonade Joe: soft-drink purveying cowboy and cult Czech figure – Tereza Brdečková (daughter of Jiří Brdečka, Lemonade Joe’s inventor) describes the film for the English-language edition of Radio Prague
“COMEDY, CAPITALISM AND KOLAKODA: Adapting the American West in Lemonade Joe (1963)” – Cynthia J. Miller’s thorough analysis of the movie for “International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier” (Scarecrow Press, 2014)
Western Goes East: Limonádový Joe and its possible interpretations – A diploma thesis by Kateřina Mléčková outlining possible readings of Lemonade Joe
Lemonade Joe (film) – TV Tropes – Lemonade Joe‘s parodic nature makes it a natural for the trope-listing site
Lemonade Joe – Internet Firearms Movie Database – This very specialized site catalogs all of the guns in Lemonade Joe, creating a nice collection of stills in the process
Lemonade Joe and Jesus – A sermon by a Czech Presbyterian outlining similarities between Joe and Jesus
DVD INFO: Nonprofit Facets Video unleashed Lemonade Joe (buy) on an uncaring public in 2006. Unfortunately, while Facets does excellent work keeping films that might otherwise be neglected in circulation, their DVD releases continually receive low marks. This one is no exception (Stuart Galbraith IV of DVD Talk went so far as to call it “an unmitigated disaster in every respect.”) The transfer is low quality, with frequent interlacing during action sequences; it is badly cropped in the wrong aspect ratio (about 1.67:1, although due to letterboxing the display image is 1.33:1, versus the correct widescreen 2.35:1); and the English translations are at times embarrassing. It also comes with no extra features, although there is a booklet with an essay by Czech film expert Peter Hames.
Adventurous cinephiles willing to dig a little deeper for a higher-quality edition may want to check out Film Export, who offer what has been reported to be an excellent and faithful DVD transfer (the YouTube clips they provide are a noticeable improvement over Facets). There are even rumor of an English dub track! Unfortunately, the Film Export site is not in English, and we have no firsthand knowledge of the quality of the release.