What’s up Tiger Lily (1966) is from Woody Allen‘s early period, when he was a funny guy, but he was also just as prone to experimentation in his Genesis period (his next project was the infamous experimental James Bond disaster Casino Royale, which he acted in and co-wrote). The concept for Tiger Lily is so simple, one wonders why no one had attempted it before (or since): Allen took a Japanese spy film—a not so subtle ripoff of the Bond films called The Key of Keys, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi—and redubbed it. Allen himself appears to introduce this one-of-a-kind, playful hybrid.
Allen has since dismissed What’s Up Tiger Lily as juvenile doodle, but its youthful pulse on the absurd is convincing, winning, and is probably the closest he gets to authentically weird cinema. There are some who maintain that in addition to being his first film, Lily is also his funniest.
Most of the mainstream suddenly became acquainted with Allen with this film, which was an unexpected hit (Allen later joked that his overnight success was a decade in the making). In addition to the dubbing, Allen also re-edited the film, and the result is so refreshing that the original film becomes a viewing ordeal (the opposite of what happened whenever Jerry Warren‘s edits inexplicably made godawful films even worse, i.e., Face of the Screaming Werewolf).
Whether or not What’s Up Tiger Lily is Allen’s funniest film is debatable, but it’s certainly his silliest, because of its inherent helter-skelter weirdness. Its the cinematic equivalent of a Mad Magazine, with subtle-as-a-pair of brass knuckles humor and spliced-in performances from the Lovin’ Spoonful making it a bouncing off the wall party favorite (it’s probably not as fun to watch alone). There are just as many jokes that fail as ones that work, but they are delivered with such kinetic, Tex Avery-like speed that it hardly matters. Comparatively, the whole of Mystery Science Theater 3000 seems like an academic lecture.
Allen and his team are not so much writing here as jotting down improvisations (” Woody, since the story is difficult to follow, would you mind giving the audience a rundown on what’s gone on so far?”) There’s certainly no polish in the lame impersonations (“This Peter Lorre impression is killing my throat”), animated stars covering the nipples of cabaret dancers, blatant sexism, jokes about confusing Japanese with Chinese, vibrators, cattle prods for the bedroom, Japanese toys, masturbation, along with non-stop ethnic and religious jabs:
“Spartan Dog! Roman Cow! Russian Snake! Spanish Fly! Anglo-Saxon Hun! I’m dying—call the rabbi! I had an idea that it was Mormon Tabernacle Choir who helped you escape, but there was no motive. The Best thing about my mother is that she can really take a punch!”
“Did you bring the mayonnaise? Never mind, we’ll use Miracle Whip! No bullets? Ah, but if all of you in the audience who believe in fairies will clap your hands, then my gun will be magically filled with bullets!”
In Allen’s version, walking-erection superspy Phil Moskowitz (Tatsuya Mihashi, also the star of 1960s films The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low) has received a commission from the High Majah of Raspur to find the Secret Recipe for Egg Salad, which is now in the hands of the evil Shepherd Wong. Assisting Moskowitz are two buxom Japanese babes: Teri and Suki (“I’m such a great piece”) Yaki (Mia Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi, who also appeared together in King Kong vs. Godzilla and the 007 entry You Only Live Twice).
To quote that eternally underrated band, The Sparks, this is the film in which we see Allen with Angst in His Pants. It’s no wonder that the sophisticated filmmaker holds this adolescent, politically incorrect, blatantly racist, sexist, sloppy, and dated entry in such contempt. It may be an embarrassment for Allen, but the rest of us will be losing our stitches.