Director: Oldřich Lipský
Screenplay: Jiří Brdečka
Based on the novel and stage play by Jiří Brdečka
Cast: Karel Fiala as Lemonade Joe; Rudolf Deyl, Jr. as Doug Badman; Miloš Kopecký as Horace Badman/"Hogofogo"; Květa Fialová as Tornado Lou, the Arizona Warbler; Olga Schoberová as Winnifred Goodman; Bohuš Záhorský as Ezra Goodman
Synopsis: In the western town of Stetson City, Arizona, whiskey pours much to the sadness of teetotaller and Evangelist Ezra Goodman (Bohuš Záhorský) and his daughter Winnifred Goodman (Olga Schoberová), their religious abstinence campaign failing miserably. To their rescue, with his trademark Kolaloka lemonade his desired drink and perfect pistol aim, is Lemonade Joe who soon cleans the town up. Owner of the Trigger Whisky Saloon Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl, Jr.) is not impressed by this, hiring the legendary outlaw Hogofogo, alias of his brother Horace Badman (Miloš Kopecký) to off Lemonade Joe.
With Czechoslovakian cinema - Czech and Slovakian alike - you will find the alchemist's stone of cinematic invention. Where even the genre films had the same craft as important dramatic works. Their history of stop motion both in stop motion and collage, is impeccable, and even the general style of their films from historical drama to science fiction is utterly unique. Cinema that is entirely unique and, even if more sporadic in release after the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, still produces such films. Theirs, before and after becoming separate countries, is barely scratched upon in terms of availability, allowing one to uncover hidden gems easily to the point of practically falling over them by accident. Take Lemonade Joe director Oldřich Lipský for example. You have, in one filmography, a Jules Verne adaptation (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)), Lemonade Joe, the comedy sci-fi film I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (1969), and the truly bizarre Happy End (1966), a film told entirely backwards where a man goes from his execution for murder to birth as an utterly unreliable narrator.
Lemonade Joe itself if not the only western made behind the Iron Curtain. Not the only musical made behind it either. A comedy western musical influenced by silent cinema techniques however is a one-off. Its desire to both mock American capitalism, as Lemonade Joe is actually in the hands of the Kolaloka Lemonade he drinks as a spokesperson, is yet tempered by it being openly influenced by older American cinema. Singing cowboys were actually a subgenre at one-point in Hollywood, particularly with Gene Autry, a singer-songwriter/film star/television and radio star/business entrepreneur/rodeo performer. (Aptly too as Autry starred in the twelve chapter film serial The Phantom Empire (1935), a western/scif-fi hybrid where he ends up in a secret underground world of robots and subterranean people trying to invade the world above, which is as bizarre as it sounds). Before Canadian film maker Guy Maddin starting using silent film technqiues in stylised ways, and uncovering old genres to use for his own ends, Lemonade Joe takes an era of westerns even older than the fifties classics starring the likes of John Wayne few talk of. The colour tints are from all genres of silent cinema too. Blues usually for dark environments, yellow for outside or lit rooms. Speeding up the film. Images superimposed onto scenes, such as the Egyptian pyramids in the western mountains.
The artistry of older cinema - built having to use its resources in mind of limitations - fits the style of Czech cinema immensely, which has always had a craftwork above even some of the best of industries like Hollywood. Used in a sound film, this style is incredible idiosyncratic and allows for carte blanche in terms of what can be done. If there's a contradiction between paying tribute to this type of cinema and its jabs at America, think of it as admiration for the art turned into a custard pie to the face. Apt as Lemonade Joe is a living breathing cartoon right down to Joe and Hogofogo having a Tom and Jerry like relationship when the latter's introduced. The greyness to this satire, if there is any morality, is actually to the film's advantage, Lemonade Joe becoming as much a true hero as he is a parody. Eventually the heroes and villains become farcical targets as Kolaloka can even resurrect to dead, undermining the antagonism completely.
The performances are as energised and help in Lemonade Joe actually working, characters who are as broad as cartoons but with a tangibility to them so they are not hollow caricatures. Karel Fiala makes a great Lemonade Joe, the perfect blonde and even naive gunfighter with a violent aversion to alcohol and prone to bursting into song in accented English, helped by the fact he was a real life operatic tenor as well as an actor. His could've merely been a mockable character, but its testament to the film and Fiala's performance that the satire to do with his wholesome personality doesn't stop him being a lovable figure you want with Winnifred Goodman, even with showgirl Tornado Lou, the raven haired femme fatale whose lusty demeanour is actually melted by Joe's existence is her life.
His mirror, played by a strong figure in Miloš Kopecký, is Hogofogo. A figure so evil he's charismatic and even gets his own songs, all of which are the best in the film. One lusting over how he loves to kill, but the other probably Lemonade Joe's best scene, an inexplicably serious and potent number which intercuts into an imagined version of Hogofogo's funeral, a full New Orleans mourner's parade with blues instrumentation. That its whilst dressed as an old man to kidnap Winnifred Goodman doesn't undercut the moment. The only sour point, and the only one in the whole film, is when Hogofogo abruptly appears in blackface, a pretty grotesque look as with black makeup on Kopecký does look like a horrible caricature, but it does feel less problematic than the film referencing old Hollywood films even if its troublesome to witness.
The music alongside the production design is where Lemonade Joe in its oddness. Breaking expectations of a stereotypical western where the heroic gunslinger can hit a fly out of the air than (in English) sing a love song rocking on a bar piano. The general absurdity manages to come off as wholesome even when it still has characters die, someone getting a corkscrew in the back, and is ultimately still a piss take on American culture. The fact that this is film made in a communist country emphasising that its American references are to be viewed as parodies of the country the other side of the Iron Curtain. That it is sweet and playful is, yet, also for the better. Cartoonish with exaggeration. Its silliness, taking the production seriously, allows it stand out more.
Abstract Spectrum: Surreal
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
An undiscovered gem in Czechoslovakian cinema. Again, how many musical cowboy films involving silent film techniques actually exist? That it feels like a fully gestated, fully accomplished production means that this enticing premise is even better as a result.