Our review of What's Up, Tiger Lily?, published July 1st, 2009, is also available.
Interviewer: Woody, because the story is a little bit difficult to follow, would you give the audience and myself a brief rundown on what's gone on so far?
If you thought Mystery Science Theater 3000 invented the gag of making fun of cheesy old movies, think again. Woody Allen was there first, way back in 1966 with this, his directorial debut and still one of the oddest entries in his varied cinematic career. But does this proto-MST3K comic experiment still hold up, after 37 years and countless imitators?
Facts of the Case
At first, you wonder if you put in the wrong disc, or if someone at the DVD manufacturing plant screwed up. Instead of a Woody Allen movie, what's on screen is some kind of Japanese spy movie. In Japanese. Just as you're about to press STOP and take a second look at the DVD case, the film stops and Woody appears to clear up the mystery:
Woody Allen: So, we took a Japanese film, made in Japan by Japanese actors and actresses, bought it…and it's a great film, beautiful color, and there's raping and looting and killing in it…and I took out all the soundtrack, knocked out all their voices, and I wrote a comedy. I got together with some actors and actresses, and we put our comedy in where they were raping and looting. And the result is a movie where people are running around killing another and doing all those James Bondian things, but what's coming out of their mouths is something wholly other.
Interviewer: It's to my recollection the…I've never heard of it before where actors would be acting one story and saying another.
Woody: It was, actually, it was done in Gone With the Wind.
In the mid-1960s, Woody Allen's film career was still mostly ahead of him, but he was already a hot commodity as a comedian and screenwriter, having written for The Tonight Show, Candid Camera, and The Sid Caesar Show while barely out of his teens. The unexpected success of 1965's What's New, Pussycat?, for which Allen wrote the screenplay, further brightened his rising star.
Meanwhile, American International Pictures had a problem. It had acquired a Japanese spy thriller entitled Kagi No Kagi (Key of Keys), which was eliciting few thrills but many jeers and unintended laughs from disdainful American test audiences. Enter producer Henry G. Saperstein, who came up with a brilliant notion: why not re-dub the soundtrack with humorous dialogue, and market the results as a comedy? The project was offered to Allen, and the rest is…well, a cinematic footnote, but one of the more interesting footnotes in film history.
Whatever Kagi No Kagi may have been about in its original incarnation, it probably had very little to do with egg salad, and its Japanese protagonist probably wasn't named Phil Moscowitz. In What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Allen and his comedic cohorts (including Louise Lasser and longtime collaborator Mickey Rose) offer an absurd, Mad Magazine perspective on the spy thriller genre, centering the plot around an egg salad recipe—"so good you'll plotz"—that has been stolen from the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, "a nonexistent but real-sounding country."
Fans of MST3K and the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team's Airplane and Naked Gun series will recognize and appreciate the style of ironic, non-sequitur-laced humor Allen and company use here, in such self-reflexive moments as when the Majah shows our hero a map of the villain's lair, and Moscowitz asks, "He lives in that piece of paper?" Or when a Peter Lorre-voiced henchman groans that "this Peter Lorre impersonation is killing me!"
Ah, but I've already given away too many hilarious lines. No worries, though—there are plenty more to spare in this engagingly goofy comedy. The jokes fly fast and furious; as with the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies, if one falls flat, it's quickly backed up by a dozen more. If some of the gags tend toward the juvenile ("Meet me in the bedroom in five minutes, and bring a cattle prod"), others showcase Allen's cerebral wit ("I'd call him a sadistic, hippophilic, necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse"). And though one might expect the 1960s vintage humor to be dated, the jokes are surprisingly fresh, and wouldn't be out of place on a current Saturday Night Live episode. As stale as his recent comedies have been, it's easy to forget how ahead of his time Allen's comic sensibilities were in his early work.
For those who have only seen Tiger Lily on late-night cable or on pan-n-scan VHS, you're in for a revelation. I've never seen this film in a theater, and had no idea that it was originally presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, so to see it on such a large canvas is something of a shock.
Another surprise for fans is that, for over 20 years, audiences in the U.S. have been watching an altered version of Tiger Lily. Castle Hill Productions, which owns the U.S. distribution rights, has been putting the film out with a sanitized version of the audio track, omitting or changing such lines as "Hey! You've got my vibrator!" and other off-color jokes. This DVD presentation restores the original track as released by AIP, but, as a welcome treat, also includes the alternate track, as well as a nifty comparison feature where you can play clips from the original and altered scenes.
Throw in a Woody filmography, and that's about it for the extras—there aren't even any subtitles. By the standards of a (typically bare-bones) Woody Allen release, though, this is practically a special edition.
Video and audio quality are excellent, considering the age of the film and its obscure origins. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is well rendered, though of course the dubbing isn't exactly state-of-the-art. The picture quality is surprisingly good—I didn't expect such a clean, vibrant transfer, especially since up to now it's only been available in a grainy, murky print. Kudos to Image Entertainment for providing us with a terrific DVD edition of what could have been a throwaway title.
Easter Egg alert: From the main menu, highlight Woody's glasses and hit Enter for a special treat so good you'll plotz.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite Woody's cutting-edge comic genius, the film is terribly dated in spots—but it's not Woody's fault, honest. Following his completion of the project, producer Saperstein felt the running time was too short, so he threw in some completely unrelated musical interludes featuring the then-hip pop band The Lovin' Spoonful. While these campy interludes are good for a few laughs, after the first one they quickly become interminable and stop the film dead in its tracks. Allen was reportedly so incensed by this alteration of his work that he sued the studio and attempted to have the film pulled from circulation (a position he quickly changed once the film began to garner critical praise).
Tiger Lily is essentially a one-joke movie, and that joke inevitably starts to wear thin over the course of 80 minutes. Unlike MST3K, this film has to play within the confines of its source narrative, so there are some extended laugh-free zones, especially toward the end when the film tends to be dominated by wordless action scenes. Still, some of the best lines are at the end, so the film never peters out.
These days, Allen has largely dismissed this film, calling it "a very stupid enterprise" and "stupid and juvenile." Which is mystifying, because not only is this one of the funniest of his "early, funny films," but in its jokes about Jews, sexual relations, and the wacky absurdity of the cosmos, we see the roots of what would be Allen's primary preoccupations throughout his career. If you're a fan of Woody's comedies, this early gem is a must-see. If you're a lover of absurdist comedy, What's Up, Tiger Lily? will not disappoint. Watch it with someone you love…and bring a cattle prod.
Despite never actually appearing in this film, Tiger Lily is acquitted on all counts.
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