What's Up, Tiger Lily?

In 1966 Woody Allen was published in the New Yorker magazine for the first time with the short story The Gossage-Vardebian Papers and married actress Louise Lasser - who would subsequently appear in four of his films and remain friends with him even after their divorce just three years later. Around his lucrative and much in demand standup commitments and appearances he also found the time to write the play Don't Drink the Water and put together a comic spoof to be released by American International Pictures that would eventually become What's Up, Tiger Lily? At the apex of the James Bond phenomenon Woody Allen and friends (including his future Annie Hall collaborator Mickey Rose) took a tongue-in-cheek 1964 Japanese spy thriller called Kagi No Kagi (key of Keys) and - with a couple of other similar Japanese pictures also utilised for extra scenes - dubbed the film with comically obtuse wisecracking dialogue and changed the James Bondish espionage plot into a nonsensical search for the world's greatest egg salad.
The process was achieved by placing five people in a room and allowing them to improvise as the film ran and although the spoof developed - and still maintains - a fairly decent reputation as an enjoyable piece of nonsense and improvisation it was a dispiriting experience for Woody Allen who regarded the film to be insipid and juvenile and tried to prevent its release after additional sequences were introduced without his consent. His own feeling was that an off the cuff spoof of this type would outstay its welcome if it ran for over an hour and should be as snappy and brief as possible. While some of the extra additions - most notably pop music interludes by The Lovin' Spoonful - could have been restricted and threaten to disrupt the flow of What's Up, Tiger Lily? at times they do admittedly add a certain sixties spirit of psychedelia and fun into the film.
The film begins in its original Kagi No Kagi form with a beautiful Japanese girl heading towards a buzzsaw, a cliffhanger in the style of the enjoyably daft sixties Batman television series with Adam West. The screen duly freezes and we cut to Woody Allen in an elaborate study surrounded by books. A very funny and rambling explanation of what we are about to see is provided by the young star. "They wanted in Hollywood to make the definitive spy picture. And they came to me to supervise the project, you know, because I think that, if you know me at all, you know that death is my bread and danger my butter - oh, no, danger's my bread, and death is my butter. No, no, wait. Danger's my bread, death - no, death is - no, I'm sorry. Death is my - death and danger are my various breads and various butters."
A deadpan Woody then goes on to inform us that, although a lot of people aren't aware of this fact, Gone With the Wind was also dubbed. "Those are Japanese people actually," says Allen. "And we dubbed in American voices on that... southern voices." Woody Allen's brief appearances in What's Up, Tiger Lily? are suitably funny and tongue-in-cheek. The revamped version of this Japanese oddity - which looks amusing enough in its original form - then includes a Maurice Binder inspired James Bond style animated title sequence with dancing girls and a caricature of Allen. This is essentially a one-joke film and as such sometimes rather hit or miss but you are never too far away from a funny wisecrack or line.

It's debatable to what extent What's Up, Tiger Lily? is a Woody Allen film as he merely provided improvised dialogue to another picture and clearly had limited control over the final version. Although 1969's Take the Money and Run undoubtedly stands as the first unadulterated Woody Allen film, What's Up, Tiger Lily? does give us a strong sense of a confident young comic talent who has a flair for the absurd and a great aptitude for writing funny lines with an imaginative twist. "I'd call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse," a character memorably wisecracks in the film. The experimentation with film and sound here is also an early, simpler example of techniques Woody Allen would use in films like Zelig and predates much later spoofs like Mystery Science Theater 3000 with its comic film within a film structure. It's clear though that the What's Up, Tiger Lily? experience must have confirmed Woody Allen's feeling that personal creative control over a film was vitally important for the future.
One thing What's Up, Tiger Lily? does do at times is enjoyably capture the spirit of Woody Allen's comic prose collections with its endless array of throwaway jokes and Marxian nonsense. "Don't tell me what I can do, or I'll have my mustache eat your beard" is a line that could have come from Groucho or Chico and our hero, Phil Moskowitz (in reality Tatsuya Mihashi), is hired by the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, a "non-existent but real-sounding country". Insults used in fight scenes become comic malapropisms ("Spartan dog!", "Spanish fly!", "Roman dog!") and during a romantic interlude our Japanese 007 clone utters the immortal line; "Meet me in the bedroom in five minutes and bring a cattle prod." There is also an amusing joke where the actors grumble about the director making an unnecessary cameo ("Egomaniac," mutters Phil) and, halfway through the film, the picture stops again and Woody Allen and Louise Lasser kiss and make hand puppets in the projection room over the screen. "Dolores," says Allen. "We can't keep meeting here like this. My wife is getting suspicious."
What's Up, Tiger Lily? also includes some animated sequences designed by Jimmy Murakami and an appearance (alongside Woody Allen in an additional scene) by China Lee, a famous Playboy fixture and wife of Mort Sahl, the highly original comedian who was a big early influence on Allen's decision to do standup. Although some of the jokes about ethnicity and sex have become rather dated through exposure to time this isn't a film to be taken too seriously. One other appealing thing about What's Up, Tiger Lilly? is that Kagi No Kagi features the charms of Mie Hama who became a Bond girl for real in 1967's You Only Live Twice alongside Sean Connery. What's Up, Tiger Lily? doesn't quite sustain itself successfully over its eighty or so minutes but it's an amusing experience for the most part that fans of Allen, James Bond mimic knock-offs and general silliness and nonsense will enjoy.
- Jake


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