My Geisha is a politically incorrect product of its time
Shirley MacLaine stars as an American star playing a Japanese actress in ‘My Geisha,’ an entertaining film for its time, even with all of its politically incorrect attitudes.
The Sixties were a weird, tumultuous time in the United States, at least the mid-to-late Sixties. Just before that time when we still had a bit of innocence left, it was a time when it didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers when an American actor played a character of another race. Jerry Lewis got away with his grotesque Japanese caricature for years, and both Mickey Rooney and Marlon Brando played Japanese characters on the big screen (and, yes, there was some outcry from the Asian community, but their voices were rarely heard at the time).
Heck, German-born Luise Rainier even won an Oscar for portraying a Chinese woman in The Good Earth (and she only got the role because Paul Muni had been cast as Wang Lung, and the Hayes Office would have forbidden a Chinese actress to be cast as the wife of an American actor, even if he was playing Chinese – interracial marriage was still illegal in many states, even when it was fictional).
So in 1962, just before America lost its innocence, Shirley MacLaine starred in a movie produced by her then-husband entitled My Geisha. MacLaine plays popular movie star Lucy Dell. Her husband Paul Robaix (Yves Montand) is a director who seems to only have a career because he makes movies that star his wife. He wants to shoot a new version of the classic opera Madame Butterfly, but he refuses to cast Lucy as he wants the film to be as authentic as possible, including shooting on location. The studio balks, without his knowledge, and tells producer Sam Lewis (Edward G. Robinson) that they’ll give him half a million dollars which means shooting in black and white and not hiring professional singers to dub the voices. Lucy knows this will be a blow to her husband’s ego, so she does what any good wife in her position would do – she disguises herself as a geisha when visiting him in Japan and gets herself cast in the starring role. It’s a classic I Love Lucy plotline stretched out over two hours.
The production gets a workable budget when New York gets wind of Lucy’s involvement, but it’s up to Sam to make sure Paul never realizes that his discovery, Yoko Mori, isn’t actually his wife. He gets a little suspicious when Yoko takes direction so well, but he attributes that to her geisha training. Of course, he does eventually discover the ruse when previewing some film that may need to be reshot, and the negative image reveals Yoko to be Lucy. It seems that this betrayal puts their successful marriage at risk, and things come to a head when Paul is forced to introduce “Yoko” to an adoring audience at the film’s premiere.
For a film of it’s time, My Geisha is entertaining. It’s about the battle of the sexes, but it also has the emasculated male who needs to prove to himself and his wife that he can be the bread-winner in the family. Paul is tired of being Mr. Lucy Dell and this new movie is the only way he can break free of that … except no one will let him. In that case, it’s very ahead of its time with the woman being the one in power in the family. Ricky Ricardo never had a production put in jeopardy because Lucy wasn’t cast in the lead. But we do see Paul at work and he appears to be a very competent director, so it’s a bit sad that the studio won’t let him create his art unless his wife, their biggest box office draw, is attached.
Where the movie gets a little problematic is with the character of Bob Moore, the lead actor in Paul’s film and his best friend to boot. Bob (played by Robert Cummings) has had a history with women, going through four marriages but looking for his next conquest (which seems even more odd due to Cummings’ overly fey performance). When Bob meets Yoko, he is smitten (especially when she tells him Japanese women don’t know what alimony is), doing everything in his power to catch her attention. He imposes himself into her dressing room (startled when he realizes Sam is there), he is always looking for a chance to privately run lines with her, and he even jumps at the chance to go to a public bath at the hotel thinking she’ll be there.
And then … after a long shooting day, Sam and Yoko’s geisha mentor Kazumi are playing cards in the lobby of the hotel. Bob drops by and discovers the key to Yoko’s room is on the table. He feigns being exhausted, slips the key into his hand and heads up to her floor. Then he lets himself into her room! Of course, Lucy is not in Yoko drag because she’s asleep, but Bob’s unauthorized entrance wakes her and she huddles under her blanket … while Bob basically throws himself at her, fighting hard to pry the blanket out of her hands. It’s a very, very uncomfortable scene to watch because the whole things is more than a little rapey. Lucy/Yoko convinces Bob that if he dishonors her, she will have to commit hara-kiri so he leaves and she has a good laugh about the whole incident. I don’t know how this played to audiences in 1962, but it genuinely made this viewer’s skin crawl. That still doesn’t put Bob off, though, because the next day he begs Paul to ask Yoko to marry him! Ah, different times.
Other than that and the fact that you really have to suspend disbelief that Paul does not recognize his own wife (even when she’s expertly rambling off her own version of the Japanese language), the film is light entertainment with MacLaine at the height of her pixie-ish cuteness. Montand, in one of his early American films, is really more of a supporting character to MacLaine and Cummings. Robinson, though, manages to make his Hollywood producer human as he has to keep Bob’s pants zipped, and juggle the ego of his director and the ruse of his star, and then has to keep even more secrets as each of them learns the truth.
The film, as presented on DVD, looks gorgeous. The DVD image is sharp (well, except for those vanity close-ups of MacLaine which seem to be shot through a roll of gauze) and extremely colorful. The production design is pretty clever by presenting the Robaix/Dell home as fairly monochromatic and then allows the film to burst into all of its Technicolor glory on the film sets in Japan (including some breath-taking location shots with Mount Fuji in the background). There is one scene to really watch as Bob barges into Paul’s hotel room just as the sun is rising. The room is barely lit save for a faint orange glow coming from the window that only gets brighter as the scene progresses. It really was one of the most impressive moments in the movie.
My Geisha had been out of print on DVD for a while, but it’s now back as part of the Warner Archive Collection for your viewing pleasure. The content is the same as was on the old Paramount DVD with just the movie and various language options, including a remixed 5.1 surround track which puts the voices front and center and gives the film’s score room to breathe in the surrounds. There are no bonus features, not even a trailer. The high quality of the video transfer, though, makes up for any deficiencies. If you’re a MacLaine fan, or are just curious to check out a film with attitudes from a bygone era, My Geisha is certainly worth a look.
My Geisha was provided to CliqueClack for review by the Warner Archive Collection.