Thoughts on Brando, Teahouse, and the Big Screen

Teahouse_of_august_moon_(1956)Last week, I interviewed Mark Caro who created a film series in Chicago called “Is It Still Funny?” This weekend, I introduced The Teahouse of the August Moon as part of a film series at the Ringling Museum of Art on the image of Asians in Hollywood movies. It seems the opportunity to watch older films on a big screen with an audience has a powerful appeal for movie-lovers in all parts of the country. Teahouse drew a good crowd who enjoyed the film and stayed for a lively discussion afterwards

The Teahouse of the August Moon has an impressive pedigree. In 1951, Vern Sneider published the novel. John Patrick turned it into a very popular Broadway play in 1953; three years later, Patrick adapted it to the big screen for MGM. The studio had high hopes for a critical and box-office hit. Teahouse stars Marlon Brando as Japanese interpreter Sakini, who is also the movie’s onscreen narrator, speaking directly to the audience at the opening and closing of the film. He serves as interpreter for an American colonel in charge of Occupation forces in Okinawa. The Colonel orders Captain Fisby, played by an affable, slightly bumbling Glenn Ford, to oversee a small Okinawan village. The goal is to Americanize the village by indoctrinating them into the ways of modern capitalism. Sakini, who has his own agenda, accompanies Fisby to serve as interpreter–in more ways than one.

Despite the pedigree, Teahouse was not well reviewed upon release. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times compared the stars, Brando and Ford, to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, suggesting that the comedy was silly and superficial. The film does not fare any better with contemporary film historians or Brando biographers. Richard Schickel, who penned Marlon Brando: A Life in Our Times, called Teahouse “the most appalling movie Marlon Brando made in the 1950s,” and Peter Manso, author of Brando: The Biography, found it “dimwitted.” The main criticism of Teahouse centers on Brando’s interpretation of a Japanese character. Not coincidentally, the reason Teahouse was chosen for the Ringling Museum series was Brando’s interpretation of a Japanese character.

AS THE STORY GOES, SOME VIEWERS IN 1956 DEMANDED THEIR MONEY BACK WHEN THEY COULDN'T FIND STAR MARLON BRANDO IN THE FILM.

AS THE STORY GOES, SEVERAL VIEWERS IN 1956 DEMANDED THEIR MONEY BACK BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T RECOGNIZE STAR MARLON BRANDO IN THE FILM.

Brando had campaigned for the role of Sakini, which some critics and historians have called risky, while others deemed it foolish.The actor wanted to play Sakini for several personal and professional reasons. Against his wishes, the Hollywood industry had made a movie star out of Brando after The Wild One and On the Waterfront. Publicity emphasized his smoldering good looks and brooding Byronic temperament. By taking on the role of Sakini, Brando would be covering up his movie-star face with heavy makeup. And, the character was anything but brooding or smoldering. The role was a way for him to get away from a star image he did not accept.

PAUL FORD COSTARRED AS THE COLONEL DETERMINED TO TEACH DEMOCRACY TO THE OKINAWANS EVEN "IF HE HAS TO SHOOT EVERY ONE OF THEM."

PAUL FORD COSTARRED AS THE COLONEL DETERMINED TO TEACH DEMOCRACY TO THE OKINAWANS EVEN “IF HE HAS TO SHOOT EVERY ONE OF THEM.”

Brando, a liberal, had decided he wanted to appear in movies that communicated ideas and ideals he felt were important, and he liked the message of The Teahouse of the August Moon. Though the story takes place in 1946, it reflected ideas that were part of the 1950s. Teahouse satirizes U.S. attempts to “Americanize” Japan and, by extension, other parts of the world, at the expense of their culture or way of life. The Teahouse of the August Moon uses comedy to criticize policies of Occupationism. In the story, the military is depicted as clueless in their dealings with the Japanese. The Colonel blindly follows orders to shove American culture and capitalism down the throats of the Okinawans.

Finally, Brando liked Satini because he was a subversive character. On the surface, he seems to go along with the Colonel and the Captain, but he subtly turns the situation around until he gets what he wants. Satini appealed to Brando’s anti-authority impulses.

In retrospect, however, Brando’s portrayal is problematic, largely because a white actor is playing an Asian character. While “playing yellowface” is unacceptable now, it was still very much a convention in film and the theater in the 1950s. So, for all of his liberal beliefs, Brando would not have found it objectionable to play an Asian. However, there was disagreement about how actors should portray characters of other races or ethnicities, a debate with its roots in the silent era. The issue for actors in those days was not one of political correctness but one of depth and authenticity. The fear was that a performance of a human being who happened to be from another country or ethnicity could easily decline into a superficial impersonation, or a mere impression of a foreign character.

EDDIE ALBERT IS VERY FUNNY AS AN ARMY PSYCHIATRIST WHO FALLS IN WITH GLENN FORD'S CRAZY PLANS.

EDDIE ALBERT ADDS ENERGY AND CHARM AS AN ARMY PSYCHIATRIST WHO FALLS IN WITH GLENN FORD’S CRAZY PLANS.

The criticism by biographers of Brando in Teahouse is that he fell into that trap. His desire to disguise Brando the movie star with heavy greasepaint, a rubber lid to narrow his eyes, and protruding teeth resulted in a superficial stereotype of a Japanese man. His efforts to capture an authentic accent and gestures were undermined by too much bowing, scampering, and hunching over. In other words, the external appearance and accent did much of the work to create the character of Satini. For Brando experts, this is antithetical to the Method, in which the actor supposedly constructs a character from within.

BRANDO TOUCHES UP HIS MAKEUP.

BRANDO TOUCHES UP HIS MAKEUP.

Some biographers claim that Brando designed his own makeup for Teahouse , which is born out by behind-the-scenes photos of the actor applying makeup on set. Brando’s approach to character was the opposite of another actor featured in the Ringling Museum series. Last month, I introduced a pair of Mr. Moto movies, starring Peter Lorre. Lorre refused external changes to his appearance to play Mr. Moto, including layers of greasepaint, a lid for his eyes, and protruding teeth. He noted in a fanzine that he did not want to impersonate a Japanese man, he wanted to create a likable character. He went on to say that the creation of a character should come from within an actor, making Lorre sound more Method than Brando.

In the discussion after Teahouse, many audience members recognized that Satini’s “look” was odd and understood how it could be construed as a stereotype. One of the museum’s staff members who caught the opening of the film during the equipment test failed to recognize Brando at all, asking, “What is that character supposed to be?” But, overall, the audience admired the actor for taking a risk with this role, and noted that Sakini is the most clever character in the film, out-smarting the whole American military. His actions made him admirable.

FORD AND BRANDO PLAY CHASE DURING THEIR DOWN TIME, THOUGH THEY RARELY GOT ALONG.

FORD AND BRANDO PLAY CHESS DURING THEIR DOWN TIME, THOUGH THEY RARELY GOT ALONG.

In another observation, it was noted that Brando was full of energy and verve in some scenes but barely noticeable in others. I can’t help but wonder if this was because he lost interest in the project during production. Brando was the only Method actor in the cast, and he positioned himself as the proverbial outsider. Glenn Ford was a movie star who approached his role as an extension of his image and personality, which is contrary to the Method. And, he and Brando were on the opposite sides of the fence politically. To say they did not get along is an understatement. They tried to upstage each other during takes, leading to arguments and resentment. Once, Ford falsely accused Brando of stealing his favorite cookies, which the star had imported from America. Later, Brando snuck into Ford’s dressing room, found the cookies, and stomped them into the carpet.

I previewed The Teahouse of the August Moon earlier in the week while preparing for my introductory remarks. I was mildly amused at some scenes but noted how much of the narrative was merely conversation and seemed to drag. I worried that the audience would be restless during the dialogue-driven scenes and not appreciate the physical comedy in other scenes. But, I was amazed at how watching the movie on a big screen with an audience made such a difference. I found myself laughing out loud at the dialogue that was funnier when the expressions and inflections of the actors were made obvious by the big screen. Likewise, the physical comedy was amplified and energized by the size of the screen. As the scenes progressed, and the comic energy increased, the mood of the audience was lifted, resulting in increased laughter. This type of subtle timing, which is embedded in the narrative structure, is a lost art in our era of narcissistic comedians ad-libbing onscreen until scenes are beaten to death.

The Teahouse of the August Moon reminded me that there is no substitute for watching a film–any film–on a big screen. Cable-viewing, streaming, downloading, or any distribution system that involves watching films on small screens–or, God forbid, cellphones–offer convenience but undermine entertainment and aesthetic experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Responses Thoughts on Brando, Teahouse, and the Big Screen
Posted By swac44 : October 10, 2016 4:17 pm

I remember doing the play in high school, and my friend who played Sakini tried to take a sensitive approach to it. Since he was already a dark-skinned Italian, he didn’t bother going overboard with makeup, or making his eyes narrower. He figured his costume and a slightly halting speech pattern would do the trick, and I think he was right (it was a while ago).

Still have never seen the movie, because in my mind I think I might find Brando’s performance jarring, but I suppose if I can get through Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this should be a picnic by comparison.

Posted By Flora : October 10, 2016 6:17 pm

As a fan of Glenn Ford, I have a much different reaction to this movie than Brando fans do. This movie is in my top 5 favourite Glenn Ford movies. I love this movie. It is one of my favourite service comedies. Eddie Albert has a great supporting role.

I must admit that I admire Brando more thsn enjoy his films, so it does not really matter to me if Brando was made into an asian well or not.

As for Ford and Brando not getting along due to politics, again, that does not bother me.

I know from the title of this blog that this post is more about Brando th – near the end of the movie.
an Ford, but Teahouse of the august Moon played a big part of the TCM memorial tribute to Glenn Ford. In their memorial tribute they tool the beginning line and final line in a conversation Ford has with Brando after Ford has been fired.

The memorial starts out with the line:

“I used to worry about being a big success….”

Posted By Flora : October 10, 2016 6:20 pm

Edit:

Saw part of my sentence was deleted, so let me rephrase my statement:

“I know by the TITLE of this blog post that this post is referring more to Brando than to Ford, however The Teahouse of the August Moon played a large part in the memorial tribute to Ford.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 10, 2016 6:25 pm

Flora: You are absolutely right about Glenn Ford. He was excellent in this film — funny in the comedy scenes and very touching at the end. And, Eddie Albert was hysterical in his one big scene.

But, the reason I was asked to speak about the film was because of Brando’s performance, so that was my focus. However, I did give a shout-out to GF and EA during my intro.

Posted By kingrat : October 10, 2016 9:36 pm

Susan, you make an excellent point about the difference in seeing the film on the big screen. This doesn’t just make a difference for big-scale movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA; seeing a comedy on the big screen with a live audience makes a world of difference to our perception and enjoyment of the movie, as you said.

Posted By Doug : October 10, 2016 11:54 pm

Forgive a moment of soapboxing.
There is absolutely no reason why an actor should be prohibited from playing another race or, to flip the coin, ONLY be allowed to play THEIR race!
It’s called acting! It’s pretending to be someone or something else.
If Brando wants to play an Asian character, it is up to him to make it work.
If Lucy Liu wants to play a ‘non-Asian’ character, such as Joan Watson…it is up to her to make it work. And she excels at it, because she is a fine actress.
She also plays stereotypical characters in genre work such as “The Man With The Iron Fists”. Both roles allow her to do good work, and the work, the Art, is the thing.

Posted By Flora : October 11, 2016 2:30 am

Thanks Susan for clarifying. I know Morlocks blogs are based upon what TCM is airing in the present or future. I wonder why you were ed to do this film when it is not scheduled to air?

Doug, I think the reference to Brando playing an Asian had to do with the amount of make-up he was using than anything else. It was overdone. As for Lucy Lu, as a woman I am telling you – I don’t buy Doctor Watson as a woman. That’s just my opinion.

When Anthony Quinn put on his ake-up for Lawrence of Arabia – which KingRat mentions regarding the big screen – Dsvid Lean did not recognize him either. He wanted to hire this new man instead of Quinn.

By the way, what is with the silly “Monster of the Month” featurette. I realize that TCM is trying to sell Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies sets, but the phrase Monster of the Month makes it sound like there will be a new monster every month on TCM rather than just Halloween in October. I havenoy paid to much attention to Halloween yet because here in Canada we just had Thanksgiving. I thought the featurette was for Star of the Month Christopher Lee.

Back to Teahouse of the August Moon and dialogue driven humour:
I find dialogue-driven humour much funnier than slapstick. Again, that’s just me. I would have loved this movie being part of that festival last month.

Posted By Doug : October 11, 2016 10:44 am

Flora: ” I think the reference to Brando playing an Asian”
I meant that all artists have the right to be or play whoever or whatever a role calls for. Don’t limit an actor because he or she is a ___________. Since they are pretending for a living, it is their job to sell the audience on their performance.

Posted By Flora : October 11, 2016 5:08 pm

WE will have to disagre about this as I never bought Brando as an Asian. I saw him as a charicature. Pasrt of that was his makeup.

AS for Sherlock Holmes, my favourite is Jeremy Brett- he had two Watsons. I am assuming that was the refrence to JOAN Watson portrayer? Anyway, this is the last comment I’m making on this thread.

Posted By Danny De La Paz : October 11, 2016 8:16 pm

An actor playing a role from another culture may be convincing to those OUTSIDE the culture, but rarely is he or she convincing to those WITHIN. When Australians watch A Cry in the Dark they KNOW that Meryl Streep is not from their culture. When Robby benson played a Chicano in Walk Proud to me as a Chicano it’s little more than laughable.

Posted By Doug : October 11, 2016 8:39 pm

“An actor playing a role from another culture may be convincing to those OUTSIDE the culture, but rarely is he or she convincing to those WITHIN.” Depends on what you mean by convincing. Could Spencer Tracy pass for Cuban? Nope. But he does a great job in “The Old Man and the Sea” and I think that even Cubans would appreciate his performance. Not as a valid representation of a Cuban, but as a fully fleshed out Hemingway character.
There’s been some talk of Idris Elba possibly playing James Bond. I would welcome that portrayal, as he is an excellent actor and would bring a stellar performance to the series. Must James Bond be a white man? In the 1960′s, maybe…but not anymore. Besides, Elba was born in London, so he’s definitely British enough.

Posted By George : October 12, 2016 8:06 pm

The growing importance of the Asian (and especially Chinese) market means we probably won’t see too many Asian roles played by white actors anymore. Hollywood is already casting Chinese actors (who are unknown in North America) in its films to boost the Chinese box office. And Disney says the leads in its live-action Mulan remake will be played by Chinese actors.

China is reportedly adding 22 new movie screens A DAY. There hasn’t been a real theater-building boom in the U.S. since the ’90s. That’s when we got IMAX and stadium seating. The studios are going where the audience is growing … and that’s overseas.

Posted By Stephen White : October 15, 2016 8:01 pm

Interestingly, this post comes at a time when the DR. STRANGE movie is about to be released, which has been blasted in some quarters of the online/social media world because of the casting of Tilda Swinton, a white woman, to the play the Ancient One, who was always depicted as Asian – I presume Tibetan – in the comics. So the practice hasn’t completely disappeared, but it has become exceedingly rare, and filmmakers now get huge flak every time it happens.

Posted By Doug : October 15, 2016 10:15 pm

Stephen White- Tilda Swinton can play anything, anyone…and has.
Woman, man, Archangel Gabriel, twin sisters…she is amazing.
Didn’t know that she was in ‘Dr. Strange’-now I’m interested.

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