Lemonade Joe (in Czech: Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera), Oldřich Lipský’s highly stylized 1964 Western parody about a cowboy who favors soft drinks to booze, was one of the director’s few features to enjoy a (modest) level of international success. In the Czech Republic, the film (and it’s ballad Whiskey, to je moje gusto) has renewed significance in the wake of the country’s ban on hard liquor sales following the deaths of 19 people from methanol poisoning.
In the Arizona town of Stetson City, alcohol-fueled gunfighters duel and brawl at the Whiskey Trigger Saloon, owned by Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl). Pretty young teetotaler Winnifred Goodman (Olga Schoberová) and her father Ezra (Bohuš Záhorský) preach the benefits of abstinence from booze, but the locals aren’t having it – that is, until dashing Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala) strolls into town and shows them the errors of their ways.
The locals quickly turn to lemonade, and take their business to the Kolaloka Saloon. Bad news for the Whiskey Trigger. But Doug’s dastardly brother Horace, alias Hogofogo (Miloš Kopecký), and the saloon’s entertainer, Tornado Lou (Květa Fialová, no relation to the lead) – who was in love with Joe until he spurned her – begin to plot their revenge.
Lemonade Joe is a triumph of production design; the striking color scheme (each scene is awash is monochromatic yellows, blues, greens, or reds, which frequently change mid-shot) is most apparent, but there’s an incredible level of inventiveness in just about every scene. I love that ground-level shot of Joe walking into town, with the camera shaking upon every step. And that wonderfully edited scene with Joe and Hogofogo in blackface, full of jump cuts. This is a must-see for anyone interested in filmmaking, and you’ll need to see it multiple times to pick up on every detail.
And yet, in many ways, it’s an example of style over substance; the transparent (and simplistic) story really takes a backseat to the presentation. While individual scenes (even shots) are fascinating, the collective whole can be a bit much to take in a single sitting without much story propulsion, even at a modest 95-minute running time.
Lucky, then, that the film is a straight-up parody, with humor (to go with the style) carrying the momentum when the story cannot. Lemonade Joe is a real blast, with Fiala’s Joe and (particularly) Kopecký’s Hogofogo effortlessly and uproariously funny whenever they’re onscreen. Frequent musical interludes, which include a few memorable songs (Fiala’s singing voice is dubbed by Karel Gott!), also help to keep things moving.
One thing that’s always bugged me: Joe’s rather heartless treatment of Tornado Lou, which is necessary for the plot to progress, but just seems a bit too mean-spirited from our hero. Otherwise, Fiala, with his clean-cut young-Brando good looks, is the perfect overly-kind comedic gentleman.
Director Lipský, who crafted a number of beloved Czech classics, is something of an unsung hero of the Czech film scene; not officially a member of the 1960s Czech New Wave, he failed to receive much recognition on an international level even after some of his films received worldwide distribution. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen from him, which includes Ať žijí duchové!, Adéla ještě nevečeřela, and Tajemství hradu v Karpatech.
While some of the humor may be lost in translation if you don’t speak Czech, Lemonade Joe is a real treat for both casual audiences and prospective filmmakers. I find more and more to like about this movie every time I watch it.