My Geisha (1962)
“It’s the WACKIEST HOAX That Ever Turned the Screen Hilarious!”
Director: Jack Cardiff
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Yves Montand, Edward G. Robinson
Synopsis: Paul Robaix is a well known director, married to Lucy Dell, a famous movie star. Robaix wants to make a movie of the classic play Madame Butterfly, but he doesn’t want his wife to play the leading part…
This comedy is as duplicitous as Shirley MacLaine’s movie-star wife posing as a geisha to win a role in her director husband’s version of M. Butterfly. Its identity changes about twenty minutes from the end, and we suddenly discover we’re not watching a comedy after all, but rather a poignant drama that examines the destruction deceit and lies — no matter how well-intended — can wreak on a marriage. Those last twenty minutes, in which Montand and MacLaine as the married couple engage in a dark game of bluff and counter-bluff briefly lifts what is otherwise an only mildly diverting comedy to another level.
Although the movie only occasionally raises the most modest of smiles, and must therefore be considered something of a failure on that score, it still has a lot going for it. The cinematography, as one might expect from a film directed by former cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is often superb even though he apparently left the filming to Shunichiro Nakao. One brief montage sequence in which we see MacLaine and crew filming against stunning landscapes while music from Puccini’s opera plays is simply breathtaking, and leaves the viewer ruing the fact that pan-and-scan on the small screen must inevitably lessen its impact. Viewed on the big screen, that sequence would simply blow you away and be worth the price of admission alone. MacLaine is also a bonus; she’s young and feisty here, and some wonderful close-ups capture her peculiar beauty in a way that few films did. For my money, MacLaine always looked better in close-up for some reason. She looks a bit strange in Geisha make-up when standing beside a genuine Japanese girl, but free of the white pancake she looks pretty hot. Edward G. Robinson also appears to be enjoying himself in a light role for a change and, while Montand tortures his vowels and stumbles over his consonants, he nevertheless manages to establish a convincing rapport with MacLaine. Between them they conjure up a warmth that never appears less then genuine. Meanwhile, the ever-youthful Bob Cummings works hard to draw some redeeming qualities out of a somewhat sleazy character.
Give My Geisha a try, you’ll probably be able to gain something from it even if the comedy aspect leaves you largely unmoved. And watch out for a great scene near the end where MacLaine masks first one half of her face and then the other with the fan she has just received as a gift from her geisha friend. It pretty much summarises in one simple action what the entire film is about, and even if it didn’t it would still be an entirely memorable moment.
(Reviewed 8th August 2005)