Honestly, I have nostalgia goggles the size of monster truck wheels for this one! Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera came out in 1964 but my entire generation can quote it to no end. It falls into the perfect timing of being a new film for our parent’s childhood and old enough to be cool for our own. So within the Czech culture, this film is a classic.
Even so, I was afraid to revisit it. Many films from my childhood didn’t age well and I was afraid the same would happen here. What didn’t help was a vague memory of blackface and some of the timeless quotes feeling kind of tired after the last fifteen years of repetition.
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But I was pleasantly surprised. The film has an energy that most modern comedies long for. Lemonade Joe falls into the Crazy comedy genre, popular in the Czech Republic, which includes titles such as Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet or The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. In American cinema, it would be a mixture of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers. It takes the nonsensical, absurdist plot and the song breaks from Blues Brothers and the setting with quick-fire jokes and slapstick from Blazing Saddles. It might be surprising to some that it’s older than both…
Where Blazing Saddles took the Western genre and made an honest parody of it, Lemonade Joe uses the Wild West as more of a setting for its general mockery of melodrama. Visually, the Western has aged well. The sets and costumes are imaginative and distinct, the soundtrack is everything from ragtime to blues to cabaret and even the writing font is the usual slick tall letters together with lush cursive. But something is definitely off.
The Western of Lemonade Joe gets more and more absurd the more you squint. Good characters have the surname “Goodman” and bad characters “Badman”, Trigger Whiskey sounds vaguely like an internet troll beverage, and Kolaloka is so close to the trademark infringement edge that Coca-Cola is phoning its lawyers as I type this.
Even the plot goes from a fairly standard set-up to an absurdist melodrama heaven. A lone hero, Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala), rides into town to promote sobriety and the Kolaloka soda. When he arrives in a whiskey saloon, he meets a kindred spirit and a future love, Winnifred Goodman (Olga Schoberová) with whom he persuades all the drunks to move to a new non-alcoholic saloon. Already, you can see what I mean. The whiskey saloon owner, Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl), meets his brother Horace Badman (Miloš Kopecký), also known as “Hogofogo”, who helps him get his business back by shooting the sheriff and persuading all the Kolaloka drinkers to fall off the wagon and back into the Whiskey saloon…
The only problem I have with Lemonade Joe is its use of blackface. The main villain, Horace, has various disguises and one of them is a black trumpet player (a nod to Louis Armstrong). Horace’s face is fully covered, with thick white lips as the only lined feature of his face. It’s bad. But it brings me to the reason why so much of Lemonade Joe is the way it is.
The 60s in the Czech Republic were very much the time of the iron curtain. Though some of the restrictions would lift in 1968 during the Prague Spring, that was all yet to come. What this film is, really, is an idea of what Westerns are like by someone who has only very limited resources. The blackface was probably lifted from some book or film that wasn’t banned by the government and the filmmakers of Lemonade Joe took it as a feature worthy of spoofing along with Stetson hats and Colts. So it’s not ideal, but I don’t think there’s any real malice behind the use of blackface in this film. It still sucks, though.
Overall, Lemonade Joe is highly enjoyable. There are so many jokes piled on top of one another that if you don’t get one, the next is already on the way. It’s really a kid-friendly film as well (as exemplified by my entire generation) and so it’s great for a pleasant, worry-free evening with some popcorn. And I didn’t even mention the catchy songs throughout the whole review, damn it! Just remember: kolaloka is the law…