The joy of cowboys

The children of Marx and Kolaloka ride horseback with Lemonade Joe

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"The western has not so much died as fragmented," declared New York Times critic A.O. Scott in a think piece last year about Hollywood's latest incarnations of the genre. Citing Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and more recent, far-flung revisions such as Wisit Sasanatieng's 2000 Tears of the Black Tiger, Scott argued that the western is a mutable export because the myth of the Old West existed even before the advent of cinema. Myths build on their grandeur and solidify their status with each new telling and embellishment, whether those revisions take the form of broadsides spreading the dastardly deeds of Billy the Kid or cinematic Cold War–era allegories staged by John Ford under a baking Arizona sun.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's film series "Non-Western Westerns" has traced the global fragmentation of the western myth from more familiar locales such as Utah (as represented by the Italian Alps in Sergio Corbucci's 1968 film The Great Silence) and the Mexican desert (Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 El Topo), to unexpected stopovers in Bollywood (1975's Sholay) and Hong Kong (Johnnie To's 2006 Exiled). But the most curious, if not the most joyful, destination in the series' itinerary has to be the land once known as Czechoslovakia, the home of Oldrich Lipsky's rangy 1964 horse opera Lemonade Joe.

Lemonade Joe is a sweet and goofy musical parody of the type of westerns Hollywood specialized in before Sam Peckinpah sauntered into town. Though made the same year as Leone's breakthrough, A Fistful of Dollars, Lipsky's movie is its diametric opposite. The good guy's whites remain stainless; the bad guys are mustachioed; and the Trigger Whiskey saloon is likelier to erupt into musical numbers or slapstick fisticuffs than gunfire. The plot follows song-prone sharpshooter Lemonade Joe (played by the suitably dashing operetta stag Karel Fiala) as he weans the rowdy menfolk of Stetson City off of their beloved firewater and over to his miracle tonic, Kolaloka lemonade, all the while competing for the hand of temperate ingenue Winifred Goodman against archnemesis and Trigger Whiskey owner Doug Badman.

Lemonade Joe's hand-tinted look is clearly at odds with its soundtrack. But Lipsky's last concern is fidelity, let alone realism. Indeed, the plot is periodically nudged along by touches that are as evocative of Bugs Bunny cartoons as they are of Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925). Smoke rings spell out messages, dotted lines plot the course of bullets, men fall like dominos after a single punch, and an unforgettable wide screen close-up travels deep into Joe's yodeling throat.

As singularly silly as Lemonade Joe may be, its eccentricity is a reflection of the western genre's established popularity in Eastern and Central Europe. Writer Jirí Brdecka based his screenplay on the Lemonade Joe stories he penned for magazines in the '40s. Around the same time, Karl May's novels set in the American West were immensely popular in Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War, Eastern Bloc countries produced and consumed westerns that functioned as ideological critiques of America, yet trafficked in the trappings of that most stalwart of American icons: the cowboy.

Then again, wherever it is set, the western has always been about the encroachment of capitalism and civilization onto untamed, lawless wilderness. Many of the genre's narratives are driven by an unspoken nostalgia for a savage paradise lost. In Lemonade Joe, this takeover is staged in economic terms. Joe's father turns out to be the president of the company whose product he constantly shills, and whose fiercest competition is the whiskey market.

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