From the vault: 1962

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

My Geisha

Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Yves Montand, Edward G. Robinson

Director: Jack Cardiff

The film: Although it wasn't released in the US until the summer of 1962, Shirley MacLaine's preparations for the title role in My Geisha, which involved spending some weeks at a geisha school in Kyoto, were making news as early as January 1961. That month, Time magazine ran a feature that described her efforts at passing off as the real McCoy in a Kyoto bar, noting in passing that 'the reason she has the role is that her husband Steve Parker is producing the movie as a sort of byproduct of one of Hollywood's oddest marriages'.

Parker, whom MacLaine married in 1954 and divorced 30 years later, had spent most of his life in Japan, and continued to do so after the marriage, while MacLaine stayed in Hollywood.

In the movie, MacLaine plays the successful actress wife of a film director (Yves Montand) who leaves her in California while he goes to Japan to shoot a film adaptation of Madame Butterfly. She secretly follows him, befriends a geisha at a bar and finds that with some deftly applied makeup she looks convincing enough to apply for the lead role. Although this sounds like a sure recipe for farcical failure (even the director had his doubts before signing on), the plot and scenario actually work well, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Japanese cosmetics guru Shu Uemura, who first came to international prominence for his striking transformation of MacLaine (below).

Also impressive is MacLaine's use of Japanese - a sort of nonsensical but skilful amalgam of every tourist phrase in the book, which will probably be most appreciated by viewers with at least a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Director Jack Cardiff is best known as one of the finest colour cinematographers of all time, and in 2001 he won an honorary Oscar for his work behind the camera on such films as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). His directorial career was less notable, but his eye for colour and composition are apparent here, especially the outdoor location shots, many of which are breathtaking.

Other than MacLaine's appealing performance, the best of the rest is mostly to be found in Japanese cameo appearances, with Edward G. Robinson sleepwalking through most of the film and Montand encountering familiar problems when wrestling with English dialogue. Despite this, My Geisha is surprisingly engaging, extremely easy on the eye, and even though the drawn-out ending is darkly cynical by comparison with the first 100 minutes of the film, it is, in places a very funny film.

The extras: Paramount has done some good work with the widescreen-enhanced 2.25:1 transfer and bumped up the sound, rather unnecessarily, to Dolby 5.1, but sadly no extras are provided.