Teahouse of the August Moon, The: Starring Brando nad Glenn Ford in One of their Most Popular Roles

When MGM bought the rights to the hit stage play “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” Brando was eager to play the part of Sakini, the genial Okinawan interpreter who upsets the U.S. Army’s postwar rehabilitation plans for the island.

Having won the Best Actor Oscar for “On the Waterfront,” Brando was very popular–and bankable–at the time. While the Kowalski image in “Streetcar Named Desire” still hounded him, he had also proven his range in historical dramas, like Desiree, and the musical, “Guys and Dolls.”

A method actor, Brando studied Okinawan speech and body movements and during the shoot went through a daily routine of two hours of make-up. Brando played the part so fastidiously that he was barely recognizable. In playing Sakini in the film, Brando denied the part to David Wayne, who had won acclaim in the long run on Broadway. .

Co-starring with Brando was Glenn Ford as Captain Fisby (John Forsythe had played the part on Broadway).  The producers wisely retained the Broadway original Paul Ford as the comically fatuous Colonel Purdy.

A genial satirical fable, boasting cheerful, The Teahouse of the August Moon is fun, good-natured comedy.  Its tone was set by Vern Sneider, the author of the novel on which John Patrick based his play. MGM made the film as an almost literal version of the play, which explains why it’s a weak film artistically.

Indeed, the film relies heavily upon its actors and its dialogue, resulting in a semi-effective spoof on red-tape bureaucracy in general, and on the military trying to administer local government in an alien culture in particular.

The tale opens with Sakini addressing the audience directly, introducing himself and the other characters. He explains that Okinawa has had the honor to be subjugated by many conquerors, from Chinese pirates in the 14th century to American marines in the 20th: “Okinawa very fortunate. Culture brought to us–not have to leave home for it.”

He then refers to Colonel Purdy, the commanding officer as “honorable boss.” Purdy is clearly a fussy officer with no understanding of the Okinawans. Captain Fisby arrives on the island and Purdy assigns him to the village of Tobiki, with Sakini as interpreter, to establish democracy, organize a Women’s League, and build a pentagon-shaped schoolhouse, all according to Washington’s Plan B.

Though a nice, gentle soul, he is an unsuccessful officer who has been sent to Okinawa to get him out of the way, and the shrewd Sakini senses that. What the village really wants is a teahouse staffed by geisha girls, not a school. Fisby tries to be a firm administrator but he is outsmarted by the charm of his interpreter. The villagers bring gifts for Fisby, including a beautiful geisha girl, Lotus Blossom. Sakini explains to the captain that he cannot refuse or the villagers will be insulted and difficult to handle.

Fisby soon succumbs to the ease of Oriental life, and agrees to the schoolhouse materials being used to build a teahouse. Colonel Purdy becomes confused by the strange line of reportage he gets from Fisby, and fearing that Fisby may have lost his reasoning he assigns an army psychiatrist, Captain MacLean (Eddie Albert) to Tobiki.

But MacLean himself is quickly captivated by life in Tobiki. A fanatic on the subject of organic farming, he puts his theories into practice with the villagers. He and Fisby attempt to put the village on a profit-making basis by encouraging the citizens to produce handmade wares and sell them to the occupation forces but the scheme falls flat when the villagers fail to make any sales.

Sakini tells Fisby that they will all go home and get drunk. On what? Brandy, replies Sakini, “We make very fine brandy here, from sweet potatoes. Been making for generations.” A business boom now overtakes Tobiki, with MacLean on the phone to every army base on the island, placing orders for local brew.

When the citizens of Tobiki finish their teahouse they invite Fisby and MacLean to the opening. The festivities are interrupted by Colonel Purdy who orders the building torn down and Fisby placed under arrest. Purdy assumes, to his horror, that the teahouse is for prostitution, and reports his findings to Washington. The reaction amazes Purdy: “Some fool senator misunderstood. He’s using the village as an example of American ‘get-up-and-go’ in the recovery program. The Pentagon is boasting. Congress is crowing.”

Purdy sinks into depression, thinking that the villagers have destroyed all their stills and the teahouse but Sakini explains, “We not destroy. Just take away and hide. You watch now, boss.” Within an hour Tobiki is reconstructed and Sakini turns to the audience and announces that the story is over.

Producer Jack Cummings took his cast and crew to Japan but left their location near Nara after a few days of shooting because of torrential rainstorms. But the film benefited from the use of authentic Okinawan and Japanese music.

For the role of Lotus Blossom, Cummings selected Machiko Kyo, who had won acclaim for her dramatic performances in “Rashomon” and “Gate of Hell.” Brando also managed a difficult part with apparent ease, giving correct body movements, vocal inflections and mannerisms.

The movie was extremely popular at the box-office, occupying the ninth position as top-grossing of the year.

Credits

MGM Production.
Produced by Jack Cummings.
Directed by Daniel Mann.
Screenplay by John Patrick, from the play by Patrick and the book by Vern J. Sneider.
Photographed in Cinemascope by John Alton.
Art direction by William A. Horning and Eddie Imazu.
Edited by Harold F. Kress.
Musical score by Saul Chaplin, with Okinawan songs written by Kikuko Kanai.

Running time: 123 minutes.

Cast:

Sakini (Marlon Brando)
Capt. Fisby (Glenn Ford)
Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo)
Capt. McLean (Eddie Albert)
Col. Purdy (Paul Ford)
Mr. Seiko (Jun Negami)
Miss Higa Jiga (Nijiko Kiyokawa)
Little Japanese Girl (Mitsuko Sawamura)
Sgt. Gregovich (Harry Morgan)

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