In watching "Teahouse of the August Moon," again recently, I can see how it made such a smash on Broadway. Besides its very funny plot and script, the setting seems ideal for a stage. Or, did they move the stage setting to Japan or elsewhere for the movie? I ask that because after three viewings over the years, the thought has stuck in my mind that it seemed like it was on stage. Perhaps the final scene when we see Sakini directing the locals to reassemble the teahouse drove that thought more than anything. I performed and worked in theater at the college level, and it struck me as a beautiful job of a change of sets and scenery.
The further we get away from the 20th century war years, the less humorous some of the spoofs of military management seem to be. I may have found this film much funnier years ago, but it seems to me now to be just OK or good. This is a comedy of situations, not witty dialog. And, its humor derives to a great extent from the variety of characters. But for one, I could have rated it a notch or two higher.
Glenn Ford just does not deliver the humor in his role as Capt. Fisby. He moves between a hapless, seemingly lazy guy who has lots of bad luck, to a frenetic, nervous character who's worried about doing things right. Then, he becomes a very laid back, un-excitable character who doesn't seem like anything will ruffle him. It just doesn't seem to work. The right actor might be able to deliver that, but it doesn't work for Ford. And, that's too bad, because as one of the two main leads, his character is a great part of the film. I know Ford was capable of great acting, but his interpretation for this role misses the mark.
Now, what earns the film seven stars from me are three performances and the local extras. Marlon Brando is excellent as Sakini, Eddie Albert is fantastic as Capt. McLean, and Paul Ford is superb as Col. Purdy. Purdy and McLean are the sources of most of the funny streaks of this film. We see a good contrast in how Albert transforms from the straight-laced psychologist to the giddy gardener. It works beautifully for him, and he is superb in that role. Paul Ford is a wonderful character actor who plays bombastic buffoons with bravado. And, Brando is excellent as the wonderful interpreter whom we know translates things to come out his way. His opening dialog is very good – in Oriental theatre style, he is the narrator who gives the story's background and sets the stage, so to speak.
Films in which white actors play other races draw the ire of some people yet today. If they are derogatory of the race or character, they surely should be criticized. But, otherwise not. Because this is theater (on stage or on film), and that is part of what acting is all about. Making one's self into another character or person, of whatever age, race, physical condition, mental state or appearance – is a hallmark of acting. To aspiring thespians or established actors, the challenge of a different or demanding role is energizing. I played Hsieh Ping-Kuei in a college production of "Lady Precious Stream" by Chinese playwright and director S.I. Hsiung. Mr. Hsiung went to London in 1932 to pursue post- graduate studies of Shakespeare. Shortly after his arrival, he wrote Lady Precious Stream in English, adapting it from his Chinese culture. It was a huge success, running for 1,000 performances in 1935 and 1936 at the People's National Theatre of London. Its cast was all Caucasian, and in 1936 it moved to Broadway in the U.S. where is success continued. It was made into movies in England in 1938 and 1950, adapted by Hsiung, again with Caucasian casts.
I should like to see someone make a movie of "Lady Precious Stream" shot on location with the full original script. It could be with Asians in all the roles, or it could include a mix if one or more Western stars wanted to tackle a Chinese role. I think many Western audiences today would enjoy it immensely. The story is a romantic, sometimes comic, domestic drama set in a time of instability during the Tang Dynasty.
In the meantime, "Teahouse of the August Moon" can entertain as a comic look at U.S. military management in a conquered country whose culture is much different from that of America.