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What's Up? 'Tiger Lily' Makes a Return

Video: Woody Allen's first film, the classic 1966 comic take on spy movies, is back for home viewers' enjoyment.

January 16, 1998|DONALD LIEBENSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Bond isn't the only '60s vintage secret agent back in business. Anchor Bay Entertainment has brought Phil Moscowitz, self-described "lovable rogue," and his assistants, Suki and Terri Yaki, off hiatus to once again secure the recipe for the world's greatest egg salad.

Moscowitz is the libidinous hero of "What's Up, Tiger Lily?," Woody Allen's first film. Long out of print on video, this 1966 cult classic is one of the "early funny ones" of the type Allen so disparaged in "Stardust Memories."

"Tiger Lily" has its roots in a 1964 spy epic produced in Japan under the title "Kagi No Kag" (Key of Keys). As Allen explains in his brief introductory appearance, he and a group of friends that included Louise Lasser, whom he married during production, Mickey Rose, Frank Buxton and Len Maxwell re-dubbed the soundtrack and imposed their alternate story so that while the actors are doing "all these James Bondian things" on-screen, "what's coming out of their mouths is something wholly other."

For example, in one tense moment, our hero--double-crossed and chained to a wall--inquires of the villain, "Do you think I'll win an award for my acting in this picture?"

According to "Tiger Lily's" executive producer Henry G. Saperstein, he first approached Lenny Bruce to rescue the original film from imminent disaster. Saperstein, who brought "Godzilla" to America and whose eclectic credits span the seminal rock concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show" to Disney's live-action film of "Mr. Magoo," said he felt compelled to buy the film for domestic distribution to maintain good relations with Toho, the legendary studio that produced his then-stock in trade, sci-fi monster movies.

It was not long before buyer's remorse kicked in. "It was a slick, James Bond-type film," he recalled in a phone interview, "very well done, except everyone was Japanese. I said to myself, 'You dummy, what will you do with this? Audiences will laugh you right out of theaters.' But what do you do when you think someone might laugh at you? You beat them to the punch. I decided to do our own spoof."

Saperstein approached Bruce to supply a new soundtrack, but the legendary comedian turned him down when told he could not use "four-letter words." "I asked, 'Who's a clean you?' " Saperstein said. "Bruce said there was a young guy in New York who's pretty good and I ought to look him up.

"I go to New York to see [Allen's act] and I said to myself, 'This is the guy.' I went backstage and he flipped over the idea. Little did I dream [the film] would turn into a classic."

Saperstein said he vaguely recalls that the original film was about international police and missing microfilm. In Allen's version, Moscowitz is shanghaied by the ruler of "a nonexistent but real-sounding country" that is on a waiting list to get on the map. "Something between Spain and Greece," he hopes. "It's really much warmer there."

But gangster Shepherd Wong has stolen his fabled egg salad recipe, and it is written, Moscowitz is told, that he who makes the best egg salad shall rule over heaven and earth. "Don't ask me why egg salad," the ruler says with a shrug. "I've got enough aggravation."

But perhaps not as much aggravation as Allen and crew must have experienced in concocting the new story line. "There were a lot of laughs," said Charles Joffe, Allen's longtime manager, who attended screening sessions that were conducted in a room at New York's Stanhope Hotel. "But it was a harder project than anybody anticipated. There was no script. Henry had no idea what he was going to get."

"We had pens and pencils," said Mickey Rose, with whom Allen would collaborate on "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas." "We ran the projector for a scene, then stopped and tried to figure out something. Finally, we thought to get the script of the film to see what the actors were actually saying."

Added Saperstein, "The jokes came machine-gun style. A character would walk through a door and Woody would say, 'I need a door joke,' and they would fire off about 200 door jokes."

A viewer's advisory, especially for "Tiger Lily" devotees: This video edition acquired by Anchor Bay is a somewhat reworked version of the original film with some alternate jokes apparently culled from outtakes from the recording sessions. For example, Shepherd Wong no longer refers to a line of swimsuit-clad lovelies as different cuts of meat. In this version, he gives them a halftime pep talk before sending them out to "beat SMU."

The theatrical version of the film was released on Vestron Video.

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