Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
School is out. Summer is here. Even in the Northeast I have finally been able to break out the flip flops and shorts. Although my family’s pale skin often limits our beach time, no sunblock is needed to view the gem of the south pacific, Johnny Lingo. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the self-esteem building classic. I say “self-esteem classic” as the film’s subtitle is “Building Self Worth in Others.” Background information in this column came from Douglas Johnson who served as a production designer on the film. I used his website as well as his brief memoir “Remembering Johnny Lingo.”
Johnny Lingo was based on a short story by Patricia McGerr that was originally published in Women’s Day magazine. The story circulated throughout the church as Reed Bradford, a member of the church’s Sunday School board, used it in training sessions at quarterly stake conferences. Because of the story’s popularity, the LDS Motion Picture Studio was assigned to make the film. Doug Johnson personally felt the hand of the Lord in making the film as film locations, casting, and budgets worked out in spite of significant constraints.
The audience for the movie grew beyond its original intent. Many long-time members I spoke to (if they grew up in the West) remembered seeing it in public school health class. It is a perennial favorite with many. In one mission area I admit that we borrowed the meetinghouse library TV/DVD combo for companionship movie night (after planning was done of course) and enjoyed Johnny Lingo. I also have friends who did not grow up with this film and found it a bit “cringy” when they saw it as an adult for the first time. I hope to take a look at this dichotomy as we explore this classic.
The film is set in the South Seas in the early 1800s. It opens with the approach of shrewd trader Johnny Lingo. The island is abuzz with his arrival. Tulo, a local who works in Mr. Harris’ general store, tells Mr. Harris it’s not just any visit. Johnny is here to bargain for a wife. Everyone is shocked…SHOCKED he wants Moki’s daughter Mahana. Tulo says she has a face like a stone and only believes Johnny is interested in her because he thinks he can get a deal. From the reaction of the village’s female residents we are to believe that Johnny is the star of The Batchelor: South Seas Edition. Much to their chagrin his mind is made up. He will be bargaining for Mahana.
We cut to Moki talking to his counselor as they try to get Mahana to come to the hut for the bargain. She is reluctant to appear. Moki berates his daughter, threatens physical violence and says she is as bullish as she is ugly. He can’t wait to be rid of her and blames his own wife. “This is what I get for getting a 2 cow wife.” For the uninitiated, this is how wives are secured in this society. There is a meeting to bargain and a father asks for a certain number of cows as compensation for losing his daughter. The suitor counters until a bargain is reached. Moki’s motivational tactics fail to pull Mahana from the shadowy woods (what a surprise), and Moki’s counselor tries flattery. She is now the envy of all because Johnny wants her. No dice.
When Johnny arrives at the bargaining Moki’s counselor (that’s how the character is listed in the credits) lies and says she is busy working for her father and can’t be at the bargaining. Villagers speculate how many cows (no more than ONE. No Maybe TWO!) Mahana is worth and brag about how many cows they were each worth.
Moki and Johnny sit and Moki nervously asks for 3 cows—laughter erupts from the entire village. Once the laughter subsides, Johnny says “Three cows is many, but not enough for Mahana. I will pay 8 cows for Mahana.” They agree on delivery and timing for the marriage feast and part ways.
Johnny stops by the store and offers Mr. Harris a rare shell in exchange for an ornate mirror for Mahana. Mr. Harris asks about Johnny’s price for Mahana. He simply replies that the entire island will know that Johnny Lingo paid 8 cows for Mahana. Mr. Harris concludes that Johnny is neither crazy nor blind. He is simply vain.
The next morning Mahana is not convinced that Johnny will come. She hides in the hut and is sure the entire bargaining was a plot to mock her ugliness. Moki is wary too. Who would pay anything for someone as awful as Mahana? Eventually The cows emerge from the jungle and the deal is sealed. Johnny gently calls for Mahana and extends his hand.
Later at the wedding feast we see a very happy Moki basking in his new-found wealth. Johnny only has eyes for Mahana. He puts a flower in her hair, but the moment is ruined as some village youths shout an awful poem: “ Johnny lingo had a cow, traded for an ugly wife / Jonny Lingo married now, He’ll be sorry all his life!” Perhaps somehow the poetic genius of Kevin from The Award tunneled through space time to inspire them. Johnny chases them away and comforts Mahana. They decide to leave for their honeymoon early and set off in Johnny’s outrigger canoe.
Months later, Tulo arrives at the store to tell Mr. Harris that Johnny Lingo is back. Mr. Harris decides to deliver the gift that Johnny ordered, and arrives at Johnny’s home to hear a very angry Moki accusing Johnny of cheating him. Mahana is worth 10 cows and not the 8 he agreed to. Moki storms off and Johnny invites Mr. Harris in to deliver the mirror. Mahana loves the mirror and laments her lack of gift for Johnny. It is not necessary, because Johnny says “Your gift to me can be seen by all who look at you.”
Mahana enters the room surrounded by an extensive soft-focus halo. She is practically glowing and radiates contentment and happiness. Mr. Harris is taken back from the Mahana in front of him and the Mahana he knew before. As Mahana goes to get water Mr. Harris asks Johnny what happened.
“It was the cows!,” Johnny says. “Think what it must mean to a woman. Her future husband meeting with her father to discuss the lowest price for which she can be bought. And later, when the women of the village gather they boast of what their husbands paid for them. Three cows, or five. How does she feel who is sold for 1 or 2?”
Johnny continues. “Many things can happen to make a woman beautiful, but the thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself.”
“I see. In her father’s hut Mahana believed she was worth nothing,” Mr. Harris said.
“But now Mahana knows she is worth more than any woman on the island.” Johnny walks to assist Mahana with the water, and fade to black.
I think Johnny Lingo is so well loved because of the unique setting and interesting characters. Tulo is goofy and funny. Mr. Harris provides an interesting counterpoint. Moki is a caricature of the bad father, and Johnny is both charismatic and enigmatic. The dialog gives us some classic and quotable lines. “MAHANA, you ugly!”
Another reason Johnny Lingo endures is the film’s message. Mahana fell into the same trap as Cliff Evans in Cipher in the Snow. People told her she was worthless so she felt worthless. Johnny Lingo shows that sometimes self-esteem begins with the esteem of others. It is something that is built over time
and must begin with a spark of regard before it can fan into a self-perpetuating flame of confidence. This theme: believe in others, believe in yourself is common in films of this era. Overall, the movie has a great warmth and fun energy that is quite appealing.
It is hard to put my finger on what I don’t like about Johnny Lingo because overall I really do enjoy it, but let’s look at some of the more “cringy” (as my friend called it) moments. The central device of the film is a barter system equating spouses with cattle. Not ideal. Johnny says women who are bought for 1 or 2 cows feel bad. So who cares about them, as long as my wife its better than all of them and is now worth 8 cows it’s okay. This is severe bovine inflation in the spousal acquisition market. Unsustainable. The fact that this Polynesian-based story was written and sold by a white woman from Nebraska? Seems a little odd to me.
Johnny Lingo is classic and enduring in church cinema. I would expect it is one of the most well-known church films of all time (in the United States at least). It is not a perfect film, but its message and fun approach have allowed it to still make it worth at least 8 cows.
Thoughts, Musings and Trivia
- The production did not have money for 8 cows. They utilized the classic old western film trick of running the same cows by the camera repeatedly to look like 8.
- It was difficult to find a location in Hawaii without some form of modernity in the background. Doug Johnson felt inspired to go down an unmarked road he had already been down once before to find the location to build their 1800s trading village.
- The place where they built the village was normally a field full of crops, but the farmer had decided not to plant there that year.
- The film was actually remade as a full-length feature titled The Legend of Johnny Lingo in 2003
- Francis L. Urry was in many LDS films. He starred as President Snow in the recently reviewed Windows of Heaven.
- All photos used courtesy of Doug Johnson.