Johnny Lingo: Mormon Mystery Science Theater 3000 Stefene Russell Culture

local_cafe Johnny Lingo: Mormon Mystery Science Theater 3000

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 16 ~ September, 1998

“Mahana-you-ugly! Get out of that tree!”

This is perhaps one of the most striking lines in 20th Century cinema. If you are not LDS, howver, you probably don’t recognize the reference. It’s from Johnny Lingo, a flick made at Brigham Young University in 1969, and distributed by Encyclopedia Britannica. If you’re still not familiar with the film, perhaps you’ve seen Cipher in the Snow, an elementary school staple that was released by BYU around the same time.

The opening scenes of Johnny Lingo are matched with a soundtrack I would pay serious money to own. Imagine the Ventures visit the land of Where the Wild Things Are, on Ritalin and Theraflu. It’s the fastest, wobbliest surf music I’ve ever heard in my life.

As this soundtrack plays, a boy in a grass skirt is running through the wild landscape of an unnamed Polynesian island. This scene goes on for a very, very long time – which is ok, because the music is interesting enough. He finally arrives at the village and announces to the imperialistic yet kindly white shopkeeper who has set up a general store on this unnamed island: “He comes, he comes! Johnny Lingo! Johnny Lingo!”

Instantly, there is a ruckus in the village. Johnny Lingo! Why, he’s the most successful trader to have come from these parts! The prodigal son has returned … to look for a bride, no less! He will buy the most beautiful woman in the village, because Johnny Lingo can afford a FIVE COW woman! Yes, that’s right folks. He would pay five cows for a bride – and the bidding begins tomorrow!

Girls in grass skirts, cheesy leis and muumuus giggle and scatter. The village gossip, who happens to be the kid who sweeps Mr. Shopkeeper’s floor, has a little bit of info he can’t help but share.

“I heard,” he tells Mr. Shopkeeper, “That Johnny Lingo is looking for a bargain. I heard he is going to ask for Mahana’s hand in marriage.”

“MAHANA?” Shopkeeper says, laughing. “Why, you’d be lucky to get two horns and a tail for that girl!”

Mahana is Ugly. That’s ugly with a capital U. She hides out in the tree in front of her father’s hut. When we first see her, in fact, this is where she is – hiding behind the shadows of the huge, tropical leaves, high in the tree.

“I’ll be lucky to get a cow that gives sour milk in trade for her,” her father laments to a wise village elder, who is also trying to convince Mahana to come down from the tree.

The next morning at the bridal auction Mahana is still sitting in the tree. But it doesn’t matter – Johnny Lingo buys her anyway. And he didn’t pay with a cow that gives sour milk.

“I will pay eight cows for your Mahana,” Johnny tells her dad.

“Eight … cows?” he asks, flabbergasted. The village gossip can’t run through the village fast enough spreading the news. “Eight cows?” Mr. Shopkeeper gasps. “No one has EVER paid eight cows for a bride. It must be some kind of mistake.”

But it’s not a mistake. What’s more, Johnny Lingo has now come to the shop to buy Mahana a wedding present – a fancy hand-held mirror. Everyone is completely befuddled, including the hapless audience.

The marriage ceremony is terrible for Mahana. All her neighbors show up to eat free roast pig, but Mahana mopes, completely humiliated, with a crown of wilting flowers on her head.

The last we see of the couple, they’re paddling off in a canoe for another island. Time passes. We don’t see them again until Mr. Shopkeeper goes looking for Johnny Lingo, who never returned to pick up the costly mirror he ordered.

Arriving at the hut, Mr. Shopkeeper is greeted at the door by Johnny and Mahana. But Mahana has changed. No longer a fretful, manic-depressive harpy with greasy hair, she is now a perky, well-groomed wife in a tight red dress, a large hibiscus tucked behind her ear.

Shopkeeper’s jaw drops.

“What did you do? How? What …”

“I have loved Mahana since we were children,” Johnny tells him, once Mahana is out of earshot. “I have known I wanted her to be my bride for a long time. I did not want Mahana to have to compare herself to the other women in the village. I wanted Mahana to always be able to say, ‘My husband paid eight cows for me.’ And I wanted Mahana to be an eight-cow woman,” Johnny says proudly, watching her fill a beaded gourd with sea water at the shore of the ocean.

“She is, Johnny,” Shopkeeper says. “She is.”

The only place I’ve found where you can rent Johnny Lingo is the Academic Support Center at Utah State University. Their vast cinematic library includes various and sundry not-to-be-missed hits, like: Job Interview: Three Young Men: Who Would You Hire? and Meet Comrade Student. This is how the library describes Johnny Lingo:


“[This film] explores the concept of the individual’s worth to himself and his fellows. According to island custom, Johnny Lingo bargains for a bride considered by her father to be of little value. Johnny pays an unprecedented amount of cows for the girl he loves. A short period of his tender treatment and respect brings out the true beauty of his bride.”

Johnny Lingo, is part of a whole genre of films produced by BYU in the late 60s and early 70s. Sam Cannon, who recently screened Johnny Lingo and Blind Love at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City (complete with live Mystery Science Theatre 3000-like commentary along the lines of “Maybe I like sour milk!” piped through the PA system) refers to the genre as “polynesiasploitation.” In layman’s terms, this means “men-building-women’s-self-esteem-with-money.”

Blind Love, (which was the second half of Sam’s double-feature) is another example of this genre. It’s the story of a homely secretary, alone and lonely. One night she meets a blind man at the movies (he likes to listen). They eventually marry, and he comes to love her so dearly that his love does not waver in the slightest – even after a cornea transplant allows him to finally see her homely face.

“I hate those films,” says my LDS friend, Michael Call, who took me to see Sam’s presentation. “They’re totally designed to play on your fearful emotions and most deep-seated emotional insecurities – they get you all worked up and crying, and then they baptize you.”

I think Mike may have a point, but I’m also a reformed Mahana-Cipher. You see, I was one of those kids in elementary school who came to school in mushroom-patterned bell bottoms and googly glasses when everyone else was in knickers and ribbon barrettes. I know why Mahana was hiding in that tree. While there’s not a chance you’ll ever find me diving into the baptismal font (Give up coffee? Or boys? No!) I can honestly say that there is something respectable in Johnny Lingo. Being, perhaps, the absolutely most politically incorrect piece of media I have ever seen, I think it’s a little deadly and awful to dismiss the film entirely. Especially if you are a former Mahana! Because if all we can do is laugh in the face of redemption through love, no matter what kind, what are we? Knuckle-draggers, I’d say.

Take it from an eight-cow woman…


Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a copyright of Best Brains, Inc.

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.
  • Amack

    You mentioned that Johnny Lingo is perhaps, the “absolutely most politically incorrect piece of media” you have ever seen, and I would completely agree with you.  I hate the film, because it portrays a father selling his daughter, and a future husband buying a wife.  That deeply offends me.  I know it was the tradition of the islanders at the time, but it was also the tradition in the southern US states to buy and sell African Americans.  We condemn that practice.  I hate the fact that the church would use the buying and selling of a young girl to teach self esteem.  I can’t enjoy the self-esteem lesson because I can’t get past the fact that she is being sold by a father who feels she has very little value as a human since she won’t bring in more than one cow.   She is a commodity, a possession to be bought and sold, and very little else.  How completely offensive that is to me and should be to every woman on this planet.