While training to become a teacher back in the 1960s, I became acquainted with a little film that had a great impact on my life. It was titled simply, “Johnny Lingo.”
“Johnny Lingo” was based on a short story by Patricia McGerr, a Catholic writer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted to make the movie in 1969 because it spoke as a universal moral parable—it was easily related to. It was never intended as a proselytizing video. It was designed for the educational system. It blended secular and spiritual elements without explicitly acknowledging any specific religion.
Many know the story of Johnny Lingo by heart. Johnny Lingo is handsome, wealthy and the talk of the fictional Pacific island from which he hails. He is a notorious trader with an eye for a bargain.
Practically the whole village turns out to witness the bargaining between the father of his intended wife and the renowned trader. Johnny Lingo asks the father how many cows he wants for the shy, unkempt, young Mahana. The father secretly confides to a friend that he would gladly give someone a cow if he would take the “ugly” girl off his hands.
One villager says to another that if the father asks for three cows, Johnny will get her for one. If he asks for one cow, Johnny will get her for the horns and the tail. When the father asks for three cows, the villagers burst into laughter.
Johnny holds up a hand to silence the crowd. “That is a lot,” says Johnny Lingo. “But not enough for Mahana. I will pay eight cows!” The villagers are shocked and astounded. It is an unprecedented price to pay for a wife on the island and especially for one such as the shy and retiring Mahana.
At first Mahana thinks Johnny Lingo is mocking her but when Johnny and Mahana return to the island after their honeymoon, she has transformed into a gracious, radiant beauty—once again, perplexing the other islanders.
A storekeeper, delivering a gift that Johnny had previously ordered for Mahana, is amazed at the transformation in the girl. “What did it?” he asks Johnny. Johnny replies, “It was the cows. Think what it means to a girl when her future husband bargains with her father for lowest price for which she can be obtained.
The village women later talk in the marketplace about how much her husband paid for her. Some brag that their husbands paid three or maybe even four cows for her. But what of the women whose husbands paid only one or two cows? How do they feel?
“This could not happen to my Mahana. She was always beautiful and I have loved her since we were children but in her father’s hut she believed she was worth nothing. I wanted her to know that she was worth more than any woman on the island. I wanted her to become an eight-cow woman.”
The Polynesian community loved the film and had a sense of humor about the now-notorious bad wigs and comical Hawaii Five-O style music. Before criticizing the movie for sexism or racism as some have, the historical context is important to consider. It was designed for the educational system and was produced by a conservative university back in 1969.
The simple Cinderella-motif is all about helping people aspire to greater things through improving the way they think about themselves.
Gentlemen, do we forget to compliment our wives, our children our parents for whom and what they are? Are we grateful for the things they do for us? If you’re like I am, you forget a lot. Perhaps we could all benefit from the lessons of “Johnny Lingo” and the eight-cow woman.
For more information see Emily Schmuhl, “The Iconic Johnny Lingo: 40 Years later, the short film still merits discussion,” Mormon Times, Dec. 12, 2009