Love, Death and Bananas: The Early Woody Allen

“You know, I like his films, except for that nervous fellow that’s always in them.”

— Ned Flanders

Most of the people I meet know only a handful of things about Woody Allen, and one of those is inevitably some variation on the “married his adopted daughter” scandal. They also usually know he’s involved in making movies, and many of them might even know he’s a director. They might have seen Annie Hall or Manhattan, but more likely they saw something recent like Match Point and weren’t even aware who made it. They might recognize a picture of Woody Allen as someone famous, possibly a writer or a comedian, but they probably wouldn’t recall his name. This project is not for those people.

There’s a line in an episode of The Simpsons that I believe encapsulates many people’s feelings toward Woody Allen (those who know who he is): during a dinner party, Ned Flanders confesses, “You know, I like his films, except for that nervous fellow that’s always in them.” Since the 1990s Woody’s credibility within popular culture has ebbed and flowed, so it makes sense for moviegoers to divorce the man from his work. I suspect that I’d have an easier time convincing people to give Woody’s movies a chance if only he had nothing to do with them.

I discovered Woody Allen in high school, when I started getting into film and making almost daily trips to the local video store. There I stumbled across a movie that would forever change the way I thought about film: Annie Hall. With its rich meta-commentary, pop culture references, and non-linear narrative, Annie Hall was probably the first truly great film I ever saw — at least where my newly-forming opinions were concerned.

From there I worked my way through most of his canon, which was sometimes difficult; in fact, as of this writing there is still a handful, particularly from the late ’80s and early ’90s, that I haven’t seen. I’m confident, however, that I’ve seen all of his best at least once (and in some cases many, many times), so recently I began thinking about how his films have evolved and whether approaching his work from start to finish would offer any fresh perspectives.

Most filmmakers reject the idea of close analysis of their films and would prefer to have each stand independently. We know that this is unrealistic: the decisions a director makes, his influences, his peers, and the artistic climate all inform and shape the final product so that a film is a direct result of both the internal methods of its director and the external forces working with and against him. This doesn’t necessarily mean that simply watching someone’s work gives you a complete picture of his life beyond the director’s chair, but it can help you make sense of what he might be trying to say through his work.

Coming to any kind of “conclusion” about Woody is extremely difficult. While over a dozen books have been written on the man and his work, to date his films are typically only available on bare-bones DVDs with nothing in the way of commentary or behind-the-scenes features. Part of this is because Allen is notoriously disinterested in his films as finished products; he recently told documentary-maker Robert Weide that even his greatest achievements — Annie Hall included — “won’t stand the test of time” and that making a lasting film has “eluded him over the decades.” Many of his classic movies are out of print, which I hope suggests a forthcoming restoration and treatment.

It’s also challenging to sum up a filmmaker who’s still alive and working. Allen has had a fairly consistent movie-a-year output since the early 1970s, and he often starts shooting his next film before his last one is available in theaters. With such a dense output drawing from a baffling array of influences (some more overt than others), just watching all of Woody Allen’s movies is daunting enough without trying to tie them all together.

So the simplest strategy, it seemed, was to jump right in and start at the beginning.

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Watching Woody’s early work is a bit like watching a youngster make up creative adventures with different action figures and no real regard for continuity and logic; you know he’ll do some great things someday but for now he’s just playing around. Plenty of filmmakers have rough starts: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Godard. This seems especially true of those filmmakers who didn’t go to film school and use their coursework to find their style and niche.

Woody didn’t take many courses in college and didn’t immediately obtain a degree. Instead, he began his career in the 1950s as a comedy writer, putting words into other people’s mouths, so What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) makes sense as his first film. Tiger Lily began its life as a pair of Japanese comic spy films, but after Woody removes the dialogue and replaces it with his own it becomes a ridiculous tale about the theft and attempted recovery of the world’s greatest egg salad recipe.

The two films were recut and combined primarily to set up the gags, which are either successfully funny or strained. The plot is sometimes difficult to follow, an opinion which is acknowledged midway through the film when Allen’s “interviewer” requests a brief recap of the story so far (to which Woody curtly replies, “No”).

With Take the Money and Run (1969), however, we meet the Woody Allen that we will see throughout most of the filmmaker’s career. Part narrative, part mockumentary, Take the Money and Run is a dry run for the next few films Allen would make, dominated by slapstick and comedic timing.

After United Artists initially decided against giving the project to Jerry Lewis, Woody’s frequent collaborator and mentor Charles A. Joffe insisted that whoever took on backing the film also took Woody on as director. In the biography Woody: Movies from Manhattan by Julian Fox, Woody claims that “from that day on, I never had any problem in the cinema from the point of view of interference in any way.” The film was ultimately the foundation on which all of Woody’s future artistic freedom is built.

Despite this newly found freedom (or perhaps because of it), initial filming was chaotic. Woody had a tendency to shoot and re-shoot scenes, improvise much of the dialogue, and scrap some of the funniest gags. Trial and error may be a significant part of comedy writing, but completing a feature film requires some degree of satisfaction with a finished product. This behavior in filmmaking would be controlled in later years, but his attitude toward completed projects seems to really begin here.

Watching Take the Money and Run is no less chaotic. The movie can be side-splitting one minute and dull the next. Clever visual gags, like the gun made of soap turning into bubbles in the rain during a failed prison escape, are perfectly timed; other moments, like the friendly small talk while Woody’s character attempts to rob an old friend (who “just remembered” he’s a cop), go on a bit too long for my taste.

Where Take the Money and Run really works is in scenes like this one, in which a straightforward attempt at a bank robbery goes south when the teller is unable to make out Woody’s handwriting.

It’s a rare film that would derail a potential turning point for its protagonist by having extras debate whether a note says “gun” or “gub.” It’s an even rarer one that would stretch that same joke to have everyone in the bank — over a dozen by the end — offering their opinion on the sloppy note.

There’s very little in Tiger Lily or Take the Money and Run to suggest Woody Allen would become an Oscar-winner, but his career in the 1970s would begin to take shape with his ability to take absurdity to glorious heights. In the 1980 Fellini rip Stardust Memories, Woody is lambasted by a helium-pitched extra-terrestial for his depressive demeanor, and is told quite bluntly that the spacemen much prefer his “early, funny movies.” Bananas, (1971) Sleeper, (1973) and Love and Death (1975) are more than likely the ones he meant.

Although Bananas’ is principally driven by Fielding Mellish’s awkward participation in a political revolution to impress a girl (Why else?), the film isn’t overtly political. As a satire, it’s merely passable: the fictional country of San Marcos is meant to stand in for Cuba, and Mellish for Castro, complete with false beard. What’s mostly entertaining about Bananas is the breathless physical comedy, which was a tremendous step forward from Take the Money and Run.

Take this classic scene, in which Mellish, who is on trial for treason after being found out as the dictator of San Marcos, cross-examines himself on the stand. Woody jumps back and forth between question and response, getting more absurd (and out of breath) as the scene goes on.

After the relentless slapstick of Bananas, Sleeper is a natural follow-up, despite coming a few years and films later. Sleeper (1973) treats science fiction in much the same way as Bananas treats international politics: with cheeky irreverence and complete indifference. Woody accidentally finding himself in a future dystopia is little more than a setup for gags involving jet packs, flying cars, and genetically modified giant produce (complete with obligatory slipping-on-an-enormous-banana-peel joke).

Corny jokes aside, Sleeper is most notable for me for the lengthy sequence with Woody’s character masquerading as a robot. Due to some increasingly weird circumstances, Woody dresses as a robot slave and spends a large chunk of screen time in complete silence, shuffling behind his new owner (Diane Keaton) and attempting to escape the hostile scientists who would study him. It’s a terrific scene that demonstrates not only Woody’s acting but his ability to direct himself; he takes advantage of peripheral characters and his setting to create a thrilling sequence with very little actual dialogue.

Bananasand Sleeper are a one-two punch that encapsulate and bookend Woody’s early comedy period. But during the first half of the ’70s, Woody wrote and directed a few genre exercises that foreshadow his eventual departure from slapstick. The raunchy sketch comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (1972) is a movie seemingly created with late night HBO in mind, despite a lack of any graphic sex or nudity (unless a giant rubber breast counts). And the romantic comedy Play it Again, Sam (1972), based on one of Woody’s earlier plays, introduces both long-time costar Diane Keaton as well as Woody’s more sophisticated comedy — although this film was directed by Herbert Ross, not Allen, it was clearly a collaborative effort of some kind. Both films are worthwhile for their expansion of Woody’s repertoire, but it’s his return to form in Love and Death (1975) that Woody makes his first significant creative leaps forward.

Love and Death is transitional: the jubilant slapstick once scored by zany Dixieland jazz is replaced by Prokofiev’s “Troika,” reflecting Woody’s expanding literary (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) and cinematic (Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein) influences. And his working relationship with Diane Keaton continues to develop, formally ushering in a creative (and lucrative) period with both actors playing to each other’s strengths.

Love and Death naturally follows Sleeper in formula — transporting Woody’s now iconic neurotic comedian to a different time and location — but stylistically it’s a very different film. Woody breaks the fourth wall, a style permanently associated with his next film, and allows his character to explore themes of war, art, and philosophy more fully than in his previous films.

But the most important themes, not surprisingly, are obvious right from the title screen: love and death. These themes are inherent in all of Woody’s work, occasionally more overtly than others. And why not? Woody’s obsession with his own mortality is perhaps exceeded only by his obsession with his libido, and Love and Death is, perhaps, where this is embraced most completely.

Love and Death’s finale summarizes its central themes this way…

The epilogue juxtaposes the film’s complex philosophies on love and relationships (ripped right from the pages of the Russian literature it parodies) with an image of Woody prancing away with Death. But it’s not Bergman’s dour vision of Death, black-cloaked and macabre; Death is glistening white, silent but ethereal, completely unexplained and without persona. Woody’s interpretation of death is an abstract concept, just like love, and neither can be explained or controlled.

Woody’s early career is a window into his development both as a filmmaker and as an artist. His next films would be among his most acclaimed and enduring, but from these modest beginnings his ambitions grew as he struggled with love, death, and his personal and professional career. Rarely are an early filmmaker’s works so rewarding, where even the most lighthearted farces can be poignant and brilliant, even for a moment.