Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on April 19, 2017
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Thanks to its frequent afternoon rotation on cable TV, I’m pretty sure Bananas was the first Woody Allen film I ever saw. I don’t think anyone who grew up later than the 1980s will ever say that again, but this is a great film to watch when you’re young (even if, yes, it has a joke about a magazine called Orgasm) and the perfect gateway to Woody’s “early, funny” period. It’s hard to describe the omnipresence Allen seemed to have in pop culture from the mid-1970s into the Orion Pictures period of the 1980s; every middle class home seemed to have at least two or three of his books sitting prominently on a bookshelf, film critics seemed to compare every comedy that opened to Annie Hall (1977), and the man himself made numerous TV appearances including some celebrated turns on The Dick Cavett Show (1968-1974). On top of that, Allen and 1970s muse Diane Keaton were seen as the epitome of the urbane, hip New York couple who were attractive because of their wit and intellect.
However, at the start of the decade Allen had been married to actress Louise Lasser, this film’s other star; they were divorced by the time cameras started rolling on this one, but it didn’t seem to affect their professional relationship. Here she delivers one of her most likable performances ever as the sunny social activist who inspires professional product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) to show his dedication by visiting the turbulent (and fictitious) banana republic of San Marcos. Lasser is such a unique presence on screen that it’s a shame she didn’t have a bigger career outside of her signature role in the bizarre TV phenomenon, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977). She was also the lead in Allen’s previous film, Take the Money and Run (1969), which was also Allen’s first fully original feature if you don’t count his lovably silly dubbed Japanese pastiche, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).
What makes Bananas so much fun for movie fans of all stripes is spotting how Allen was already starting to tip his hat to the Marx Brothers, an ongoing touchstone in his films with frequent clips and quotes popping up in many of his later films. The real point of reference here is obviously Duck Soup (1933) with its silly but vaguely unsettling political humor aimed as broadly as possible; there’s little chance anyone could be offended by this film, and Allen’s films usually do best when they avoid any kind of overt political statements. (Case in point: the hacky explanation of Lukas Haas’ switch to the Republican Party in 1996′s Everyone Says I Love You.) Che Guevara posters were adorning dorm walls and Fidel Castro was still in the news every week when this film came out, but Allen keeps things within the realm of the ridiculous, probably a good idea after moviegoers had already been left stunned by Richard Fleischer’s bizarre biopic Che! (1969) with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance as wildly unconvincing Latin Americans.
In addition to the Marx Brothers influence, there’s more Chaplin than usual here as well, especially the early “Execuciser” scene with Allen serving as a guinea pig for a new office contraption (pitched by Diff’rent Strokes’ [1978-1986] Conrad Bain!) that goes out of control a la Modern Times (1936). You can’t say Allen is channeling anything resembling the Little Tramp here, but the execution of that scene is pure Chaplin all the way and also tips you off that there’s going to be a bit of pathos injected here when you least expect it. That definitely turns out to be true in the final scene, which doesn’t offer a 100% guaranteed happy ending but brings back Howard Cosell for a charming little curtain drop. Of course, as a kid watching this film I had no idea about any of this (on the other hand, I got a huge kick out of seeing a young Sylvester Stallone pop up as one of those subway hoods early on), and it’s a testament to this film that you can just kick back and enjoy it without necessarily getting all of the cinematic and pop culture references.
Perhaps more out of character compared to Allen’s later films is the number of gags in Bananas involving violence. Don’t worry, it’s all still safely in PG territory, but this film opens up with a political assassination presented as an episode of Wide World of Sports (1961-1998) (complete with, yes, Howard Cosell) and featuring some hilarious bits of unexpected sadism along the way. My favorite comes just after the 28-minute mark when Allen is kvetching about his shattered romantic dreams and… well, I won’t spoil it, but the line “Life is so cruel” has never been funnier. That scene’s even followed by a gag involving an operation in progress and a bound prisoner being tortured by a shrill gramophone version of “Naughty Marietta,” good examples of how Allen could take a scene that could devolve into either goofy shtick or cheap gross out without quite devolving into either.
Speaking of music, it’s also worth noting that this is one of the very few Allen films with an original music score before he settled into his usual grab bag of jazz and big band favorites; in this case it’s by a young Marvin Hamlisch, returning after contributing a few compositions for Take the Money and Run. I don’t think anyone would rank this near the top of Hamlisch’s musical accomplishments, but it’s an amusing accompaniment with a theme song that will either have you humming or drive you to commit random acts of vandalism by the sixth time it’s played.
Bananas is a new arrival to FilmStruck as part of a three-film showcase of Allen’s aforementioned “The Early, Funny Ones” phase along with his audaciously non-sexy anthology, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), which brings back Lasser for a segment spoofing chic Italian art films, and the second Allen-directed film starring Diane Keaton, Love and Death (1975).
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