Let’s Go Bananas (1971)

BANANAS (1971)

To view Bananas click here.

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).

BANANAS (1971)

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.

BANANAS (1971)

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.

BANANAS (1971)

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).

Nathaniel Thompson

21 Responses Let’s Go Bananas (1971)
Posted By EricJ : April 19, 2017 12:29 am

To understand the “early, funny” Woody, you have to read his New Yorker short stories (published in the collections “Side Effects” and “Getting Even”).
Allen’s written style had a sense for dropping ridiculous non-sequitirs into literary parodies out of nowhere, and that’s the humor that fueled “Take the Money & Run”, “Bananas”, and “Love and Death”.
(Before his personal atheism turned him morose and pretentious, and searching for the existentialism found in Bergman…Yes, he claims he really WAS the 10-yo. from Annie Hall who wondered why he should do his homework if the universe is going to expand into nothingness someday.)

After that, it’s just a matter of Woody’s co-writers: Marshall Brickman joined him on “Sleeper” and provided much of the NYC 70′s-intellectual jokes into Annie Hall and Manhattan, but Bananas and Take were co-written by Mickey Rose, who helped develop the more crazy sitcom style of non-sequitirs and gag scenes, all the way back to “What’s Up, Tiger Lily”.
Which, btw, was not one of Woody’s “own” EFF’s, since it was actually produced by Henry Saperstein at UPA hoping “What’s New Pussycat” would come out, but it’s still got Woody & Mickey’s crazy taste for the wrong thing coming out at the end of a gag line.

Posted By La Otra : April 19, 2017 12:44 pm

If you watch this film, you must be sure to change your underwear daily, and wear it on the outside so we can check!

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 19, 2017 8:23 pm

The first Woody Allen film I saw was Take the Money and Run, due to its endless repeats on independent TV stations in the 1970s. It’s still one of my favorites. Lasser wasn’t the female lead, she just has a bit part at the end. Janet Margolin (who played his first wife in Annie Hall) was the female lead. It’s structured quite a bit like Bananas (and the other “early, funny ones”), a bunch of gags loosely connected to a plot that doesn’t really matter. I think it holds up today better than Bananas or Sleeper, and forms a nice “fake docu-drama” trilogy with Zelig and Sweet and Lowdown.

The hands-down best of the “early, funny ones” is Love and Death.

Posted By George : April 20, 2017 3:03 pm

The first Allen film I saw was SLEEPER, in a theater in late ’73 or early ’74. (It was a Christmas 1973 release.) In those days, Woody Allen was a top ten box-office star and his movies played everywhere, even in small towns like mine.

SLEEPER made me laugh so hard, I was literally rolling on the floor. With its slapstick and physical humor, it was a good introduction to Allen for a kid.

I’m surprised that Allen has continued to churn out a movie every year. As his career progressed, I assumed he would become like Chaplin and make fewer films, perhaps one highly anticipated release every few years.

It’s been a while since a new Woody Allen movie was an event. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) was the last one to reach audiences beyond his hardcore followers, who will pay to see anything he makes.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 21, 2017 12:52 am

George: I think Blue Jasmine and Cafe Society may have reached a few more people than hardcore fans. (And while I’m a huge fan of his work, and try to see all of his films, I haven’t seen one in a theater since Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985. I can’t imagine how big of a fan someone would have to be to pay to see anything he makes. I still haven’t seen Interiors or September, and they’re both decades old. I’ve never been able to find them on TV or streaming.)

Posted By George : April 21, 2017 2:01 pm

INTERIORS and SEPTEMBER are both on DVD (which still exists, believe it or not).

The only Allen movies I’ve seen in theaters over the last 15 years are MATCH POINT and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

Posted By George : April 21, 2017 2:15 pm

DVD is still a valuable resource. When people dismiss DVD/BlueRay like they’re 8-track tapes, I point them to these comments by film journalist Scott Tobias. In response to an article about Millennials having a hard time saying goodbye to physical media, he tweeted:

“Don’t say goodbye. The gaps and impermanence of the digital realm make physical media essential for reasons beyond nostalgia. … Is there wide enough recognition of how little is available digitally? Vast swaths of film and music have not carried over. …In terms of video, DVD/BD has lagged well behind VHS in catalog titles available. Digital/streaming is WAY further behind still.”

Posted By EricJ : April 21, 2017 2:18 pm

@George – The rare-disk company Twilight Time has been moving to fill in new Blu-rays of the past-catalog movies that MGM/UA and Columbia have lately been ignoring, and they make it a point to dig up a few MGM/UA Serious-Woody films.
As so happens, Interiors and Another Woman just come up for sale this month, and a few other serious-80′s titles like Zelig are still available:
https://www.twilighttimemovies.com/actors-directors/woody-allen/

They’re limited-run editions only available from the website, though, and all the company’s titles move quickly, so helps to hurry–Other past titles, like their Love & Death Blu, might still be available from collector-sales site Screen Archives Entertainment:
http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28534/LOVE-AND-DEATH-1975/

Posted By Emgee : April 21, 2017 3:16 pm

“DVD is still a valuable resource.”

Too right; i’ve started to buy certain movies on dvd that i thought would be available in some downloadable form for sure.
They weren’t.

But as hinted at by Scott Tobias, even old 35 and 16 mm prints have a longer shelf life than digital files or dvd/bluray’s.
So the idea “It’s safe because it’s digital” is a fallacy.

Posted By George : April 21, 2017 4:35 pm

Another comment on this, from TCM fan supreme Nora Fiore (aka the Nitrate Diva). Echoing Tobias’ comments, she tweeted:

“I have many movies on DVD that are not available in any other way. What can be replaced by streaming is FAR from comprehensive. … I’m sick of the assumption that everything worth watching is available. In fact, you may have to break the law to see certain great movies!”

I know what she means. Whenever someone drops a batch of rare Pre-Code Paramount, Universal or Fox films on YouTube, I watch them ASAP — before they’re removed by the copyright holders (who have no interest in making them available on DVD or streaming).

Posted By EricJ : April 21, 2017 6:17 pm

It’s a generational thing–If you grew up when movies were ONLY on TV, you checked TV Guide every week trying to see when to VCR them so you would finally “catch” them on tape so they wouldn’t escape again.
When movies started to be “everywhere”, it was assumed that if they weren’t there, they’d be somewhere else, and you could catch up with them at your own pace…Apart from studio saying “Well, you love movies because you love hit studios!“, and would be grateful to be handed one anywhere, rather then the ability to have commentaries, documentaries, rare material, etc.
Which explains why studios are so determined to dig up studies saying “See, this sociologist says ‘Millennials don’t like buying permanent goods’, that PROVES they like digital!”, even though in the real world, even Millennials clearly don’t.

Me, I grew up in the early days of cult series and Japanese anime, when you couldn’t count on cable or video companies to keep your favorite show safe for you, and you guarded the one physical copy you had of it with your life.
As a result, I’ve also got the “archived” versions of movies that have disappeared from the rights radar (want to come over and watch Monty Python reruns or Disney’s “Dr. Syn”?), because our video generation knew the value of Gathering Ye Acorns for the winter.
And with the movies starting to disappear from Netflix, TV and rental, it’s been getting chillier.

(And did the Twilight Time links show up in the earlier post? Didn’t see it listed on the Recent Comments sidebar, so wasn’t sure whether it was being “subject to approval” by the moderators for having URL’s in them.)

Posted By Doug : April 21, 2017 6:51 pm

“It’s a generational thing” for me also-I can remember our family visiting friends and seeing COLOR TV for the first time.
Later, visiting family in a big city I discovered that one of my favorite shows which had been cancelled…was still on the air! Star trek reruns.
Many, many years later, working midnights I found the first ‘all night’ television being broadcast past Midnight in our area-all of these quantum leaps were “Pre-VCR”, at least for us regular folk who didn’t have a couple of grand to spring for a player.
Today we have an embarrassment of riches, viewing-wise.
Isn’t it great to live in yesterday’s future?

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 21, 2017 7:57 pm

George, I still buy DVDs, but won’t buy films I’ve never seen unless they get very good reviews from trusted sources, or are dirt-cheap. September and Interiors don’t get a lot of positive word-of-mouth. I have 80% of Allen’s catalog on DVD, quite a few of which I only have because the local video-rental place went out of business and I got them for $1 or $2. There are a few I’ll never bother to buy (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know…, Stardust Memories, and Curse of the Jade Scorpion).

Doug, I remember as a child the yearly broadcasts of Wizard of Oz being an event, and as a teenager scouring the TV guide for showings of favorite films on the independent stations. (Around here the stations broadcast until 2am back then, by the way. Surely in your area at least NBC must have. The Tonight show didn’t start until 11:30.)

Posted By Doug : April 21, 2017 8:37 pm

Ed, don’t know where you grew up, but it was 10:30 Johnny Carson time here in the midwest/central time zone. As I said- I was working midnights back then and there was nothing on any of the three channels past midnight.
It was surely different in big cities like Chicago/Milwaukee, but I lived nowhere near a ‘big’ city.
Later living in Milwaukee I would watch “The Adventures of Superman” on Saturday mornings. Life was good.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 21, 2017 8:44 pm

I wasn’t thinking about different time zones. I grew up 20 miles from Lansing, Michigan, so we could pick up the Grand Rapids, Flint and Detroit stations too (we had a huge antenna on the roof). One of them showed the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials on Saturdays, and the Weissmuller Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies, and Laurel and Hardy, etc.

Posted By George : April 21, 2017 9:58 pm

Ed, I also don’t buy DVDs unless I’ve seen them, like them, and know I’ll want to see them again. When my local Hastings was going out of business last fall, I did buy a few DVDs (real cheap) of movies I hadn’t seen, including Wim Wenders’ HAMMETT (a real find).

When I was growing up, the closest big city was Memphis, which had a channel that aired old movies all night, every night. They had the MGM library so I watched Gable, Garbo, Harlow, Crawford, etc. And on Saturday afternoons they would air Tarzan and Andy Hardy. Another channel ran Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes on weekend nights, while another ran the Universal horror classics.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 22, 2017 8:39 am

I may never have gotten into old movies if it wasn’t for all of those independent stations showing them when I was a kid. Often there just wasn’t anything else on. (Even though we got a lot of channels with that big aerial-antenna. When we finally got cable we actually got fewer channels, but there was no static, and we had HBO and Showtime, and we still got channel 50 out of Detroit, which showed classic movies every night at 8pm, so we didn’t care.)

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2017 10:15 am

“I don’t buy DVDs unless I’ve seen them”-some of my favorites came through blind buys, not knowing anything about the films when I purchased them.
“Hausu”, for example-bought it because the cat on the cover looked interesting. A great film.
I bought “The History of Future Folk” on my sister’s recommendation, and it’s a sweet parable.
“Disco Pigs” simply because of the title. An excellent drama.
May we all discover finer films.
One more-”Morvern Callar”. Now I’m done.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : April 22, 2017 11:24 am

Doug, while I tend to only buy films I’ve seen, like I said, I will buy films that have great reviews (or reputations). Most of my many Criterion DVDs I had never seen before, and some have been played a dozen times since. But some only got played once, and then got sold, for a fraction of what I payed for them. I don’t think I’ve made a TRUE blind-buy, of a film I really didn’t know anything about, since that video-rental place I mentioned went out of business and I was only risking a buck or two (and that was seven years ago, and I still haven’t watched two or three of those films).

Posted By George : April 22, 2017 3:03 pm

TCM is the only television source for the kind of classic films that local TV stations used to air, until the stations decided that (A) nobody would watch anything in black and white, and (B) reruns of “Dallas” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” were more profitable.

But the local commercial stations didn’t show silent films or subtitled foreign-language films. I had to rely on occasional PBS showings for those. And I didn’t see many early talkies of the 1927-30 era until TNT (the forerunner of TCM) began showing them in the late ’80s.

Posted By George : September 7, 2017 10:17 pm

“The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen”

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/woody-allen-wonder-wheel/537876/

Sounds like he’s stopped caring about quality. But he still churns out a movie a year — apparently so he’ll have a reason to leave his apartment, the way some retirees play the lottery as a reason to get out of bed.

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