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    Comedy by the Bunch

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    El Weirdo does not have the same resonance in terms of humor or gravity for a movie title as does Bananas (1971), so it was astute of co-writers Woody Allen and Mickey Rose, following their hip and jokey collaboration on Take the Money and Run (1969), to favor fruit, particularly since there a lot of pratfalling slapstick was mixed in with the verbal volleys. Director Allen would confirm then and ever since that Bananas was all about the jokes and that gravity was nowhere on anyone’s mind. He told Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert: “The big, broad laugh comedy is a form that's rarely made these days, and sometimes I think it's the hardest kind of movie to make. With a comedy like It Happened One Night, you have characters, a situation, a plot to keep things moving between laughs. But with a comedy like Bananas, if they're not laughing, you're dead, because laughs are all you have.” Thankfully, the laugh content of this messy, manic movie is nearly wall-to-wall, whether it evokes Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laborer getting machine-mangled by making Allen’s character Fielding Mellish a product tester who can’t quite get the knack of an innovative new device called the Execusizer or The Marx Brothers running rampant in Duck Soup’s revolutionary Freedonia as Mellish, to win back the heart of his liberal-minded girlfriend (Louise Lasser), joins a band of insurgent rebels in an offshore banana republic to remake himself as a manly freedom fighter. If the odd physical bit doesn’t quite score, don’t blink or groan, because the next witty, self-deprecating, sex-starved New York-nebbish one-liner will grab you within seconds. As Woody: A Biography author David Evanier writes: “Bananas had the same surreal, rapid-fire comic intensity of Take the Money and Run. It reflected Allen’s cynicism, skepticism and rejection of all utopian social and political movements, and it was commonly thought he had Fidel Castro’s Cuba in mind. Fielding and [Take the Money and Run’s] Virgil were interchangeable characters – it was all Woody all the time – and the audiences responded with delight to the barrage of wild humor. Paul D. Zimmerman wrote in Newsweek that the film was “the wildest piece of comic insanity since Harpo, Groucho and Chico climbed Mount Dumont. Allen shares that anarchic impulse to subordinate everything – plot, plausibility and people – to the imperatives of a good joke.” 

    Each Bananas fan has favorite moments. In the view of The United Artists Story author Ronald Bergan, “Best scenes: Woody attempting to buy a porno mag discreetly; Woody being threatened by young hoodlums in the subway (one of them an unbilled first appearance by Sylvester Stallone); Woody in a café ordering food for his rebel friends in the hills (‘1,000 grilled cheese sandwiches, 300 tuna fish, 700 coffees, 500 Cokes and 1,000 Seven-Ups to go’); and TV sports commentator Howard Cosell giving a blow-by-blow description of Woody’s honeymoon with Louise Lasser.” For the puerile-minded, the 52-second “suck out the poison” sequence is a delirious classic. Everything was fair game. And, scattershot and unpolished as Bananas was, it signaled something even better. The film christened Allen’s unique and lasting arrangement with legendary studio head Arthur B. Krim at United Artists and later Orion Pictures that would, in Evanier’s account, “gave Woody creative freedom to write and direct a film of his choosing. UA would give Allen the wherewithal to make pictures without having to scramble for funds. And he would avoid the most negative aspect of that obsolete system: the power of the studio heads to dictate what a writer created. He inherited only the best part, the kind of powerful support that the old-time studio heads provided when they liked someone – someone, however, they could dictate to. Allen found patrons who left him alone yet provided the same support. A reason the agreement worked was that Woody’s films always came in on budget, on schedule, and he kept his word about everything. And the budgets were relatively small. ‘Woody had an old-fashioned, deeply ingrained sense of honor about his commitments.’ Steven Bach wrote in his memoir Final Cut. Woody was not required to seek approval but adhered to his own code of a gentleman’s agreement. ‘As he explained to me later,’ Bach recalled, ‘I wouldn’t want the company to spend money on something he didn’t believe in,’ and he meant it in both commercial and thematic senses.’ Commenting on the relationship between Allen and Krim, Bach told Marion Meade, ‘Had there been no Arthur Krim and UA, Woody’s structure could not have evolved any other place in the world.’” Featuring Carlos Montalban, Jacobo Morales, David Ortiz, Charlotte Rae, Conrad Bain and a crucified Allen Garfield, Bananas starts unpeeling and appealing November 14 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, with Marvin Hamlisch's larkish and lighthearted score on an Isolated Music Track. Preorders open November 1.