Bananas (1970): Messy but Funny Comedy, Starring Woody Allen as Hyper-Neurotic

At his prime, from his Oscar-winning film “Annie Hall” in 1977 to “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which was nominated for the Best Picture and won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1986, Woody Allen was not only the most famous Jewish director but the most famous and most acclaimed American filmmaker, with a strong cycle of serio-comedies.

But for a whole decade, from the late 1960s to “Annie Hall,” Allen specialized in making funny, broad, often shapeless comedies that lacked the structure, coherence and discipline of his later work.

Born in 1935 as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, in Brooklyn, to working class parents. He began his career as a comedian, humorist, and playwright. Allen started writing comedy material for TV stars while still an adolescent. He also wrote jokes for newspaper columnists and contributed sketches for stage revues.

In 1961, he began performing his own material in Greenwich Village cafes. His special brand of cynical parody and devastating understatement was soon in demand on TV talk shows and at night-clubs. He showed a gift for philosophical and literary humor in comic essays in The New Yorker and later in several books, including, Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects.

Allen broke into films in 1965, as both screenwriter and performer in “What’s New, Pussycat?” The film features Louise Lasser, his second wife, who often appeared in his early movies. The following year he flaunted an absurd low-keyed humor by clever English dubbing of the sound track of a cheap Japanese film thriller, titled “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” For Broadway, he wrote two hits, “Don’t Drink the Water” and Play it Again, Sam,” both of which were later made into films.

In 1969, Allen embarked on a filmmaking career, when he directed, co-scripted, and starred in “Take the Money and Run,” a hilarious parody of crime films.

In the 1970s, Allen directed, wrote, and acted in a string of highly successful comedies. Typically disjointed in continuity, these films contained many moments of comic brilliance, highlighted by self-effacing humor, inside jokes, and spoofs of filmmakers (Antonioni, Bergman, Eisenstein), movie conventions, intellectuals, and philosophers.

Bananas

Allen made a big leap forward, beyond the parameters of his stand-up act and early features with his third film, “Bananas,” a series of hilarious sketches and incoherent one-liners, about a hyper-neurotic product-tester who winds up as a Latin-American dictator.

Grade: B- (*** out of *****)

Bananas
Bananas (movie poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a New York neurotic smitten by political activist Nancy (played by Louise Lasser, Allen’s wife at the time).  For her part, Nancy dismisses him, because she is totally involved in the revolution in the banana republic of San Marcos.

Sporting a Castro-like look, with a big, false red beard, Mellish accidentally becomes the president of San Marco.

One things leads to another, and Mellish returns to the U.S., where he is disclosed as a big fraud and put on trial for subversive activities.  But he does get Nancy.

Reflecting the corruptive nature of power, the politics of the revolutionary party are preposterous, reaching their high-absurdity level though a resolution dictating that the country’s official, non-decadent language should be Swedish (which some saw as a nod to Ingmar Bergman, Allen’s cherished filmmaker).

Technically more polished than his former efforts, “Bananas” represents a mix of lowbrow and highbrow satire, paying tribute to such Hollywood comedians as the Marx Brothers, specifically their seminal Depression era smash “Duck Soup,” by aiming its targets of politics, the mass media, and pop culture.

The cast of this inventive satire, co-written by Allen and Mickey Ross, is headed by Allen himself, Louise Lasser (his ex-wife at the time), Carlos Montalban, Jacob Morales, Rene Enriquez, and Natividad Abascal.

Though showing improvement over Allen’s previous film, Take the Money and Run, structurally, the movie is a mess, some of which by design. The romantic subplot, which dominates the first reel, blessedly gives way to a series of political gags, which are funnier, though the first sex scene (constantly interrupted) is quite funny.

As is well known, Allen was married to his leading lady for several years in the late 1960s, but they were separated by the time the movie was made.

It’s not the kind of movie that sustains scrutiny in terms of plot or evolution or satisfying closure; the tale just stops rather arbitrarily, instead of leading to a sensical ending–even by movieish terms.

“Bananas” proved what a unique and ambitious comic talent Allen was, signaling higher aspirations as a filmmaker and Allen’s need to be critically accepted as a more serious thinker, though it would take another couple of films to achieve that kind of status and recognition.

While well received in 1971, the comedy became a minor cult work later in the decade, due to the real political upheavals in Central and Latin America.  Before the VCR age, “Bananas” was frequently shown in revival houses and in film societies at university campuses.

Made on a modest budget of about $2 million, Bananas was a commercial hit, earning $11.8 million at the box-office.

Cast

Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen)

Nancy (Louise Lasser)

General Vargas (Carlos Montalban)

Yolanda (Natividad Abascal)

Esposito (Jacobo Morales)

Luis (Miguel Suarez)

Sanchez (David Ortiz)

Diaz (Rene Enriquez)

Arroyo (Jack Axelrod)

Howard Cosell (Howard Cosell)

Credits

Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Jack Grossberg
Written by Woody Allen and Mickey Rose

Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Yomo Toro

Cinematography Andrew M. Costikyan
Edited by Ron Kalish, Ralph Rosenblum

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: April 28, 1971

Running time: 82 minutes