Comedian-turned-filmmaker Woody Allen’s first full-fledged directorial effort was the lighthearted crime satire Take the Money and Run (1969), which underwent massive surgery during postproduction but ended up being brisk, charming, and funny—a learning experience for Allen, an enjoyable viewing experience for everyone else. Entering the ’70s, Allen demonstrated smoother filmmaking skills with Bananas, a farce set amid civil unrest in Latin America. Allen plays the wonderfully named Fielding Mellish, a New York City putz desperate to get political activist Nancy (Louise Lasser) into bed. Trying to impress her, Fielding travels to the fictional country of San Marcos and inadvertently joins a band of local revolutionaries. (The sequence of Fielding training to become a machine-gun-toting guerilla is a high point of early Allen slapstick.) Eventually, through farcical circumstances, Fielding becomes the Castro-like leader of the revolutionaries—resulting in the hilarious sight of Allen sporting a giant, Castro-esque beard tinted to match Allen’s red hair. Bananas climaxes with a riotous courtroom scene in which Fielding is tried for his un-American activities. (As one borough-bred accuser says, “He’s a bad apple! A commie! A New York, Jewish, intellectual, communist crackpot! I mean, I don’t wanna cast no aspersions.”) Lasser makes a terrific foil for Allen, and the movie benefits greatly from brevity, since it’s only 82 minutes—so, while Bananas is very silly, it’s also very amusing. And with the success of Bananas, the cycle of what later came to be termed Allen’s “early, funny ones” (the goofy comedies he made before tackling serious subject matter at the end of the ’70s) was underway.
After a busy 1972, during which Allen starred in but did not direct the adaptation of his stage play Play It Again, Sam, which was his first movie with Diane Keaton—and made his only sketch movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), which was adapted from a popular nonfiction book—Allen returned to Bananas mode with the sci-fi comedy Sleeper. Once again placing a comically exaggerated version of his neurotic self into an outrageous circumstance, Allen plays Miles Monroe, the proprietor of a New York City health-food store. Accidentally thrown into suspended animation for 200 years, Miles awakes in a future America controlled by an Orwellian government. Quickly realizing he’s a target in this strange world, Miles disguises himself as a servant robot and hides in the household of Luna Schlosser (Keaton), thus commencing a gleefully convoluted plot involving conspiracies, spies, and, of course, the Orgasmatron. Allen pushes his slapstick almost to the breaking point here; at one point, he dons a giant, inflatable suit that carries him off into the sky. Yet some of the movie’s verbal interplay is memorably deft, and the chemistry between Allen and Keaton is fantastic—she’s probably his best-ever scene partner for pure comedy. As with Bananas, however, Sleeper suffers for a lack of substance, even though the jokes are solid. In fact, for some fans, Sleeper represents the apex of Allen’s breakthrough period.
The last of Allen’s “early, funny ones” was the offbeat Love and Death, which mined humor from the unlikely source of classic Russian literature. Riffing on the novels of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and others—the definition of dense, depressing fiction—Allen puts his patented New York schmuck character into the most outrageous setting yet. Wearing his signature horn-rimmed glasses, a running anachronistic joke since the movie takes place in the early 19th century, Allen plays Boris Grushenko, a coward (of course) who half-heartedly joins the Russian Army during the battle against Napoleon, and then becomes an unlikely hero. While the fish-out-of-water formula was getting a little thin by this point, Love and Death boasts Allen’s most sophisticated writing to date—how could it not, given the lofty subject matter?—and another winning collaboration with Keaton. Furthermore, Love and Death provides hints of the serious-minded artistry Allen would soon explore. The movie is laced with shout-outs to Bergman movies and silent Russian cinema, which are juxtaposed with cheerfully dumb sight gags. Clearly, Allen was itching to make something more meaningful than another pure joke machine, and with his next movie, 1977’s Annie Hall, he transformed the whole notion of a “Woody Allen film” into something complex, daring, and exciting.
Love and Death: GROOVY