After the successful comedy Take the Money and Run comes Woody Allen’s Bananas. Here the gags come just as thick and fast, but there is more structure to this film, and more of a point. Almost.
Bananas is the story of Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen), a products tester in New York who falls for a flakey activist, Nancy (Louise Lasser). When Fielding is dumped, he decides to impress Nancy by traveling solo to the politically turbulent (and fictitious) Latin American country of San Marcos, where he is kidnapped by rebels and eventually installed as a puppet dictator. Fielding returns to the US, is unmasked, put on trial and reunited with Nancy.
That’s a very brief summary of the film and its neat three-part structure that’s devised purely to deliver visual and verbal jokes. The centrepiece of the film, the scenes in San Macos, is where one could argue that there is some purpose to Woody’s comedy, that it is almost political. But it’s really only political in the sense that Duck Soup is political. Both films use politics and war only for the purpose of making some extremely silly jokes.
So how are the jokes? Bananas mostly falls flat for me, especially the silent comedy sequences with the rebels in the jungles and the jokes in the third act courtroom scene which seem predictable. The sequences that do work are much more inventive, such as the opening scene in which ABC’s Wide World of Sports televises the assassination of San Marcos’s president (‘All around there are colourful flags and hats’) and its mirror scene when the same sports commentators provide a live cross to all the action of Fielding and Nancy in bed. This ad-break that comes out of nowhere still holds up too:
But for me it’s really the first part of the film that works the best. This is when we spend time with what will become the typical Woody Allen character, as a New York nebbish in analysis and in love. Especially with dialogue like:
Which could almost be from Annie Hall or Manhattan. Mostly, though, Bananas is made up of really, really brief visual jokes like this
It’s clear that Woody loves Chaplin, especially the scene in which he product tests a desk that doubles as an exercise machine that goes haywire. It’s also clear in the courtroom scene that Woody loves the Marx Brothers. You can hear Groucho delivering lines like, ‘This trial is a travesty! It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham!’
However while the film indebted to past comedy masters, and while it is overflowing with surreal sequences, very slight political satire and silent-film style physical comedy scenes, it somehow still feels like it’s lacking ambition. It’s as if Woody can do better. This is a much tighter film than Take the Money and Run, and much, much better directed, but I didn’t enjoy it as much because it splits is focus with mixed results. Woody in the city: great. Woody in the jungle: not so great.
A few random pieces of potential interest: Louise Lasser (a former Mrs Allen) is really funny in the kind of role Dianne Keaton would soon play; the film has a catchy Latin score, by Marvin Hamlisch once again; this is the last film co-written by Mickey Rose; editor Ralph Rosenblum also takes an associate producer credit; and making an appearance as an intimidating subway thug is Sylvester Stallone!
Next week: Play it Again, Sam.