One of Woody’s most enduring, and endearing, films isn’t even technically his. Play It Again, Sam was directed by Herbert Ross. This 1972 film was based on Woody Allen’s play which had run successfully on Broadway three years earlier with Woody, Dianne Keaton and Tony Roberts in the lead roles.
The title is a misquote from Casablanca, a film which is heavily referenced in the plot. The story concerns Allan Felix (Allen), a San Francisco film critic and old movie obsessive, who relies on the advice of an imaginary, tough talking and trench-coat-clad Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) when it comes to women. When Allan’s wife divorces him, the neurotic movie buff finds himself attracted to sympathetic Linda (Keaton), the wife of his distracted stockbroker friend, Dick (Roberts). But can Allan really be Bogie? And should he?
The rights for Play It Again, Sam had been sold when the play was a hit, and by the time it moved into production as a film, Woody was well known enough to be cast. Keaton and Roberts reprised their roles too, and Woody wrote the screenplay. In a 1972 Cinema interview, he said he had no interest in revisiting the material as a filmmaker, but was happy for someone else to take it on, adding that he hoped it would be, ‘a nice, solid, funny commercial picture, and hopefully entice a broader audience for me than I get with my own films.’
That’s exactly what happened. One of the reasons it remains an audience favourite is the quality of the jokes. There may be more in Bananas, but more of the jokes in Sam land. There’s probably a good reason for that: they were tried and tested. Some jokes date back to Woody’s 1960s stand-up routines, such as on his aversion to the beach: ‘I don’t tan, I stroke’. Mostly the laughs are transplanted from the stage show which must have been honed during the course of its run until it was a finely tuned joke machine. There is a tightness to the writing, and a solid structure not only overall but also in individual scenes. The sequence involving Bogie feeding Allan some lines to help seduce Linda is a highlight, building in laughs to a perfect payoff.
Unlike the surreal gags peppered through Take the Money and Run or Bananas, this film’s comedy comes from the characters. When Nancy asks a despondent Allan if all he is eating are TV dinners, he replies, ‘Who eats them? I suck them frozen.’ Speaking of characters, this is the film where Woody’s screen persona is fully formed, with constant reference to his reliance on anti-depressants and his clear disdain of contemporary culture. Seeing him on the early 70s dance floor is hilarious.
There are a couple of other Woody constants in this early film too. The first is a touch of magic realism. The way Bogart appears and disappears is similar to Alec Baldwin’s character in To Rome With Love and Woody’s mother in New York Stories, and the way it slips between Allan’s reality and fantasy pops up again in Deconstructing Harry and Mighty Aphrodite. I would be interested to see the play version of Play It Again, Sam, since it all takes place in one apartment.
The other Woody motif is related, which is the intersection of art and life. That’s really what this film is all about, beneath all the gags. Allan prefers movies to reality in the same way that Mia Farrow does is in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Where that film is a drama, this is a comedy. But both are about looking to the screen for help when life becomes too much to bear.
It some ways this isn’t a Woody Allen film. The soundtrack, visual style and costumes are unlike any of his work. The finale, with its race to the airport and its neat conclusion, seems much more mainstream than the rest of his work. But in many other ways it is a Woody Allen film: the themes, jokes, the characters and, of course, the cast. Dianne Keaton and Tony Roberts are both excellent; funny and never cartoonish. They would appear in many more of Woody’s 70s films.
I first saw Play It Again, Sam in a double bill with Manhattan at The Astor cinema in Melbourne years ago, and I remember it getting huge laughs. Talking to Eric Lax in 2006, Woody called it, ‘a serviceable commercial romantic comedy. Trivial and amusing and it plays.’ That’s being typically disingenuous. This was the final film Woody would write but not direct. Whether or not you consider it one of his films doesn’t matter. It’s still very funny, and always worth playing again.
Next week: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)