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While some people conveniently draw dividing lines through the films of Woody Allen, separating the comedies from the dramas, the youthful humor from the mature angst, a fresh viewing of 1971's Bananas reveals that the director's multi-faceted talents were there from the start, just hidden a little deeper beneath the comic surface.
Allen's second film as director (after Take the Money and Run (1969), and not counting What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), his comic reworking of a Japanese spy film) is surely more laugh-oriented than some of his later works. But beneath the physical zaniness of Allen's antics - reminiscent of the great comics of the silent era -- is an artist wrestling with larger issues of mortality, morality and, of course, sexual frustration. The beauty of Bananas is how effortlessly it veers from slapstick to Dostoyevskian gloom to Dadaist absurdity, without ever slowing its manic pace.
Bananas was the first film over which Allen exercised near-complete creative control; a privilege afforded few filmmakers - one he has carefully protected over the years. The story emerged from a project Allen and co-writer Mickey Rose had developed in 1966 entitled Don Quixote U.S.A.. The film was conceived as a vehicle for Robert Morse (The Loved One, 1965), and involved an American Peace Corps member who finds himself stranded in a Caribbean dictatorship. When it finally reached the screen as Bananas, one can hardly imagine anyone else in the central role.
After being jilted by a coed political activist (Louise Lasser), incompetent products-tester Fielding Mellish (Allen) travels to the Latin American country of San Marcos, and quickly finds himself the center of a people's revolution. Used as a pawn first by the military dictator (Carlos Montalban), then by the Castro-like rebel leader (Jacobo Morales), Mellish employs his harebrained ingenuity to survive guerilla training and to become a figurehead of this new banana republic.
Bananas was filmed in Puerto Rico and New York City and for one of the more famous sequences - the assassination of the San Marcos President - Allen was able to hire real-life sportscaster Howard Cosell who parodied his own television image with his blow-by-blow coverage of the event. It is also interesting to note that Bananas had a different ending until co-editor Ralph Rosenblum convinced the director to change it. According to Julian Fox in the biography, Woody: Movies from Manhattan, "this had involved Fielding, invited to make a revolutionary speech at Columbia University, falling foul of black protestors, only to emerge from a sudden explosion, in blackface. He is instantly recognized as a 'brother' by three black guys with rifles." Fox also mentioned other deletions: "Cut was a promising sequence in which government troops, disguised as a rumba band, cha-cha-cha through the jungle to take the rebels by surprise. Despite a sudden downpour, it was successfully filmed but, as Rosenblum recalled, 'It was a hit with cast and crew, but it wasn't funny on the screen.' Another scene, with a bogus 'Bob Hope' acting as decoy so government planes could bomb the rebels, looked too much like a war documentary to be funny."
Viewed today, it is nearly impossible to perceive Bananas as a piece of pointed social commentary. Yet in the more volatile era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, some critics questioned Allen's political agenda. "They say it's a political film but I don't really believe much in politics," Allen told Rolling Stone writer Robert B. Greenfield in 1971. "Groucho has told me that the Marx Brothers films were never consciously anti-establishment or political. It's always got to be a funny movie first."
Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Jack Grossberg, Charles H. Joffe (executive), Ralph Rosenblum
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose
Cinematography: Andrew M. Costikyan
Editor: Ron Kalish, Ralph Rosenblum
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Cast: Woody Allen (Fielding Mellish), Louise Lasser (Nancy), Carlos Montalban (Gen. Emilio M. Vargas), Natividad Abascal (Yolanda), Jacobo Morales (Esposito).
by Bret Wood