Guest post: Mark Hodgson on Woody Allen’s early comedies

To celebrate the reent Cannes premiere of Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, Mark Hodgson takes a look at Woody’s films in the Park Circus catalogue and remembers six of his films from the 1970s which still make him laugh.

Woody Allen in Bananas

Woody Allen in Bananas

Nowadays, must-see comedies mixing up sex, politics and slapstick no longer make you think of the films of Woody Allen, but in the seventies, he wrote, directed and starred in a string of accessible and popular laugh-out-loud movies. Their success made it very hard for Allen to break away from these ‘earlier funny ones’ and be regarded as a serious film-maker.

After starting out in a team of comedy writers working for hit American TV shows in the 1950s, Allen made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian using his own material. His big break into movies was with the script for What’s New Pussycat (1965), in which he also had a scene-stealing supporting role. He plays a backstage dresser at a Paris stripclub, working for twenty francs a week (“It’s all I could afford”).

Riding the new wave of sexual liberation, this is a French farce with nothing ruder than naughty. With a cast of sex-obsessed characters, none more screwed up than the psychiatrist trying to analyse them all (a superb character from Peter Sellers in a hilarious wig). It stars Peter O’Toole as a gallivanting bachelor who can’t settle down to his impending marriage. It’s an inventive and furious take on casual sex and diversity without being the slightest bit explicit.

Woody Allen BlogathonThis led to a high-profile role in Casino Royale (1966), a wacky farce whose budget ballooned to epic proportions. Building on the success of What’s New Pussycat, Allen, Sellers and Ursula Andress were cast in this lampoon of the already hugely successful James Bond franchise. Allen appears in a key role as Bond’s son, Jimmy, first seen escaping a firing squad by means of an exploding cigarette – he climbs over the wall only to land in front of another firing squad on the other side. The spoof cemented his screen character as the unlucky, lecherous klutz he’d play throughout the 1970s.

He may be a loser on-screen, but Allen was already directing his own scripts at this point. Bananas (1971) satirised young America’s romantic view of South American revolutionaries. As usual his character (a disastrous product-tester) is trying to get the girl (comedian Louise Lasser). He agrees to leave the US with her on a trip to help rebels fight a dictatorship. Of course, he winds up going alone and in the thick of a plot to overthrow the country.

The story is bookended by a couple of surreal exaggerations of the American media, starting with live TV coverage of a political assassination, commentated as if it were a sports programme. Very like one of his topical stand-up routines brought to life.

Throughout the decade, he freely uses physical, often silent comedy. A running gag in these films has Allen in a training montage where he’s unable to even fire a gun without screwing up.

His finger was again on the pulse the following year with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), inspired by a best-selling self-help book. Unusually it has an anthology structure, each extended sketch based on a different chapter. Gene Wilder and Burt Reynolds guest in two different segments.

While the ‘psychiatrist falling in love with a sheep’ is memorable, Allen appears in the funniest chapters. Firstly he’s a court jester trying to sleep with the King’s daughter (Lynn Redgrave), then a hot-blooded Italian who likes making love in public places. Next he’s the leading man in a bad horror movie taking on a kinky mad scientist (John Carradine), before he appears, most famously, as a nervous sperm, when we see all the effort and organisation that goes on inside a man’s body during a date…

Sleeper (1973) is Allen’s rare excursion into sci-fi. A riff on Buck Rogers, his hapless health food store-owner finds himself flung into the distant future on the wrong side of the law. A satire on 1970s’ America rather than a serious prediction at what the future holds, it’s a refreshing change from spoofs of other sci-fi movies. It works as a sci-fi story that happens to be comedy.

Allen’s character has a long and difficult resurrection with his body waking up before his brain kicks in. Other highlights for me involved his disguise as a mute robot servant, and a battle with an instant pudding.

This is his first of many collaborations with Diane Keaton, here playing a vapid poet who no longer has to work in this mechanised future, ignorant of the totalitarian technological society that keeps everyone in the dark. There are even machines that have sex for you – the movie debut of the orgasmatron.

For me, this was his funniest comedy of the decade, repeatedly re-released in UK cinemas on double-bills with Peter Sellers’ films and even Monty Python.

With Love and Death (1975), he moved away from the news headlines and towards his personal influences in literature and world cinema. It’s another broad Woody Allen comedy, but also a spoof of Tolstoy’s War And Peace. The in-jokes don’t involve American politicians but rather the pioneering Russian director Eisenstein. There are even visual quotes from Ingmar Bergman, though this now looks like he’s referencing an ABBA pop video.

Allen plays a neurotic Russian villager forced (by his family) to fight in the war against the French invaders. While he’s expected to be cannon fodder, he miraculously and repeatedly cheats death, turns the course of the war, when all he really wants is to marry his cousin Sonja (again, the effortlessly funny Diane Keaton). His monologues straight to camera echo his days as a stand-up, but the subject is philosophy, of the meaning of love and death. But funny.

Woodly Allen’s comedies of this period provide a satirical commentary of the times, but also achieves sex comedy without nudity, adult entertainment without swearing, and even subversive fun for teenagers without a cast full of teenagers.

Mark Hodgson runs cult movie blog, Black Hole Reviews, recommending horror films and offbeat cinema from different decades and different countries.

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