1965 - 1975: The ’Early, Funny’ Films

Briskly recapping and ranking Woody Allen's early comedies.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1965 - 1975

In a quest to satisfy the Internet’s all-consuming thirst for knowledge, and also to satiate my ravenous, indulgent desire to tell people what I think about things, I’ve decided to add recaps to each “era” — a way to compare movies to each other, look at bigger questions, and think of things in a bigger way than the smaller, detail-oriented individual movie reviews.

In 1975, who was Woody Allen?

If I tried to forget everything I know about Woody Allen and form an opinion based just on the nine movies that made up his 1965-1975 output, I would probably describe him as an exceptional comic talent — capable of reliably making very funny movies that are both incredibly silly but deceptively smart. His first three movies were heavily changed against his wishes, but the six movies (in a seven year period) that he wrote and starred in are consistently funny. He also possesses an intelligence that has a sharp, unique presence, even if it only manifests itself in one-off jokes or quick, throwaway references. There are two outliers — Play it Again, Sam and Love and Death — that, while still classifiable as comedies, suggest contemplative artistic urges eager to break out, perhaps confined by America’s increasing infatuation with his wacky, goofy persona. Describing this persona can be difficult to do concisely, although Roger Ebert does a good job: “shy, incompetent, totally fascinated by women and scared to death of them, secretly romantic.” I would add “neurotic,” “flustered” and “desperate,” but overall, that’s about right.

After Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther franchise dried up but before the raunchier, sarcastic Saturday Night Live crowd started breaking box office records, Woody Allen was the most popular comedian in America. Beyond movies, he was still an in-demand stand-up comedian, author of short stories for The New Yorker and the writer of two hit Broadway plays (one of them the inspiration for Play it Again, Sam). He even had his own syndicated comic strip.

Woody Allen comic strip
Although he didn’t actually write it himself... and it wasn’t that funny.

Overall, Woody Allen was a funny, popular, acclaimed, prolific comedian in 1975. It was an incredibly successful period, but it would eventually come to represent just a small part of his artistic profile.

1965-1975: Top 5 Funniest Scenes

  1. The Human Machine, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask
    Some of the sequences in this sketch comedy movie fall flat, but the finale is smart and hilarious from beginning to end. It’s a relatively simple joke (the human body represented as a mechanical device operated by a team of tiny people) but it keeps elevating and topping itself, building to a brilliant climax (awkward pun intended). It’s highlight, of course, is a sperm played by Woody Allen, whose emotional over-complication clashes with semen’s more simplistic, purpose-driven nature.
  2. Dinner Party, Sleeper
    Like Sleeper as a whole, this scene is great not just for a single joke or exchange, but for a non-stop deluge of jokes, targets, and approaches. Woody Allen, lost in a futuristic world, on the run and disguised as a robot, is catering a dinner party for Luna (Diane Keaton). The expected slapstick jokes stemming from Allen’s fear and hatred of technology show up (and are very funny), but we also get our first look at the borderline-illiterate hedonistic citizens of Sleeper’s future world that takes the society of Fahrenheit 451 to its logical extremes. As a bonus, there’s also an instant pudding that grows to human-size and gains sentience, as well as a first look at the Orgasmatron.
    Scene from Sleeper
  3. Screwball Climax, What’s New Pussycat
    Like #1, this scene is an excellent conclusion to an otherwise uneven film. In typical screwball comedy tradition, all the film’s characters and their intertwining romances, tensions and animosities end up at the same place at the same time (with some new characters, including neo-nazis, swingers, and the Viking-obsessed Hellenic wife of Peter Sellers, thrown in for good measure). You expect a certain level of ridiculousness from slapstick sex comedies, but Pussycat’s conclusion goes beyond any expectations and reaches near-transcendence with its audacious, shameless silliness. Plus, the presence of such luminaries as Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole gives the insanity a self-awareness that makes it much funnier.
    Scene from What’s New Pussycat
  4. Art Gallery Despair, Play It Again, Sam
    Allan Felix (Woody Allen) struggles to build up the nerve to ask out a pretty girl in an art gallery. Earlier, he has described himself as being “attacted to emotionally disturbed women.” He illustrates this point, or perhaps he’s illustrating his character’s increased desperation, by remaining unfazed and hopeful in the face of unrepentant, depressive nihilism. The scene’s purpose may also be to take Allen’s usual existential angst and put it in a new, more ridiculous and overtly funny context. Either way, it’s funny.
  5. Allan Felix: “That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?”
    Girl: “Yes, it is.”
    Allan Felix: “What does it say to you?”
    Girl: “It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.”
    Allan Felix: “What are you doing Saturday night?”
    Girl: “Committing suicide.”
    Allan Felix: “What about Friday night?"
  6. Robbery Fail, Take the Money and Run
    Inept criminal Virgil Starkwell attempts to stage a bank robbery, but his timidity and incompetence prevents him not only from succeeding, but from properly initiating. His note is illegible (they think he’s trying to threaten them with a “gub”), although that’s probably not his biggest problem, as his lack of confidence puts him at the mercy of even the meekest bank tellers.

1965-1975: Top 5 Most Memorable Woodyisms

  1. From Sleeper
    "You don’t believe in science, and you also don’t believe that political systems work, and you don’t believe in God... so what do you believe in?”
    "Sex and death. Two things that come once in a lifetime."
  2. From Take the Money and Run
    "I knew it was love, because right away I started to feel nauseous."
  3. From Love and Death
    "Sex without love is an empty experience.”
    "Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best."
  4. From Bananas
    "We fell in love. Well, I fell in love... she just stood there."
  5. From Sleeper
    "I haven’t seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I’d been going all this time, I’d probably almost be cured by now."

1965-1975: Top 5 Most Egregiously Recycled Jokes

  1. Allen tries to make sexy-eyes at a woman, and tries harder and harder, until he’s devolved into a heinously unsexy, over-the-top caricature of sexy-eyes. He does this in Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. Perhaps unrealistically, he ends up sleeping with the woman in question all three times.
    Woody Allen in Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death
    Nightmare material
  2. Woody Allen gets enlisted in an army in both Bananas and Love and Death, and while there are some differences, both involve Allen trying to assemble a rifle only to end up with a ludicrously deformed non-rifle. His opposition to war — both as a concept and as something he might personally be involved in — is repeatedly made clear, as is the opposing opinion of his commanding officers and fellow soldiers.
    Woody Allen in Bananas and Love and Death
  3. Also in both Bananas and Love and Death, Allen has a dream sequence which begins with “haunting” Christian imagery but ends with a bunch of people dressed in black dancing. In both cases, it seems to be a reference to Wild Strawberries, or maybe just a spoof of the pretentiousness of movie dreams in general.
    Bananas and Love and Death
  4. In Play it Again, Sam, Allen nonchalantly asks a girl for a date on Friday after she reveals she plans to commit suicide on Saturday. In What’s New Pussycat, Peter O’Toole is on a date with a seemingly normal girl, who heads to the bathroom announcing: “Would you excuse me for a minute? I’m going into the bathroom to take an overdose of sleeping pills.” His casual response: “I like you. You’re a nice stable girl.”
  5. Casino Royale and Love and Death both feature Woody Allen facing a firing squad and bemoaning how the procedure (getting shot) contravenes his doctor’s orders.

1965-1975: Top 5 Overall Movies

  1. Take the Money and Run
    Woody Allen’s hilarious directorial debut refines the slapstick humor of his initial writing and acting efforts and adds touching glimpses of real emotion. Allen plays a lovable loser and is more likable in a pure, uncomplicated way than, perhaps, ever.
  2. Sleeper
    Definitely the single funniest movie Woody Allen has made yet. The best jokes and one-liners, plus some truly brilliant slapstick set-pieces.
  3. Love and Death
    As I said in my review, it may not be the funniest or best, and it often straddles an awkward line between silly and serious, but of all the early films, it’s the most prescient and most representative of what a Woody Allen movie is. Still pretty funny, too, and filled with references and satirical comments on a wide variety of common Allen influences (Marx Brothers, Chaplin, Russian literature, Ingmar Bergman, etc).
  4. Play It Again, Sam
    The romance and drama are a bit stilted, but it’s still surprising and occasionally thrilling to see sincere emotion, and a general change of pace, amidst the frantic comic chaos. Also notable for a first look at a more realistic, down-to-earth instance of the Woody Allen persona, a funny performance by Jerry Lacy as a the ghost of Humphrey Bogart and a terrific ending.
  5. Bananas
    Not as purely funny as #1-#2 or as smart as #3-#4, but Bananas does feature a nice mix of verbal jokes, political satire and a funny, although familiar, performance by Woody Allen as a sad-sack loser struggling to win over a woman just out of his league.

1965-1975: Worst Movie

  1. Casino Royale
    In future categorical recaps, I’ll probably have more to talk about in this section, but as of 1975, Casino Royale is the only thing Allen had been involved in that I would call a “bad movie.” It may have its moments, but it also has over two hours of dreary, perplexing and unfunny material and an unprecedented amount of wasted talent. The best part, for Woody Allen fans, is that his brief, limited contributions are uniformly funny and serve as the movie’s highlights.

Fun Facts

  • If I had done “Every Stanley Kubrick Movie” instead (as I had once considered), I would already be half finished.
  • Either the inflation calculator I used is broken, or movies cost a lot more to make now than they used to. Sleeper’s $11 million (theoretically adjusted) budget is paltry by today’s standards, but it’s budget was just over half of that of The Godfather — a sweeping Hollywood epic with the highest paid star in the world.
  • The most-viewed page on this site is Play it Again, Sam, which is strange, because it’s probably his least-seen movie of all those I’ve reviewed so far.