Bananas

Woody Allen mixes in some political satire amidst the slapstick flailing, in a movie that is smarter but not quite as funny as his previous.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1971

Allen’s career would later be known for its abrupt, unexpected turns — following up grim psychodramas with goofy comedies, and vice versa — but Bananas is a textbook example of how to follow-up a hit film (in this case, Take the Money and Run). It takes what worked before and gives it to you again, except this time with a bit more edge and ambition.

The movie opens in “San Marcos,” a fictional Latin-American country, with an episode of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” featuring real-life sportscaster Howard Cosell providing play-by-play for a revolution. This movie was made in 1971, but if it had swapped out Latin America with the Middle East, it would still be just as relevant. Cosell calls the revolution as if it was a sports game, pointing out the predictability of certain events, including the assassination of the President, the US flip-flopping, and the assumption of control by a seemingly noble but eventually crazy, power-mad general. To someone who struggled or died in a revolution this might seem like cold-hearted mockery, but to North American outsiders it’s a pointed commentary on how revolutions, despite all their nationalism, seem to all play out the same way over and over again all around the world once they’re boiled down to the bare facts by the American news media.

Howard Cosell in Bananas
“Thanks, Don. This is tremendous, the atmosphere electric. The crowd is tense, they’ve been here since 10 this morning. It’s a reminder of how it was in spring of 1964 in Miami Beach, when Clay met Listen for the first time and nobody was certain how it would turn out.”

After that, we meet Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) in America. Like Take the Money, Bananas stars Woody Allen as a broke, clumsy fool. This time, he’s a product-tester, testing the capabilities of such products as coffins and exercise desks.

Woody Allen in Bananas
“The Execucizor lets executives get their daily exercise without ever taking a break from their crowded work schedule.”

One evening, Nancy (Louise Lasser) comes to the door collecting petitions for America breaking relations with San Marcos. Falling in love immediately, Mellish tries to seduce her with Allen’s usual array of awkward come-ons. I mentioned that Take the Money featured fleeting glimpses of a real romance; well, this movie features a few more glimpses. Their initial meeting goes on for a full three or four minutes without a single slapstick gag (possibly a record for a Woody Allen movie at this point), and they have an almost-real conversation.

Louise Lasser and Woody Allen in Bananas
“I love Eastern philosophy. It’s metaphysical, and redundant. Abortively pedantic.”
“I know what you mean!”

Allen tries to impress her by taking an interest in politics and attending protests, but they eventually break up. Many of Woody Allen’s great films end (perhaps masochistically) with epic break-ups. Here, at a more cinematically light-hearted period of his career, the break-up is played mostly for laughs, but it’s still tinged with Allen’s trademark bitterness.

Nancy: I don’t think we should see each other anymore ... There’s something missing, and I don’t know what.
Fielding: My looks? My personality? Am I not smart enough for you? Is it to do with my height? My dental condition?
Nancy: Hmmm... no. It has nothing to do with the fact that you’re short, or that you’re not bright enough, or that your teeth are in bad shape.
Fielding: So what then? Do you have fun when your with me?
Nancy: No...
Fielding: What?
Nancy: No, I mean, we have fun, it’s not that.
Fielding: Do we not laugh?
Nancy: No, it’s not that we laugh or don’t laugh
Fielding: Certainly I laugh a lot. Sometimes I notice I’m laughing and I look at you and you’re not laughing. And I’m just laughing, laughing...
Nancy: Something’s missing, that’s all. This relationship is not going anywhere.
Fielding: Where do you want it to go?
Nancy: [pause] Where could we get it to go?
Fielding: Well [pause] I don’t know, I love you, and you love me...
Nancy: No.
Fielding: You don’t love me?
Nancy: No, but that’s not the reason why. You’re immature, Fielding.
Fielding: Immature? How am I immature?
Nancy: Well, emotionally, sexually, intellectually...
Fielding: Yeah, but what other ways?
Nancy: Well, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I just can’t give.
Fielding: What do you mean? You just receive, I’ll give.
Nancy: I’m not ready to receive.
Fielding: Then, you give and I’ll receive.
Nancy: Well, I can’t receive
Fielding: But I’m a person that can only receive if another is giving.
Nancy: Well, I can’t give, I’m sorry.
Fielding: But if we each receive if might work.
Nancy: I’m sorry, I’m receiving and receiving and receiving, and not able to give or receive.
Fielding: Well, I’d like to give, if only you’d receive
Nancy: I can’t receive, so I don’t know how I can help you
Fielding: But if we both receive, or both give...
Nancy: I told you, I can’t receive and I can’t give. It’s just not going to work out, it’s no use, I’m sorry if I hurt you, bye.
Nancy: *walks away*
Fielding: Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay.
Fielding: *sobs maniacally as soon as Nancy is out of sight*

At some point, the above conversation goes from ‘believable breakup banter’ to ‘satire of the inanity of breakup banter’ so subtly you barely even notice. At first it’s disarming because the conversation seems so true to life, but soon it’s re-combining the platitudes, niceties and introspective inanities of breakups so repeatedly and insistently that you’re laughing at how observant Allen is about how stupid and meaningless these conversations can be.

After losing Nancy, Allen travels to San Marcos in an attempt to win her back by proving his political awareness. In a series of improbable events, he befriends the new dictator, ends up an assassination target, survives, joins the rebel forces, takes part in a successful revolution and winds up President when, of course, the rebel leader loses his sanity and democratic idealism in the wake of total, national power.

Scene from Bananas
“Hello, I am your new President. From now on, the official language of San Marcos is Swedish. In addition, all citizens will be required to wash their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside, so we can check.”

After assuming power and donning a Fidel Castro beard, Allen finds his new nation struggling and starving, and decides to travel back to America seeking aid. When he arrives, the CIA recognizes him from a protest he attended, and concludes he’s some sort of Communust zealot. This leads into a lengthy, manic, hit-and-miss court-room scene that reaches its high-point when Fielding frantically interrogates himself to the bored indifference of the jury.

Woody Allen in Bananas
“I wouldn’t joke with this court.”
“You wouldn’t... or you couldn’t?”

Fielding also reunites with Nancy once he returns to America. Awestruck by his new political courage, she finally agrees to marry him. The movie ends with the return of Howard Cosell, who commentates the consummation of their marriage.

Louise Lasser and Howard Cosell in Bananas
“And here comes the bride. She has a lot of fans out tonight. They are tense but they swell to a tremendous cheer.”
Louise Lasser and Woody Allen in Bananas
“Now Nancy, I know you must be overwhelmed, but can you tell me, was it everything you expected?”
“Well, Howard, it all went by so fast. I really had no idea it would be over so quickly.”

Bananas is a maturation, not just in terms of emotional depth, but in terms of influence. Reaching beyond the Marx Brothers, Allen pays very explicit tribute to the Russian film Battleship Potemkin in a protest scene in which, amongst the chaos, a single, metaphorical stroller is shown bouncing down the steps. There’s also a dream sequence that, while I’m not 100% sure, seems to be roughly inspired by a similar sequence in Wild Strawberries, a film directed by Allen’s cinematic hero Ingmar Bergan.

Bananas
Wild Strawberries

This movie, it should be noted, is not as funny as Take the Money and Run. Partly this is because the joke-to-minute ratio is deliberately lower. But partly because, when it comes down to the slapstick set-pieces, Bananas just isn’t as good at being funny. Maybe this is an unfair criticism that stems from the nature of this blog, but Allen’s flustered ruination schtick is incredibly consistent, and increasingly tiresome. There are nearly half-a-dozen essentially straight scenes with the only ostensible humor coming from Woody Allen’s frantic flailing, which are more over-wrought here than they have been yet. I mentioned in Casino Royale that Allen could have carved out an interesting career as an actor, but in this movie, his performance combined with the sharp satire makes a strong argument for him being a better writer than actor.

There’s also an air of familiarity wafting throughout large parts of this film. One extended sequence features Mellish training with Latin American rebels, and there’s also a prolonged, wacky court-room sequence. These are not incompetently executed, but they are, to a 2011 first-time viewer, incredibly predictable and familiar. All the jokes you’d expect show up one after another. I’ve seen these jokes many times before, in movies (Stripes, Private Benjamin), TV shows (MASH, McHale’s Navy) and trailers for movies that I will never watch (Major Payne, In the Army Now). Although, for the second time in two paragraphs, I acknowledge I’m making an unfair criticism, because most of the examples provided above came out after Bananas. Perhaps this is just an example of an original getting unfairly swept along with its imitators.

Woody Allen in Bananas

When I was in grade eight, my science teacher was describing the reproductive techniques of insects and said there were two types of male insects, the “Sylvester Stallone types,” which are strong, fast, and genetically attractive, and the “Woody Allen types,” which are weaker and smaller, but craftier, and could “sneak” reproductions with females caught off-guard or left behind by the Stallones. She was trying to put it into pop-culture terminology to help us learn, but the take-away lesson was, basically, be muscley and awesome or forever doom yourself to sexually assaulting Sylvester Stallone’s leftovers. Anyway, the point of this asinine side-story is that, for me (and any of my eighth-grade science classmates, if they’re watching this too somewhere), it injected additional pathos into a scene where Woody Allen is harassed by some thugs on a subway — one of whom is played the actual, original Sylvester Stallone (five years pre-Rocky and pre-stardom).

Sylvester Stallone and Woody Allen in Bananas
Every woman’s dream man can be found somewhere in this scene.

We are now at pretty much the half-way point between What’s New Pussycat and Annie Hall. Based on this, Bananas is almost exactly what you would expect it to be. Much sillier than his later movies, not as silly as the previous ones. These are the “early, funny movies” — an innocent categorization that would later (especially in Stardust Memories) take on a bitterness as it became associated with Allen fans lamenting his increasing humorlessness as the ‘80s began. Maybe I’ll start longing for these more innocent and light-hearted days nostalgically, but right now, I feel about ready for some change.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “Why did I become a product tester? Machines hate me. I should be working at a job that I have some kinda aptitude for, like donating sperm to an artificial insemination lab.”
  • “Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for, Hitler?”
  • “Yes, well, freedom is wonderful. On the other hand, if you’re dead, it’s a tremendous drawback to your sex life.”
  • “I’m so depressed... I’d kill myself if I thought that she would marry me.”
  • “If they should try to overthrow, I have made a deal for reinforcements. With the UJA.”
    “You mean the CIA, excellence? The UJA is the United Jewish Appeal.”
    “Uh oh.”
  • “I’m doing a sociological study on perversion. I’m up to advanced child-molesting.”
  • “I wet my bed as a child, and I had an electric blanket. It was terrible, I was always electrocuting myself.”
  • “Have you ever been to Denmark?”
    “Yes, I went to the Vatican.”
    “The Vatican is in Rome...”
    “Yes, but it was doing so well, they opened one in Denmark.”
  • “I once stole a pornographic book that was printed in braille. I used to rub the dirty parts.”
  • “I love you, I love you.”
    “Oh, say it in French! Oh, please, say it in French!”
    “I don’t know French. What about Hebrew?”
  • “We fell in love. Well, I fell in love... she just stood there.”
  • “You are accused of killing over a thousand people in your term of office... of torturing hundreds of women and children. How do you plead?”
    “Guilty... but with an explanation.”

Fun Facts

  • This movie is inspired in part by Don Quixote. Another Woody Allen slapstick comedy, another literary reference I feel inadequate for not having read.
  • Woody Allen initially sent Stallone back to the casting agency after deciding he wasn’t “tough-looking” enough. Stallone pleaded with him, and eventually convinced him to change his mind.
  • This is the 69th funniest movie of all time, according to the American Film Institute (Annie Hall is #4).
  • This is the third and final Woody Allen movie to be co-written with Mickey Rose, Allen’s childhood friend, who’s also credited with writing much of Allen’s stand-up material (including the Moose story discussed in What’s New Pussycat).
  • I have no idea how this movie got its title. However, it is better than the movie’s original title — “El Weirdo.”
  • The Catholic Church rated this movie “Condemned” for this scene (which is very funny).
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