Bananas: When Woody Was a Marxist
When asked why he named the movie “Bananas”, Woody Allen replied “Because there are no bananas in it”. That’s something Groucho Marx could have said and Allen must indeed have been heavily influenced by the Marx Brothers when he made this film. Fans of Airplane! and The Naked Gun will recognize the structure, but what elevates Bananas is its satirical content.
The film is Allen’s second. He plays Fielding Mellish, a regular New York blue-collar worker who’s not doing anything special with his life. One day, a social activist called Nancy (Louise Lasser) knocks on his door and Fielding is enchanted. They start dating, but the time eventually comes when Nancy wants to break up because they really have very little in common and she wants to meet someone who’s willing to fight for something. Fielding can’t forget about Nancy and decides to go to San Marcos, a country south of the border whose military revolutions are so frequent that they’re covered as a game by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and reporter Howard Cosell. Fielding discovers that he’s set up as a target by the current dictator and joins the rebels in the jungle, plotting the overthrow of the government. It takes some getting used to for Fielding whose cowardice and incompetency cause him problems. He does however learn how to fire a rifle and suck snake poison out of a person’s arm. When the revolution comes and the dictator is overthrown, the rebel leader turns out to have a screw loose. After declaring Swedish the national language, he’s replaced by – Fielding. After all, the rebels need U.S. aid and who could argue their case better than an American citizen? Fielding goes to the U.S. in disguise as the new President of San Marcos, meets Nancy again… but he’s exposed as a fraud.
The film is a satirical depiction of life in a banana republic, in the vein of the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup (1933); political camps fight over power and don’t give a damn about the people. Nothing changes with a new regime; democracy is never implemented. The rebel leader looks like Fidel Castro circa 1959 and his rise to power is equally disappointing. The idea of having a nebbish stuck in the middle of one of those revolutions is very funny and Allen has filled his movie to the brim with gags. You didn’t care for a particular joke? Don’t worry, a new one follows just seconds later. The dialogue is full of great puns and there’s also a huge amount of sight gags. Some of them are indeed weak (I think the final sequence overstays its welcome, although having Cosell cover the wedding night like it’s boxing is of course a wonderful idea), but others are just crazy and hilarious. Cosell does the right thing and plays himself straight; fans of Sylvester Stallone will appreciate his early appearance as a troublemaker on a subway train. Allen aficionados will recognize the self-deprecating jokes and the way his romance with Lasser’s absurdly busy activist is portrayed; the way they talk, the way Fielding worships Nancy even though he’s convinced that he doesn’t deserve her, is utterly charming.
It’s interesting to compare Allen with Groucho Marx. Both deliver a steady stream of one-liners, but the difference is that one of them directs his insults toward another person, while the other one directs them at himself. That’s one thing that makes Allen more than just a pale imitator. I’m going to end this review by expressing admiration for how an 80-minute short comedy even manages to spoof Potemkin (1925).
The YouTube clip shows a trailer.
Bananas 1971-U.S. 80 min. Color. Produced by Axel Anderson, Antonio Encarnacion, Jack Grossberg, Manolon Villamil. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose. Music: Marvin Hamlisch. Cast: Woody Allen (Fielding Mellish), Louise Lasser (Nancy), Carlos Montalban (Emilio M. Vargas), Howard Cosell, Rene Enriquez, Charlotte Rae… Sylvester Stallone.
Trivia: Danny De Vito is rumored to have a cameo role in the film.
Quote: “I was a nervous child – I was a bed wetter. When I was younger, I, uh, I used to sleep with an electric blanket and I was constantly electrocuting myself…” (Allen)
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