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Early Woody

July 27, 2009

by John Farr

If you enjoyed Annie Hall, you might also enjoy these great early Woody Allen films:

Take The Money and Run (1969)


Ever since he was a boy, wimpy milquetoast Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) has had a compulsion to steal, only to bungle it horribly at the crucial moment. Now grown, Virgil has capitalized on that childhood promise and become a pitifully ineffectual career criminal whos gone from getting his hand stuck in the gumball machine to flubbing his own hold-up notes.


Presented as a mock documentary complete with narration by radio ham Jackson Beck, Allen’s hilarious directorial debut is nuttier and loaded with more gags than his later, more sophisticated New York films. But that’s exactly why it works: The laughs are goofy and often puerile, and for all the zippy one-liners that don’t quite elicit a full-belly guffaw, Allen piles on with cutting satire (focused mostly on footage of presidents Nixon and Eisenhower). You’ll have a lot of fun watching this manic genius at work in one of his earlier comedic efforts.

Bananas (1971)


Hoping to rekindle their romance, neurotic New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) follows the girl of his dreams, idealistic activist Nancy (Louise Lasser), to the tiny Latin American nation of “San Marcos,” where she’s assisting rebels attempting to overthrow General Vargas (Carlos Montalban). Nancy wants nothing to do with Fielding, who is received as a dinner guest by the wily, scheming Vargas. After the rebels capture Fielding, circumstances lead him to become, unwittingly, the dictator of the country.


Allen’s hilariously wise-mouthed shlub tosses off an arsenal of tart one-liners in “Bananas,” a madcap slapstick comedy that pokes fun at Fidel Castro, tabloid TV (Howard Cosell has a starring role, lampooning himself), the C.I.A., Jewish mothers, and unrequited love. A crazed homage to Don Quixote and the Marx brothers, “Bananas” was Allen’s second film, and the first over which he exercised complete creative control. Sylvester Stallone even has a cameo as a mugger. Go “Bananas”!

Sleeper (1973)


Greenwich Village store owner Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) reluctantly enters the hospital in 1973, needing treatment for an ulcer. Cryogenically frozen by his surgeon when the procedure fails, Miles reawakens in a bleak future world ruled by an unseen Orwellian Leader. Forced to disguise himself as an android to evade police, Miles eventually teams up with Pollyanna-ish greeting-card writer Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) and joins the underground resistance.


An absurdist parody of sci-fi movies, Allen’s “Sleeper” deftly mixes witty one-liners and nutty sight gags to lampoon the absurdities of contemporary society. Allen reaches Buster Keaton-esque comedic greatness here-battling a giant pudding, surviving an Orgasmatron, morphing into Blanche Dubois-and has a naturally funny, gentle rapport with Keaton, the perfect foil. With Allen’s own Dixieland score providing a manic tempo for all the pratfalls and arch social commentary, “Sleeper” is one of the writer-director’s looniest and most hilarious efforts.

Love and Death (1975)


Set during the Napoleonic Wars, noted intellectual and coward Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) adores the beautiful Sonja, but she only has eyes for Boris’s mind. Sonja finally agrees to marry him, then enlists Boris in a daring scheme to assassinate Napoleon. Of course, all these shenanigans only serve to confirm the utter futility of human existence-but hey, it’s better than being dead!


Director/writer/star Allen hits dizzying comedic heights in this zany spoof of Russian literature. Diane Keaton continues to build on her distinctively ditzy persona as the idealistic but scattered Sonja. Populated with assorted other colorful types, the film’s sustained hilarity makes it fully worthy of repeat visits. (Don’t miss that side-splitting scene at the opera where Boris makes goo-goo eyes at the buxom countess!)

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