The opening scene of Bananas perseveres with the playfulness with form seen previously in the mockumentary Take the Money and Run. It opens with a news report on the military coup of fictional Latin American country San Marcos as it actually plays out. Well-known sports commentator Howard Cosell is the foreign correspondent and improvises his part in his day-job lingo. Tongue firmly in cheek, the sense of history is conveyed by likening the banana republic’s transfer of power to the 1964 first encounter of Clay and Liston. In 1971, five years before Sidney Lumet’s seminal Network, the blood-thirsty news hawking hints at the burgeoning appetite for sensationalised news. The beast was in its mere infancy at that stage of course; it seems rather quaint today when compared with the material Charlie Brooker’s lampooning Newswipe has at its disposal.
The third and final collaboration with Allen’s long-time friend Mickey Rose, Bananas has much of the absurdist comedy of their previous outings. Fielding Mellish is as impressionable and hapless as Take the Money and Run’s Virgil Starkwell. Mellish works testing ludicrous products (among them, the office-gym exec-ucizor) and is just as dogged in his pursuit of the girl. The striking point of difference between the two is the suggestion of the particularly New York Woody Allen stylisation to come. The film’s first half setting is palpable in the wistful piano tinkling of the Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack to daydreamy dates in the city. Yet a cameo from a young Sylvester Stallone as a Subway thug shows a grittier 1970s New York than the middle-class philosophising of the Annie Hall movie queue.
The physical comedy is at its most successful when reigned in and domesticated. Mellish tackling a slippery block of frozen spinach early on in Bananas is one that will be reprised with the lobster tyranny of Annie Hall. The interest in San Marcos begins with the door-to-door petitioning of campaigner Nancy, played by Louise Lasser (again, not unlike Carol Kane’s Allison of Annie Hall). At this stage Allen plays the philistine, untaught in worthy causes and intellectual values, a feature that will be reversed as this nascent “Woody Allen” character is fleshed out. Similarly, the stock female character is starting to become more nuanced. Nonetheless the smutty hangover from the sixties, glorying in Playboy-ish magazines and the sheer delight of showing a bare breast feels very creaky and Carry On-like.
The second half, filmed in Lima and Puerto Rico, returns to the haphazard, form-less earlier comedies and plot undoubtedly takes a back-seat. The young Woody Allen protagonist is sparky and mischievous, and the slapstick can be refreshing (Lyndon B. Johnson in disguise as an African American woman, in particular). It is hard not to yearn for the seamless, solid plot to come. Nonetheless, it remains a spirited outing at a stage when Allen was experimenting and finding his groove.
An interview in promotion of the film indicates a reluctance to take himself too seriously: