NO MOVIE IS FUNNIER
-JUDY MILLER, 1973
Chiquita sells them and Gwen Stefani spells them. Dom DeLuise and Herbie went there. They didn't have none in SOUTH PACIFIC. And Woody Allen named one of his "early, funny" movies after them.
After Woody's SLEEPER came out in 1973, and I'd seen it more than once, I told my mother's friend Judy Miller how funny it was. Her reply? "It can't be funnier than BANANAS. No movie is funnier than BANANAS." Sure, she hadn't seen SLEEPER yet so she couldn't really know that. But she did mean it. BANANAS was the funniest movie she had ever seen. I'm not sure if she has seen SLEEPER since then and if it won her over as being funnier (as it did for me) or if she held fast to BANANAS. But who cares? BANANAS is a really funny movie.
Both movies have Woody as a nebbish who finds himself somewhere he's not meant to be (BANANAS = another place, SLEEPER = another time). Both have dictatorship countries where Woody gets found out, abducted by rebels, overthrows the leader and wins the girl. They both feature Howard Cosell, the battle cry "Rebels are we! Born to be free! Just like the fish in the sea!" and the famous (in my household) "So long, suckers!" But let's just talk BANANAS (1971), where Woody has created a slapstick world where Cosell reports on both dictator assassinations and honeymoon consummations as if they're sporting events.
Alone, Mellish decides to fly down to San Marcos anyway, where he is invited to the president's house for dinner. That's just the start of his adventure, as he soon will be captured by rebels who overthrow the government. But this doesn't work out so well either, as the power goes to the new leader's head ("All children who are under 16 years old are now 16 years old!").
BANANAS is one of those timeless comedies that holds up well. In fact, little of its humor feels dated at all. From throwaway bits like his battle with a frozen brick of spinach or when he guides a car into a parking space until it crashes into the car behind it (which Bernie Zimmerman actually did to my dad once), to set pieces like the courtroom scene and the dinner scene at the president's house (at the end of dinner, a waiter brings the check; Mellish: "Okay, who had the roast beef?").
Then there's Mellish trying to cover the porn magazine he's buying with more legitimate periodicals. Milked to perfection, this scene is not only hysterical, but it was blatantly lifted 37 years later for a 2008 Emmy nominated commercial. How's that for a testimonial?
But perhaps no scene is more brilliant as the one where Mellish casually places a to-go order from a diner...a to-go order for thousands of rebels.
As he himself has admitted, Woody owes a lot to Bob Hope as well as Keaton and Chaplin, as witnessed in his subway encounter (featuring then unknown actor Sylvester Stallone), all to Marvin Hamlisch's silent film music. Speaking of Hamlisch, I'd like to go on the record saying that his score for BANANAS, including the bouncy Latin-y QUIERO LA NOCHE, went unnoticed. It should have been more famous. Hell, it's not even available on CD or mp3. NOTE: Listen closely and you can hear shades of Hamlisch's upcoming A CHORUS LINE songs.
Though out and out silly, Allen has a lot to say about us humans. His movies always do, but here it's dressed up in slapstick. Take for instance the awkwardness of flirting (a/k/a The "Pith" Scene), or the private and supreme joy of getting someone's phone number, or the lengths human beings go to impress the opposite sex (who hasn't done that?). And the brave face we put on when people are around and the private anguish when they're not. It's all in BANANAS.
And yes, there's also the one-liners. Groucho meets Hope, like:
Mellish: We fell in love. Well, I fell in love. She just stood there.and...
Nancy (breaking up with him): You're immature, Fielding.Watching BANANAS, I could almost smell Woody learning how to make movies. It's a stepping stone to SLEEPER which was a stepping stone to LOVE AND DEATH, which was a stepping stone to ANNIE HALL. His slapstick-to-verbal ratios changed with each film. Yes, he was learning, and we got to watch. I suppose he's still learning, though I've pretty much veered off his road long ago. I love that he makes the movies he wants to make, but that doesn't mean I have to follow him there.
Mellish: How am l immature?
Nancy: Emotionally, sexually and intellectually.
Mellish: Yeah, but what other ways?
Woody did a great job as a newbie director. True enough, his directorial debut was actually the side-splitting TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (though also really funny, I don't count WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY? as a directorial effort...let the controversy begin!), but if you ask me, it's BANANAS that marks his first legitimate entry into mainstream mass-market comedy, and let's face it, Woody Allen made some of the funniest movies around. This movie is a milestone.
Sure BANANAS is low budget with bad lighting, washed out colors and a bit slapdash, but it just proves you don't need a lot to make a non-stop smart and silly...and funny...movie. So Judy Miller was right - nothing could be funnier than BANANAS. That is, until SLEEPER came along.