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Woody Allen goes 'Bananas'

When the word came through from New York that Woody Allen wanted the Chicago movie critics to see his new movie separately, I figured good old zany Woody Allen was up to his old stuff again. See, the studios have this superstition that critics won't know a comedy is funny unless they see it in a room with at least 500 other people, all laughing their heads off. So they may preview a drama in their screening rooms, but for a comedy you've gotta have a sneak preview in a big theater.

But not for "Bananas," Woody's new comedy. The word came in from New York that the critics COULDN'T see it with each other, even, much less an audience. So, after four years of complaining that the studios were silly and that I knew what I thought was funny even without those other 500 people, etc., there I was sitting almost all by myself in a screening room with just one other person, Janet Langhart, who does the weather on Channe12.

She laughed sometimes, and I laughed sometimes, and sometimes we both laughed, and the other 498 people floated through the room silent as ghosts. It felt rather weird seeing a comedy almost in silence - but "Bananas" was funny, anyway, so I suppose Woody passed his test.

That's what I told him the other night, when he came to Chicago to promote his movie. "Agh!" he said. "Agh! How was this enormous mistake made? You saw it by yourself? Agh! All I said in New York was, they usually make a critic see a comedy with an audience, but if they don't want to see it with an audience, if they want to see it by themselves, then that's cool. So suddenly everybody is being told they gotta see it by themselves! Oh! Language!"

He buried his head in his hands for two-tenths of a second, and then smiled and spread his hands philosophically. "Well," he said, "Who knows? I saw 'Duck Soup' on TV the other night, and laughed myself crazy. And I was all alone. If it's funny, it's funny. I'm thinking of doing a TV comedy special without an audience. I've done comedy monologues straight at the camera sometimes, no laugh track, and it's worked."

Woody's new movie, "Bananas,' could have been inspired by "Duck Soup" and the other Marx Brothers movies, and indeed he admits that the hand of Groucho is strong in his background. "Bananas" is about an unhappy products tester (who tests things like stereo headsets in coffins and Executive Exercisers that hurl basketballs at you while you sit at your desk.)

Anyway, he falls in love with a girl revolutionary (Louise Lasser) who won't marry him because he's lacking something. It's hard for her to say what, but something. So he leaves for a mythical banana republic in Central America, where he gets mixed up in a revolution. If this sounds like the kind of revolution Groucho Marx could also get mixed up in, you're right.

"Bananas" is a flat-out, broad-based laugh comedy, which is to say it resembles Allen's own "Take the Money and Run," or Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1968), but not the situation comedies that are so much more common.

"The big, broad laugh comedy is a form that's rarely made these days," Allen said, "and sometimes I think it's the hardest kind of movie to make. With a comedy like 'It Happened One Night,' you have characters, a situation, a plot to keep things moving between laughs. But with a comedy like 'Bananas,' if they're not laughing, you're dead, because laughs are all you have.

"The Marx Brothers pictures were like that. The story line was the flimsiest excuse, just something to hang the laughs on. Nobody cared, in 'A Night at the Opera,' whether the performance comes off..."

In "Bananas," as in "Take the Money and Run," Woody plays something of a romantic leading role. In this one, though, the role is all the more interesting since Louise Lasser is also his former wife.

"We're friendly," he said. "I'm too sophisticated to let something like we were once married stand in the way, since she was right for the part. And she's great at improvising. Like, we have Howard Cosell in the picture, and he plays himself, and improvises. You can get an actor to improvise a line if it's within his field of depth. Like, Louise breaking up with me was within her experience, since she did..."

He said he thinks comedians should direct themselves, generally speaking. The performance and the point of view have to coincide, he said, and one of the weaknesses of Mel Brooks' "The Twelve Chairs" was that Mel wasn't in enough of it.

"For this movie, I play the leading man. I was one of the persons it was right for. There were also, let's see, Rock Hudson...and maybe two others. I can do sex symbol! I can do leading man. I can be even more handsome than I am in 'Bananas,' but we shot in Puerto Rico, where the humidity was so high my hair went boing! like Salvador Dali's moustache, no matter how often I combed it. That cut into the handsomeness a little..."

I asked him how "Bananas" compared, in his mind, with "Take the Money and Run."

"I've seen the picture now 400 times," he said. "To me, it doesn't have a laugh in it. After the first 200 times, I stopped laughing."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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