The Woodython Five: The Early Funny Films

After watching The Woody Allen Documentary at the beginning of the year I realised how few of his films that I had actually seen. I count myself as something of a fan of his work, yet like many others, I have formed this view on selection of films that he made in the period between the 70s to the early 90s. I know these films very well as I have seen them repeatedly, however I have not explored many films beyond those acknowledged classics. He has has written, starred and directed 52 films, one for every week of the year, so it seemed like a good idea to watch them all in 2013.

Dom-Dirk has joined in and together we are working through them at a breakneck pace. We are up for a challenge, especially when that challenge amounts to systematically working through a list of films with the diligence of Barry Pickles crossed with Forest Gump. After all, it was watching the films from Derek Malcolm’s list that got us here in the first place. I should add that it is not a competition, (although, I am winning) because as one wag on twitter put it, in many ways we are both losers.

In STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) (his homage to Felleni) the protagonist, film-director Sandy Bates, is tortured by his audiences and producers because he wants to be more serious, yet they demand more of his ‘early funny films‘ which has provided a commentary on Woody’s own career choices. His unique production that still allows him to produce a film is a deal was based upon on the huge box-office takings that these films generated.

I am not a fan of visual gags. When it comes to comedy I am more likely to smugly laugh at knowing call back after 40 minutes of mumbled repetition rather than Dell Boy falling backwards through an open hatch. I love the zinging one-liners that are peppered through these early films, but less keen on the slapstick. In SLEEPER, for example, I will laugh like a drain at,  “My brain? It’s my second favorite organ!”, but watching Woody float through a field in an inflatable suit goes down the drain.

Nothing dates like comedy and these films from his early career show their influences from the comedy reels that Woody watched in the 40s as a child. 70s comedy seems infused with slapstick daftness. Watching these films in close succession I was reminded of the TV of my youth. The scene in SLEEPER with the giant fruit reminded me of The Goodies, seeing the cast being chased to the tune of up-tempo music is much like Benny Hill and esoteric allusions juxtaposed with silliness is similar to Monty Python.

Normal Friday Five rules do not apply in these Woodython specials. They are not in the 4 hot, 1 not format. I have grouped them into themes of five and some mathematical manipulation to make 52 divisible by 5.

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969)

Watching this early output, it is possible to track the DNA of his future films, and within his director debut, there’s the mockumentary format that he would return to in SWEET AND LOWDOWN and ZELIG and Woody plays an inept crook that he would revive in SMALL TIME CROOKS. This is composed of a series of crime based sketches set up as a character study of Virgil Starkwell who is notorious for his bungling hold-ups and audacious escapes, however character is always sacrificed in favour of a good gag.

BANANAS (1971)

Fielding Mellish falls in love with a political activist and manages to end up in the centre of a revolution in a fictitious Latin American country. It has a fast pace that rattles through a series of sketches and parodies. The character of Woody is more familiar to what it would eventually become: a nebbish New Yorker who is cowardly yet imbued with an incredible sexual magnetism. The ending, where a sports broadcaster provides commentary of Mellish and Nancy’s (Louise Lasser) wedding night, is prescient of a celebrity obsessed culture, a theme that he returns to in STARDUST MEMORIES, CELEBRITY (1998) and the Roberto Benigni’s sequence in TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012).

EVERYTHING THAT YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (1973)

There needs to be a future Friday Five of films that have been based on famous self-help books! This must be one of the best of the micro-genre with its cleverly constructed sketches based on the handbook by psychologist Dr David Reuban. Everyone likes the Gene Wilder scenes with the sheep, but my personal choice is the ‘What’s My Perversion’ parody of the ‘What’s My Line’ TV programme.

SLEEPER (1973)

Miles Munroe owner of a Greenwich village whole-food store is cryogenically frozen and revive 200 years later; a series of science fiction based sketches follow. This is the first film that Woody collaborates with Diane Keaton and Marshall Brickman, who would go on to produce the sublime ANNIE HALL. If Chaplin had made a far-future fantasy, this would have been the film that he made!

LOVE AND DEATH (1975)

Confession time. I have not seen this film prior to the Woodython. A brilliantly comedy that marks a step-change from the previous films in its clever use of parody of Russian literature with a dash of homage to Bergman; death is main character in the film…. “the wheat, the wheat.”

3 responses to “The Woodython Five: The Early Funny Films

  1. Pingback: Woodython Five (2): Eurotrash | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  2. Pingback: Woodython Five (10): Sound and Vision | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  3. Pingback: Dirk’s Five: Cinema On The Radio | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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