[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
Take the Money and Run and Bananas, Woody Allen’s first films as a writer-director-actor, were energetic messes redeemed by the novelty of seeing Allen’s comic vision transferred to the screen minus the dilutions of What’s New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale, on which he performed script and acting chores only. (Allen also worked on the experimental What’s Up Tiger Lily?, unseen by this viewer; and Don’t Drink the Water was based on an Allen stageplay.) Take the Money and Run and Bananas invoke far less the Buster Keaton–Charles Chaplin tradition of comedy actor-directors than they do the indulgent tradition of vehicle comedians such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, the excesses of whose generally funny films one almost invariably must be blind to in order to call the films themselves—as opposed to the comic performances—successful. In these early efforts one could forgive Allen his excesses, too, in order to get to the laughs because, after all, the man was still learning his craft.
Nineteen-seventy-two was the year that Allen seemed to arrive as a filmmaker and performer. The Allen-scripted, Herbert Ross–directed Play It Again, Sam benefited from the discipline Allen found necessary to include in its stageplay antecedent, and the cinematic and cosmic inevitability of its Casablanca-remake conclusion carried with it a surprisingly touching and self-informed realization of Allen’s comic persona. In contrast to Allen’s own egocentric directorial tendencies, Ross’s generally undistinguished direction contained two minor, but in retrospect significant, virtues: Meaningful presences other than Allen were permitted onscreen—Diane Keaton, Jerry Lacey, Viva, Susan Anspach; and for once Allen himself was guided successfully through a physical universe. Compare the economy and dramatic utility of the record-casting gag in Play It Again, Sam with the pace-, grace-, and proportionlessness (this from a man who studied with Martha Graham, and fancies himself a jazz musician) of another prop gag, the basketball business in Bananas, a bit that is flatfootedly typical of actor Allen’s attempts under his own direction at the sight-gag subspecies of physical comedy. (There are exceptions, of course: The wheelchair business in Sleeper, Allen’s fourth film as a director, comes instantly to mind, but even here actor Allen is subservient to the scene’s dramatic tension—the risk of discovery—and the upfront emphasis on mechanical anarchy.) Klutziness requires grace to define it, and the relative gracefulness of Play It Again, Sam‘s physical and behavioral environments imparted to Allen’s physical comedy a sense of chaotic interruption that his own (up until then) perpetually chaotic film environments did not underscore.