A South American dictator in the tiny, fictional country of San Marcos is about to be assassinated, and ABC's "Wide World of Sports" is on the scene for the play-by-play coverage. After the shots are fired, Howard Cossell interviews the dying El Presidente right up to his final, expiring gasps. "Well," says Howard when the President can no longer continue, "you're understandably upset...." Yes, he's dead! Cossell concludes by intoning, "You've heard it with your own eyes."
It's all part of the inspired zaniness of Woody Allen's second, major solo film, "Bananas," starring Allen, directed by Allen, and co-scripted by Allen in 1971 with fellow writer Mickey Rose. Like its predecessor, "Take the Money and Run," "Bananas" is little more than a series of verbal and visual gags strung together on the pretense of a plot, but the jokes come so fast the film is bound to make you laugh at one point or another.
This time out, Woody plays Fielding Mellish, a nebbish who works as a new products tester, giving Allen ample opportunity to put Mellish into a multitude of nutty situations with goofy inventions that never work. Like the combination office desk, exercise machine, and basketball hoop. You can see the possibilities. Mellish's major occupation, though, is attempting to court women, at which he is hopelessly unsuccessful, up to and including Nancy (Louise Lasser), a part-time college student and full-time protest demonstrator. He falls in love; she doesn't. In desperation, he decides to go to South America and join the rebels in San Marcos. Don't ask.
The South American escapade gives Allen more openings for gags as he attempts to train with the soldiers and practice jungle warfare. An incident involving a remedy for snakebite is particularly amusing. In a satire of Castro's takeover of Cuba, when the rebels do succeed in their revolution, their leader goes power mad and declares himself the new dictator. He demands that the citizens change their underwear every hour, and to help enforce the law they must wear their underwear on the outside. The rebels decide they need a new leader to replace the nutty one and choose Mellish, who goes back to the U.S. seeking financial aid for the country and meeting up again with Nancy, who loves him in his new position. And speaking of positions, the movie ends with Fielding and Nancy newly wed and "Wide World of Sports" covering the consummation of the marriage. Cossell is once again on the scene, this time in the couple's bedroom providing the blow-by-blow commentary, so to speak.
The inspiration for "Bananas" is said to have been mainly the Marx Brothers, and we even get a reference to Harpo when Fielding finds a harp player in his clothes closet. Other inspirations appear to have been "Mad" magazine, surely the early "Pink Panther" films, and the old Ernie Kovacs TV show. Although there is a noticeably greater degree of polish in this second Allen directorial project than in his first, many of the scenes have an intentionally improvisational look to them, the actors often seeming to spontaneously make up their lines as they go along. It usually contributes well to the loose, informal feel of the film. Allen also introduces into the plot the first of what in later films would be many Jewish jokes when the San Marcos President calls upon the U.S. for help against the rebels and instead of getting the CIA gets the UJA, the United Jewish Appeal. Again, one can foresee the consequences. Figure in the snappy, Latin-inflected music of Marvin Hamlisch and a brief, pre-"Rocky" appearance by Sylvester Stallone as a subway mugger, and you get a short but often hilarious movie.
MGM continue their practice of giving us what they call a "standard" version of the film on one side of the DVD and a widescreen edition on the other. In this case, however, as with so many other movies that were not originally filmed in a widescreen process like Panavision, the 1.77:1 ratio widescreen is a matted rendering of the full-frame edition. Therefore, the widescreen version does not provide additional left or right information but simply offers less top and bottom material. Since the widescreen version is apparently the one shown theatrically, however, the purist will want only to watch that one; the viewer who wants to get his so-called "money's worth" by filling up the entire television screen, whether or not the material is worth it, will want to watch the more-spacious standard version. Colors in both editions are good, bright and clear, with little grain and minimal signs of age.
The mono sound is also very clean and clear, with a surprisingly wide range. There are some deep musical notes on occasion, a nice sheen on upper frequencies and high transients, and only a small amount of background hiss.
Besides the film one finds little else. There's the expected menu of scene selections, twenty-four of them, a full-frame theatrical trailer, English and Spanish spoken languages, and French and Spanish subtitles. MGM also include one their usual informational booklet inserts, but this time it's only four pages. It seems that unless it's a Bond epic, MGM are unwilling to spend a lot of money enhancing their discs.
"Pithy," says Nancy about one of Fielding's remarks early on. "It has great pith." Certainly, the compact nature of "Bananas" could be said to be pithy, too, but it would be another couple of films before Woody would begin to add serious insights to his comedy. Some people liked him better in the simpler, early days. What with many of Allen's films now showing up on DVD, like "Take the Money and Run," "Bananas," "Sleeper," "Manhattan," and "Annie Hall," one can take one's pick of the bunch. "Bananas," that is.