By Wil Forbis
August 6th, 2004
My earliest memory of Woody Allen probably goes back to when I was about 7 years old. I was on the bus with my mother and she was reading the collection of Allen's New Yorker articles entitled "Without Feathers" while laughing out loud, so much so that I was hideously embarrassed and convinced the surrounding collection of stoned faced travelers must have thought her certifiably hysterical. I half hoped some concerned child welfare worker might pop up and take me away.
In a way, that's a pretty appropriate memory to have in connection with Woody Allen, since so much of his work is about being hideously embarrassed or fitfully concerned with what people around you are thinking. I suppose at the time I was like a miniature Woody Allen - rather feeble, spectacled and feeling perennially out of place. It truly is a marvel that I've grown up into the self-confident sexual magnet America has grown to love.
But despite the fact that this early incident should have embedded in my consciousness the realization that one should stay away from the work of Allen lest you be damned to appear as some sort of caterwauling nutzo on public transportation, I grew up loving his films. This too, is primarily do to my mother who would often take me to see various Allan films at museums and revival houses (remember, this is pre-VHS) despite the fact that they were far more sociologically and sexually sophisticated than your average ten year old. (Mom actually made a pretty game attempt at explaining the biologically process represented in the skit from Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex," where Woody appears as a talking sperm but I'm pretty sure it went in one ear and out the other. I guess I did have some subconscious understanding of the sexual operation as I do recall laughing the moment a black man sperm comes running down the tube saying, "What am I doing here?") Despite not having a clear picture what was happening on screen, I had a core understanding that it was funny.
It probably wasn't until my early twenties that I actually got into reading Allen's work. I checked out his short story collections from the library and even perused some of his scripts, all the while absorbing the unique Allen humor. It's baffling stuff - on one hand, it contains elements of mid sixties "Lenny Bruce/Mort Sahl" sophistication, but is also rife with a lot of really childish word puns and silly situations. I was sort of turned off in the beginning, I have to admit, but eventually it sunk in and became a large influence in my comedy writing. (I've always considered this piece, "Selections from I REMEMBER JEFFREY", to be the high point of Woody-inspired pieces. Like a lot of Allen's material, it lampoons the self-absorption of the bohemian "artiste" crowd.)
A few years later I got into what I would call Allen's serious period. This was defined with a lot of cinematic dramas like "Another Woman," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Husbands and Wives." While some of these films still contained witty dialogue, they invariable dealt with heavy subjects: death, heartbreak and guilt. Despite my predilection for despising anything "serious" I really dug these films. While I think that most artists fall flat of their face when the attempt to "mature," Allen did it quite gracefully.
And it was only recently, when I went back and reviewed some of Allen's earlier material that I realized how different it was from his later work. I'm tempted to say I realized how far he'd progressed, but that implies that I think serious material is somehow more valuable than silly stuff, and, well, I don't think that. While his earliest films like "What's New, Pussycat" or "Bananas" suffer from some rough edges (Allen the filmmaker, as opposed to the comedian, had not yet appeared) I think they still showcase a comic genius.
Even at the time of his early films (mid-1960's) Woody had had already spent more than a decade honing his craft as both a writer of comedy television shows like "The Sid Caesar Show" and "Candid Camera" and as a stand up comedian who garnered a national following. At the same time, across the Atlantic, the British, a peoples who'd already given so much to the world - tea time, constitutional monarchy and bad teeth - were adding their varnish to a cinematic idiom that had been around since decades previous, one that would do much to make Allen a household name: the Sex Comedy!
Everyone thinks of the English as a stiff lot, so it's a bit of a surprise that they could develop a variety of film that involves the inanities of modern romance and procreation. But it was Brit "Goon Show" star Peter Sellers who had a prominent role in reviving the genre with movies like "The Battle of the Sexes" and the infamous spoof of the libidinous James Bond series, "The Pink Panther." And it was the same Peter Sellers who had a starring role in the first film ever to feature the script and acting abilities of Woody Allen, 1965's "What's New Pussycat." A unapologetic attempt to cash in on the sex comedy boom, "WNP" starred Peter O'Toole as a handsome, well dressed young executive who's trying to finish sowing his wild oats so he can settle down and get married. (Were this film made today, this part would be played by Wil Forbis.) Peter Sellers plays the executive's psychologist, an overly frazzled kook who's more intent on stealing his patient's amorous secrets than helping him. (This part would be played by John Saleeby.) Allen appears as a friend of O'Toole's character, a Lothario-in-training intent on getting women undressed but lacking the looks or know-how. While Allen has spent the rest of his days complaining that the plot was savagely distorted from his original script; it still has the earmarks of his dialogue. One of the best zingers appears early on in the film when Peter Sellers gargantuan wife accuses him of having an affair and bleats, "Is she prettier than me?" "Prettier than YOU?" he retorts. "I'M prettier than you!"
It's interesting watching Allen in "What's New Pussycat" because what you see is a decidedly different invention from the nebbish, uncombed and befuddled sad sack of seventies Woody Allen films like "Annie Hall." Here, Allen is dressed in a shiny suit and has his hair slicked back upon his head. (The infamous bald spot is just beginning to show.) You also see something that tends to not be visible in most Allen characters: hope. His character, Victor, a sprightly moppet is funny precisely because he thinks he's got a shot at the various nubile nymphs who parade themselves throughout the film. (And it's a hope well founded as Woody ends up with Bond girl Ursula Andress.)
Despite Woody's misgivings, "What's New Pussycat" was a big success. Immediately after that Allen made the film "What's up Tiger Lilly", possibly predicated on the idea that films with "What" in their name would do well. In a move foreshadowing Mystery Science Theater 3000, Allen dubbed all new dialogue over an existing Japanese spy film while inserting new scenes of himself into various breaks that occur during the film. I have to confess it's been awhile seen I've seen this, but the numerous online reviews I consulted confirm that the results were "hilarious" and "very funny."
Next up was the infamous "Casino Royale." Based on a real James Bond novel by Ian Flemming (the only one the owners of the Bond film franchise had not purchased.) "Casino Royale" was turned into a spy comedy under the hand of producer Charles Feldman. James Bond is played by David Niven, while Woody has a bit of onscreen time as young Jimmy Bond, nephew of 007. But the film is most famous for having, four - count 'em - four directors, most of whom shot scenes for the film at the same time. I consider "Casino Royale" a pretty big let down, failing both at being a comedy or successful spy story. But once again, it's a blast to watch young Woody scamper about. In one of the greatest site gags of cinema history, he escapes a firing squad by jumping over the wall only to find that another execution is being carried out on the other side. And here again the British presence is felt with another appearance by Peter Sellers and the aforementioned David Niven.
After small parts in three presentable films, Allen was starting to gather up the steam to call the shots in his career. Though he'd gotten a directing credit for "What's Up, Tiger Lilly," "Take the Money and Run" was his first real foray behind the camera. And it was here the clean cut "snappy" Woody Allen started to disappear to be replaced with the nebbish muttering slob who became the his most famous presentation. "Take the Money and Run" takes place in America, unlike his previous films, and details the misadventures of Virgil Starkwell, a petty criminal completely inept at his craft. (The great laugh scene in this one has Woody handing a robbery note to a bank teller only to have the teller quizzically read, "I... have...a... gub?") Gone from this film is any sight of British influence and so would it remain for the rest of Allen's work. From henceforth his movies would be uniquely American, though with a Europhile's touch of culture and comic/tragedy.