Filmsite Movie Review
Bananas (1971)
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Bananas (1971) is director/actor Woody Allen's early anarchic slapstick comedy. It told the story of a nerdy New Yorker who became a South American rebel leader, to impress his political activist love interest Nancy (Louise Lasser). It was typically filled with many of Woody Allen's lampooning political commentary, visual set-ups and sight-gags, and witty one-liner jokes. Characteristically, the film was originally titled "El Weirdo." Its theme about the bloodless, dictatorial coup d'etat take-over of a country was similar to the plot of the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup (1933).

The script (by Allen and Mickey Rose) was partially based upon Robert Powell's 1966 novel Don Quixote USA (that took place in fictional San Marco). Mixed into its light-hearted content were editorial comments about social-political activism, the subversive CIA and confused US foreign policy, the Cold War and American imperialism, the instability of Latin America and revolutionary movements of the time (i.e., Fidel Castro and Che Guevara), the corrupting influence of power, the mocking of the head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, and left-leaning liberals.

The film's title was a reference to multiple meanings:

  • bananas, referencing 'banana republics' known for unstable political regimes with frequent revolutions and dictatorships
  • bananas are the main export of Latin American countries
  • colloquially, bananas refers to 'craziness'
  • "bananas" was chosen as the film's title as a nod to the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929)
  • the title 'bananas' recalled the popular song of 1923: "Yes, We Have No Bananas" - Allen also noted that the film had no bananas

Brooklyn-born, stand-up comedian Woody Allen joined the ranks of the young new directors of the 'New Hollywood', beginning his rise as a screenwriter on What's New, Pussycat? (1965) and work as an actor in What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) (his first film) - the redubbing of a James Bond-like Japanese action film. He also acted as Bond's nephew in Casino Royale (1967), plus took an acting and writing role in Play It Again, Sam (1972) - based upon Allen's own 1970 play, it was about a crushed film critic who took romantic advice from an imaginary Humphrey Bogart. He also appeared as actor, writer and director in the makeshift Take the Money and Run (1969) - his directorial debut film - a farcical, mad-cap mock-documentary spoof of traditional gangster films, with Allen portraying an inept, would-be thief.

Bananas (1971) was Allen's second uninhibited, satirical political comedy as writer/director/star, with its tale of a meek products tester in a factory who departed for South America and accidentally became a heroic revolutionary dictator. The next three films were also comedies:

  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) a dramatization of the contents of David Reuben's popular sex manual, covering topics such as public sex, perversion, and ejaculation
  • Sleeper (1973) - a futuristic, wacky sci-fi spoof and Rip Van Winkle tale set in the year 2173, the first Allen-directed film with ex-real-life love interest Diane Keaton
  • Love and Death (1975) - a spoof of Tolstoy's Russian novel War and Peace, and a parody of films by Bergman and Eisenstein

Allen's film trajectory changed with his major breakthrough triumph - the semi-autobiographical, bittersweet and poignant love story/comedy Annie Hall (1977). The early stages of Allen's film-making could be categorized as such:

Early Stages
Allen's Films as Director
Primitive Comedic Slapstick
Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975)
Romantic Comedies
Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), etc.
Dark Dramas Imitating European Art Cinema
Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980)
Plot Synopsis

Howard Cosell's Live Coverage of a Latin American Assassination:

The opening scene was a play-by-play commentary by ABC's Wide World of Sports of a Latin-American president's "live, on-the-spot assassination" on the outdoor palace steps in the tiny Third World Republic of San Marcos. Sportscaster announcer Howard Cosell (Himself) provided the live coverage, as he asked the dying leader:

"Well, of course, you're upset, and that's understandable under the circumstances. I guess now you'll have to announce your retirement."

Product Tester Fielding Mellish:

The clumsy, anxiety-ridden nerd Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) was the film's main protagonist. He was employed by General Equipment as a guinea-pig for his New York corporation's strange research inventions as a consumer product tester (including a stereo headphones coffin for Californians). He was seen testing a malfunctioning, sedentary exercise-machine ("The Execu-cisor") designed to be used by busy office executives at their desks - an obvious tribute scene to Chaplin's Modern Times (1936).

One of the film's most hilarious scenes was set in an adult porno shop, where the aspiring playboy Fielding nervously purchased a porno magazine (camouflaged by other more intellectual publications such as Time Magazine, Commentary, Saturday Review, and Newsweek). He became embarrassed when a shop dealer made it obvious to other respectable, disapproving customers that he was purchasing a dirty magazine. Fielding cringed when his order was screamed out by the clerk: ("Hey Ralph? How much is a copy of Orgasm?...Orgasm. This man wants to buy a copy. How much is it?"). Fielding stuttered: "Doing a sociological study on perversion. l'm up to advanced child molesting" titled Orgasm.

The cowardly Fielding unsuccessfully attempted to protect an old woman during a subway mugging by two thugs (including a young Sylvester Stallone in his screen debut).

Fielding's Unsuccessful Relationship with Social Activist Girlfriend:

Mellish first met his future, red-headed radical, social activist, college student girlfriend Nancy (Louise Lasser) when she visited his apartment and urged him to sign a petition supporting the rebels of San Marcos (a stand-in for Cuba), who were opposed to the new appointed dictator Gen. Emilio M. Vargas (Carlos Montalban). After attending a student protest and demonstration together (where Mellish became entangled in a firehose), the two returned to his apartment, where Fielding awkwardly attempted to make a good impression; however, their struggle to have sex was quite unsatisfactory.

He ended up telling his therapist that as a young boy, he stole a pornographic book printed in Braille and then rubbed the dirty parts with his hands. Due to being a nervous child, he also was a bed-wetter, and was constantly electrocuting himself with his electric blanket. He described how he dreamt of being nailed on a wooden crucifix carried through NYC streets by monks who fought for a parking place with another crucified individual (Allen Garfield). [Note: the sequence referenced the similar coffin dream sequence in Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).]

Shortly later, Nancy decided to break up with him when she complained that she needed something "more"; she claimed it wasn't because of his personality or looks, or his intelligence, or his short height or bad teeth; she said that she needed a "strong man" or "leader" with political convictions; her main objection was that he was completely immature: (Fielding: "How am I immature?" Nancy: "Well, emotionally, sexually and intellectually." Fielding: "Yeah, but what other ways?").

Fielding's Visit to San Marcos With Gen. Vargas - Then, Captured by the Rebels, and Ultimately Becoming a Rebel Leader:

In despair after the breakup, Fielding decided to travel to the tiny Latin American banana republic (fictional) of San Marcos by himself to see what the conditions were like down there. [Note: The scenes in 'San Marcos' were filmed in Puerto Rico.] In the new dictator's headquarters, peasant agrarian farmers were lined up to present Gen. Emilio M. Vargas tribute in the form of horse manure (equal to the leader's weight). Vargas sat on one side of a scale as the manure was weighed next to him, as he complained: "I thought they were diamonds." His assistant retorted: "Sometimes food is more valuable than gold."

Fielding arrived in San Marcos and entered the cheap Hotel Bonaire, where he rented a room and found a picture of Vargas above his bed. Meanwhile, Vargas was told that his forces had captured a rebel soldier. The resistance fighter (Axel Anderson) was being tortured in a room and forced to listen to a phonograph record player playing the entire score of Naughty Marietta. He begged: "l can't stand operetta. Please." The victim agreed to cooperate, and claimed that rebel leader Esposito (Jacobo Morales) was planning a revolutionary strike against Vargas two months in the future during the first week of July ("to coincide with the American Fourth of July so as to imitate his hero George Washington").

Fielding was invited to an 8 pm dinner with the President at Vargas' palace. He experienced a reverie of harp-music after receiving the invite. The harp playing in the background came from a man practicing with his harp in his closet ("l was trying to find someplace for practice"). Upon being greeted as the guest of the new dictator Gen. Vargas at his palace, Fielding was labeled "an American intellectual" who would be able to "exchange political ideas and opinions"; the tense and nervous, Fielding began chewing on his wine glass after Vargas' poison-tester fell ill; a small concert band above them on the balcony pretended in pantomime to be playing with non-existent instruments. In an after-dinner discussion, Vargas declared: "If l give a better life to my people, l have to exterminate a few troublemakers," causing Fielding even more trepidation.

After Fielding departed, Vargas described his conspiratorial plan to blame Mellish's imminent murder on the revolutionaries - a well-worn tactic to gain the fickle US' foreign policy support:

We'll kill him as planned - dressed as rebels. Then an outraged United States will see how bloodthirsty beasts Esposito and his men are, and we'll get all the support we need.

Soon after, in the countryside, Fielding was assaulted and chased by a disguised group of Vargas' men posing and dressed as rebels, who complained about the poor tailoring of their fake guerrilla outfits. Fielding ran through the jungle and eluded Vargas' assassins and thwarted their plan, confidently yelling out to them: "So long, suckers!" Suddenly, he was knocked out and awoke in a rebel camp as a prisoner of Esposito's soldier forces. He was told that Vargas had falsely publicized, as a propaganda tactic, that he had been killed by the rebels. Fielding was told he would have to remain there until the revolution was won in about six months time, when Esposito was expected to depose the current president.

While training with the rebels in the jungle, nebbish Fielding viewed a half-naked woman (Princess Fatosh) clutching her left breast while crying out: "I got bitten by a snake" - this was after he had learned about first-aid treatment for snakebite: ("In the event of snake-bite, you make an incision and you suck out the poison - remember, you suck out the poison"); with a huge grin on his face, he pursued her greedily and lasciviously, and was followed by the rest of the rebel soldiers.

Once the rebels' food supply ran out during their South American revolution, Fielding was appointed to prove himself by visiting the nearby town; there, he placed a complicated to-go order of 1,000 grilled cheese, 300 tuna and 200 BLT sandwiches and 700 regular coffees, 500 Cokes and 1,000 7-Ups (and coleslaw) for troops at a lunch counter deli. The coleslaw was brought out in wheelbarrows. His efforts were rewarded with an erotic eating scene with one of the female rebels (homage to Tom Jones (1963)), followed by sex - symbolized by the female rebel stretching back on a cot and smoking a cigarette.

They devised a diversionary plan - the kidnapping of the British ambassador (Baron De Beer) who was injected with sodium pentathol. Afterwards, the plan was to hold him until Vargas agreed to release imprisoned rebels. However, the plan was botched when Fielding also injected his own assistants with the hypodermic needle. To hide his error from a military policeman, Fielding was forced to prop the sedated bodies up against the side of a car, but they kept sliding down to the ground.

Meanwhile, San Marcos' dictator Vargas became confused by the acronyms for US agencies. He claimed that he had appealed for reinforcement aid from the CIA, but he had contacted the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) instead. On a plane with US troops headed for San Marcos to support the revolution, one official explained the US' confused stance on the political unrest in Latin America - revealing how it really didn't matter which side the US supported:

The ClA's not taking any chances this time. Some of us are for, and some of us are gonna be against it.

During the CIA invasion of San Marcos as the rebels over-ran the city with the help of recently-arrived US troops, orthodox Jewish members of the UJA were observed in the streets of San Marcos collecting donations. A baby carriage descended steps (a reference to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin), and the overthrown Vargas fled on a plane to Miami after renting an expensive room at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

Fielding's Ascension to the Presidency in San Marcos:

Once the revolution was successful and the capital of the banana republic of San Marcos was overrun by the rebels, the "glassy-eyed" Esposito betrayed his cause. He openly declared: "Right now, I am the law." He denied democracy to the peasants, subverted law and order, and prohibited free elections ("These people are peasants. They are too ignorant to vote"). The power-mad rebel leader Esposito refused to step down, and ordered Vargas' supporters to be ruthlessly lined up and executed by a firing squad - each one was given a 'service-number' to establish the order.

The new head of the republic Esposito, who refused to follow through on his revolutionary beliefs, emerged from his headquarters to make an announcement: "From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence. ln addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now 16 years old." Realizing that Esposito had gone insane ('bananas'), Fielding asked: "What's the Spanish word for straitjacket?" It was clear to Fielding and other leaders that Esposito needed to be deposed: "The power has driven him mad. We must have a new leader."

In a twist of fate, Fielding was recruited to be the new El Presidente to replace Esposito, although he protested: ("l don't want to be president...You gotta be smart to be a president. Let me be vice-president. That's a real idiot's job"). Once he was installed as the new leader of San Marcos, Fielding mused about how he was caught in a Catch-22 situation:

The Americans won't recognize us - they think we're Communists. The Communists won't recognize us - they think we're American puppets.

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