This Week in 1971: 'Bananas' Slips Into Theaters

These days, it's a surprise and a relief when Woody Allen turns out a gem of a picture (like 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' or 'Match Point') that's as full of raw, messy life as the movies he made at the dawn of his career. Back then, moviegoers took comic grab-bags like 'Bananas' for granted, as he managed to crank them out regularly, one per year. Today, 40 years after its release (on April 28, 1971), he's still cranking out a film a year, but Allen fans would be thrilled if he made another movie with half of 'Bananas' appeal.

'Bananas' was a supremely silly, slapdash film that, by all rights, shouldn't have worked. It barely had a script and was largely improvised. Allen's leading lady was the woman he'd divorced a year earlier. While filming in remote Central American locations, key props failed to materialize. A throwaway joke earned the film a "Condemned" rating from the Catholic Church. Allen's original ending was to be a cringeworthy scene involving a blackface gag. Yet somehow, all the pieces came together to create a comedy now regarded as a classic.

The plot - in which a New York schlub (Allen) who's trying to impress a cute activist (Louise Lasser, who had become Allen's ex-wife in 1969) goes to a Latin American country, falls in with a group of leftist guerillas and winds up becoming president - was loosely inspired by Richard Powell's comic novel 'Don Quixote U.S.A.' Allen wrote the screenplay with Mickey Rose, but the scenes were largely improvised, including the famous opening, in which a political assassination gets the live play-by-play treatment from legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell.

The improvising continued during the Latin American part of the shoot, which took place in Lima, Peru and various locations in Puerto Rico. When musical instruments failed to arrive for a scene at a banquet, Allen had the musicians mime their performance, which turned out to fit well with the movie's surreal tone. Other happy accidents: the casting of future stars, including Lasser (soon to star on TV's 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman'), Sylvester Stallone (as a thug who menaces Allen on the subway) and eventual 'Diff'rent Strokes' actors Conrad Bain, Charlotte Rae and Mary Jo Catlett.

The ending was supposed to be a riot scene in which a soot-faced Allen is mistaken by black-power revolutionaries as one of their own. Fortunately, editor Ralph Rosenblum talked Allen into a less offensive ending that fit the story better: Allen and Lasser's characters consummate their wedding, again with play-by-play from Cosell. That didn't stop the film from causing offense, however; a joke involving an ad for New Testament cigarettes earned 'Bananas' a condemnation from the Catholic Church.

For all its violence, 'Bananas' showed no blood; Allen was insistent upon keeping a light comic tone. Which, aside from his occasional forays into drama, has been his M.O. for the past 40 years. That's expected to continue with 'Midnight in Paris,' Allen's upcoming romantic comedy, due next month. Let's see if he can still summon the old serendipity.

Check out the video version of This Week in Movies!


This Week in Movie History

1982 (April 24): Jane Fonda releases her first workout video (the aptly titled 'Workout'), which turns out to be the beginning of her journey from Oscar-winning actress to aerobics queen.
1986 (April 26): Arnold Schwarzenegger weds Maria Shriver. Marrying into the Kennedy family turns out to be the beginning of his journey from Terminator to Governator.
1993 (April 27): A North Carolina district attorney rules that the recent death of Brandon Lee on the set of 'The Crow' was due to negligence, not foul play. After the actor's death from a bullet tip lodged in a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks, the film is finished with another actor (with Lee's face digitally superimposed) and goes on to earn $50 million at the box office.
1995 (April 25): Ginger Rogers dies at 83. Though best known for the 10 films she made with Fred Astaire in the 1930s and '40s, she continued to act in movies and Broadway musicals through the 1960s.

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

April 25 is a birthday for both Al Pacino (71) and his 'Godfather' sister, Talia Shire (65). It's also the birthday of Renee Zellweger (42), Jason Lee (41), Hank Azaria (47), and director Paul Mazursky (81).

Shirley MacLaine is 77 (in this lifetime, that is) as of April 24, a birthday shared by Barbra Streisand (69) and Cedric the Entertainer (47). Jet Li turned 48 on April 26, a birthday he has all to himself.

April 28 marks a milestone for both Jessica Alba (30) and Ann-Margret (70), as well as the 37th for Penelope Cruz. On the 29th, Daniel Day-Lewis turns 54, while his 'Age of Innocence' co-star Michelle Pfeiffer turns 53. (It's also Uma Thurman's 41st birthday.) On the 30th, Kirsten Dunst turns 29, and Cloris Leachman turns 85.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'Fast Five' - Trailer No. 2


'Fast Five' (PG-13)

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Joaquim de Almeida, Dwayne Johnson
Directed By: Justin Lin
What's It About? Underground street racers Diesel and Walker are in Rio de Janeiro this time, trying to pull of that One Last Job. The Rock is a Fed on their trail.
Why Should You See It? Most of the major characters from the four previous installments are back, though the addition of Johnson should juice things up a bit. For speedy thrills in exotic locations, this franchise tends to deliver.
You Might Like It If You Like: The first four 'Fast and Furious' films, 'The Rundown'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Video Interviews: Dwayne Johnson | Jordana Brewster | Director Justin Lin
Mr. Moviefone's Six-Second Review
Video: On the Scene at the 'Fast Five' Premiere

'Prom' (PG)

Starring: Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonell, Danielle Campbell, De'Vaughn Nixon, Nicholas Braun
Directed By: Joe Nussbaum
What's It About? All the anxieties surrounding the big high school ritual are milked for laughs (and some poignant drama) as several students try (a little too hard) to make the night perfect.
Why Should You See It? If you're a senior now having anxieties about the big dance, watching this (with your date) could defuse the tension.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'She's All That,' 'High School Musical 3: Senior Year,' 'Pretty in Pink'

Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews
Cast Interviews

'Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil' (PG)

Starring: Hayden Panettiere, Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler
Directed By: Mike Disa
What's It About? Red Riding Hood (Panettiere), now part of a Buffy-like group of warriors, is called upon to solve the disappearance of Hansel and Gretel (Hader and Poehler).
Why Should You See It? The team behind the 2005 installment is back, and a top-notch voice cast should help ensure that this sequel is a similarly irreverent and breezy take on classic fairy tales.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Hoodwinked,' 'Shrek,' 'Happily N'Ever After'

Showtimes & Tickets: 3D | 2D | Trailers & Clips | Reviews
Mr. Moviefone's Six-Second Review

'Dylan Dog: Dead of Night' (PG-13)

Starring: Brandon Routh, Anita Briem, Sam Huntington, Taye Diggs, Peter Stormare
Directed By: Kevin Munroe
What's It About? In this horror/comedy adaptation of Tiziano Sclavi's comic books, detective Dylan Dog (Routh) prowls the Louisiana bayous, protecting humanity from such undead menaces as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Huntington (who played Jimmy Olsen to Routh's Clark Kent in 'Superman Returns') is along for the ride as Dylan's sidekick.
Why Should You See It? Fans of the Italian comic are grousing over the film's changes from the books (notably, moving the setting from London to New Orleans), but for American audiences new to the character, comic-book-movie mainstay Routh should fit the bill.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Cemetery Man,' 'Van Helsing,' 'Zombieland'

Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

In Limited Release

'Sympathy for Delicious' is a fable that marks the directing debut of Mark Ruffalo. It's about a DJ (Christopher Thornton) paralyzed in an accident who discovers he has the power to heal others by touch, and who must decide whether to use that power selflessly or to become famous.
Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews

'Exporting Raymond' is a documentary by Phil Rosenthal, creator of sitcom smash 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' chronicling his humorous misadventures as he attempts to create a version of the show that will play for viewers in Russia.
Showtimes & Tickets | Moviefone's Review | Trailers & Clips

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family' - Sure, Perry's drag grandma is still pretty funny, but it's pot-smoking Aunt Bam who steals the movie. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

•'Water for Elephants' - If you're craving a slightly more mature romance than those of 'Prom,' then it's time to run away and join this circus. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

'African Cats' - With Mother's Day coming up, it would be hard to find better maternal role models than this movie's lion, cheetah and leopard. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

Staying In This Weekend?


New on DVD: Biggest new release of the week is '3 Idiots,' a Bolllywood film that's little known on these shores but is the top-grossing comedy in India's history. Indian superstar Aamir Khan plays the lead, a former college rebel, now gone missing a decade after graduation, whose two college pals go looking for him. Think 'Old School' meets 'Dead Poets Society,' flavored with a bit of 'Slumdog Millionaire.' Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Is Friday's royal wedding on TV way too early for you? Forget to set your DVR? Instead, you could watch 'Royal Wedding' (1951), the delightful Fred Astaire musical set in London during the nuptials of Prince William's grandma, back when she was still Princess Elizabeth. Fred and his sister (Jane Powell) are American hoofers in town for the occasion, and both fall for Brits. Worth watching just for the still astonishing, 'Inception'-like number that has Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: Swan, schman. A lot of people think Annette Bening was robbed at the Oscars (yet again) when she didn't win Best Actress for last year's dramedy 'The Kids Are All Right.' Bening and Julianne Moore both sparkled as a lesbian couple whose lives are thrown into turmoil when their teenage kids find their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo) and integrate him into the family. But Bening, as the more brittle and brainy of the two moms, had the trickier part and navigated it with her usual assurance. Ruffalo, as the reckless, far-too-casual interloper, earned an Oscar nod as well, so check him out here if you can't find a theater near you that's showing his new 'Sympathy for Delicious.' 'Kids' makes its premium cable debut on Cinemax on Saturday at 10PM. Check your local listings

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.