Finding Woody: Allen’s Play It Again, Sam

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in bed
Allen and Keaton in Play It Again, Sam:
“The beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Ever committed to nostalgia, Turner Classic Movies
has brought reruns of the The Dick Cavett Show to its weekly
schedule. The cable station presented a new episode, featuring the
even-toned but engaging Cavett interviewing Mel Brooks, to re-introduce
recently acquired film-related entries from the original 1970s series.
The batch will leave film buffs drooling: included are personalities
such as Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Groucho Marx, and Katharine
Hepburn, but TCM also has the behind-the-camera masters Alfred Hitchcock,
Ingmar Berman, and Orson Welles chatting on Cavett’s couch.
(The series is now available on DVD.) The programmers made a wise
move by nabbing a rare interview with Woody Allen, who has become
a notorious recluse ever since his Cavett appearance and has taken
one hell of a journey professionally (and, alas, privately).

This 1971 interview captures Woody at a unique time: his hair had
sprouted long, he’d been through two marriages, and he was
already a veteran of analysis. He discusses his films and shares
his knowledge of the classics, but is ready to inform the audience
that a recent sexual assault upon his ex-wife could not have been
a “moving violation.” (No worries – the joke was
one of many fictional bits he used during standup routines.) As
a filmmaker, he showed an expertise with farcical material in Take
the Money and Run
and Bananas, both of which worked
off his stand-up aesthetic that mixed low comedy with intellectual
musings. The program even shows Allen promoting his first collection
of comedy writings, Getting Even, which consists mostly
of work written for The New Yorker. Allen fans will find
a special treat when he picks up his clarinet to jam with a Dixieland
outfit--but even moreso when he casually muses, “I do want
to make a serious movie one day.”

woody allen

By 1971, Woody had been through two
marriages and was already a veteran of analysis. As a filmmaker,
he was beginning one hell of a journey.

A renowned film expert even then, Allen hints toward his stock
in the auteur theory when he describes his upcoming project, a film
adaptation of his 1969 light stage comedy, Play it Again, Sam,
as not “his work.” It would be directed by
play-to-film specialist Herbert Ross from Allen’s script,
though it feels a part of Allen’s canon. At the time of the
interview he still had hilarious, breezy parodies of dystopia (1973’s
Sleeper) and 19th-century Russia (Love and Death,
1975) ahead of him. But his script and performance in Play it
preview how he would soon elevate his comic acumen into
masterful studies of tragic romance.

Though the story is thoroughly in Allen territory, its setting
is un-Woody. As Allan Felix (Woody in an early not-so-alter ego)
walks the hilly city streets, modern viewers may expect him to yell
into the camera, “What the hell am I doing in San Francisco?”
The Play It Again production relocated there from Allen’s
usual locale, New York, due to a strike of film personnel.

There Allan Felix works as a film writer who immerses himself in
the romantic ideals of Humphrey Bogart. The opening scene comically
juxtaposes the sublime Bogey, offering advice and those classic
lines to Ingrid Bergman at Casablanca’s closing,
with an entranced Felix watching in a theater. We soon find him
in an apartment practically wallpapered with Bogart, an ironic environs
that sets up the center of the story: Allan’s lack of luck
with the ladies.

His luck has run short with his wife (Susan Anspach), who has left
him for a man visualized by Allan as an Aryan biker. As the film
develops with various comic bits, we realize that Woody has goals
quite familiar to his work of the period: to entertain with elements
from his standup routine. When Dick and Linda Christie (Tony Roberts
and Diane Keaton--Sam was the first of many occasions for
both to work with Allen) appear to console Allan, the latter throws
one-liners up for everyone’s joy. “At night I used to
lay and watch her sleep,” Allan says, referring to his ex
wife; “She’d wake and catch me--she’d let out
a scream.” Woody’s costars also share the fun when Keaton
shows her own neurosis--“I’m experiencing a wave of
insecurity!”--and Roberts, in a dated but now nostalgic string
of jokes, continuously calls his office to forward the number of
his current location, at times relaying three phone numbers in advance.
(The series could work as a little time capsule for children born
after the cell phone boom.)

Robert’s Dick is preoccupied with his work, and thus leaves
his wife comfortable but abandoned. As Linda spends more time with
Allan--first helping him reenter the dating world, then going out
with him platonically--the connection eventually grows into romance.
Linda offers support to Allan even after his wackiest of come-ons
to other women: “What are you doing Saturday night?”
he asks a dark-clad hipster at a gallery, who replies, “committing
suicide.” Allan, right in stride: “What are you doing
Friday night?”

play it again sam book

Keaton plays naturally as a functioning neurotic next to a performer
who was still making himself comfortable onscreen (though Woody’s
quite at home with the wisecracks and visual gags, like when Allan
suffers an avalanche of contents from a medicine cabinet). Though
uneven, the performances find chemistry in that both characters
capture a balanced mix of anxiety and concern about each other.

But Allan isn’t in this thing alone. While pondering his
love life, he sees the object of his fanaticism walking from the
shadows of his apartment to address him. Soon Allan finds himself
struggling with advice from Bogey (uncannily realized by Jerry Lacy),
who has Allan’s situation all figured out in light of his
gruff noir code. (The film’s title even quotes one of Bogart’s
refrains in Casablanca.) Onscreen, Woody shines when dealing
with the intruding Bogart, who offers advice when Allan is alone
and when he is trying to score. Woody’s use of fantasy foreshadows
his later successes with the genre, including a movieland romance
set during the depression (The Purple Rose of Cairo), a
modern re-imaging of Lewis Carroll (Alice), and the delightfully
bizarre pseudo-biopic of the chameleon-man, Zelig.

Apart from its fantastic elements, Woody’s script of Sam
finds a deft blend of the comic and romantic. This crosspollination
overshadows a forced closing tribute to Casablanca with
Allan playing Rick Blaine; Allen’s myriad clever turns in
films to come may even qualify it as a misfire. Though a retrospective
viewing asserts that Sam is grounded in laugh-out-loud
comedy--Woody includes too many dead-on wisecracks to deny the fact--the
film shows the star taking a step toward his future while still
playing the prankster that America had come to love.

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