Woody Allen is a polarizing figure, a sought-after writer and director with an abiding love for old Hollywood, but with a controversial personal life. This month we watch and review some of his most nostalgic films.
SG: With a name like Play It Again, Sam it is obvious that this film pays tribute to the classic movie to end all classic movies, Casablanca. Spoiler alert: It opens with a lengthy clip from the end of the film interspersed with Allen's reactions to watching it. It shouldn't be as entertaining as it is, but anyone who loves movies and especially Casablanca will be hooked at the start. If you have never seen Casablanca, go see it first.
RB: Play It Again, Sam introduces us to Allan Felix, a film critic obsessed with classic cinema (in particular Bogart films) whose wife has just left him because all he wants to do is watch movies and not (in her words) have any fun. His friends, Dick and Linda are encouraging of his attempts at dating, but what is happening in the meantime is that Allan and Linda are falling in love themselves. Along the way, Allan is offered dating advice by Humphrey Bogart (in a nice impersonation by Jerry Lacy).
SG: Did you see all the Bogart film posters in the movie? I caught Across the Pacific, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, Dead Reckoning, Key Largo, Sirocco. It is dazzling to see so many great posters, that would cost an absolute fortune today, in one place so casually displayed.
RB: What I find interesting about this film is that even at this early stage (this is 1972, when Allen was in the midst of his ‘early, funny’ period, we see themes present that would continue throughout Allen’s entire film catalog. Woody plays Allan Felix essentially as himself, a trait that is either comfortable or something to be maligned, depending on your take. If you watch Woody’s 1960’s standup work, you can see him forming this character slowly and methodically and while it would likely take until Annie Hall for the character to be fully formed, it’s pretty darn close here.
SG: It could have turned out to be a very different movie without him. At one time, Dustin Hoffman and Richard Benjamin were considered to play Allan. It was after the success of Bananas that Allen was given the role.
RB: Woody and Diane Keaton were romantically involved during the filming of this and their chemistry is pretty irresistible, although I’d argue that Woody hadn’t learned how to write the complex female leads that he’d become known for in the decades that followed.
SG: Allen called Keaton, "Great in every way. One talks about a personality that lights up a room; she lit up a boulevard. Adorable, funny, totally original in style, real, fresh." Knowing these actors had a real relationship makes the affair seem more believable. I have to admit that it is slightly difficult for me to imagine that a balding, spastic divorcee like Allan could hook a woman, any woman, let alone one as pretty and charming as Keaton in this movie, without first becoming friends with her. His persona isn't one that instantly attracts a person, especially not the women he attempts to woo in the film. (Destroying a woman's lunch isn't the way to her heart.) He grows on them with time through his humor and intelligence and passion.
Allen is very funny in this movie, and there are several moments of slapstick that feel organic to the story. My first guffaw came when Allan, a teetotaler, tries to drink his sorrows away in a bar.
RB: The film likely wouldn’t have worked as well were it not made during the nostalgia boom of the 1970’s; a time when American culture attempted to reject the counterculture movement of the 60’s by embracing music, radio drama and classic films of the 30’s and 40’s. The film pretty much dictates that you must have at least a basic understanding of Casablanca and Bogart’s film roles. It certainly helps that old films were still populating late shows and Saturday afternoon screenings on assorted television stations and repertory cinemas were in pretty much every major city. I recently saw a 1978 episode of Columbo where the entire plot required that you have knowledge of Citizen Kane. It’s completely impossible to imagine today.
SG: Hollywood Studio Magazine writer Robert Kendall said, "It has become Woody's biggest hit in years, no small thanks to Bogie." Although I don't know many people my age who love old movies, most of the men who do idolize Bogart. His popularity exploded in the era when revival houses regularly played his films. To be honest, I don't totally get it. I've been an indifferent watcher for years.
I usually cringe at modern actors trying to play the icons of yesteryear, but Lacy is very good as Bogart, mastering his lip curl and wry delivery. He is shot mainly in shadow or at a distance, but his closer shots work too. He played the role in the 453 performance Broadway run, so he had plenty of time to get the performance right.
The wonderful thing about the presence of this character is that it represents the overactive imaginations of so many creative people who love the movies and mentally reference them in their day to day lives. It makes sense that Allan would idolize Bogart, an unlikely movie star with powerful charisma. It is easy to understand why Linda would also get wrapped up in the romance with Allan as it followed the lines of a generic romantic comedy: Allan is always available and her husband is mentally absent even when he was physically present. The gimmick of him calling the office with the new number where he could be reached at every single place he goes is hilarious and unthinkably antiquated in this modern cell phone era.
Tony Roberts, who reminded me a bit of Josh Brolin, is very good in his role as the devoted stock-broker. His character is likeable, an unusual spin on a character who is clearly so career-driven. He could have easily been made a caricature or a villain. He found it funny that Allen had such a difficult time adlibbing while making the movie. "We were pretending to be these people he's invented and he was one of them," Roberts said. "So when the story didn't continue for a moment, it was existentially dumbfounding to him." Roberts has a direct connection to the golden age of entertainment; his father was Ken Roberts the radio announcer.
RB: More than anything, this film makes me nostalgic for things that probably never existed. Allan Felix has the career that any of us reading this would dream of. His obsession with classic film resounds with me, as does his San Francisco apartment (Allen had to move the location of the film from New York due to San Francisco due to a strike) littered with film canisters, a projector, movie posters and records. Seems like a great place to spend time. Also, as often happens in Woody Allen films, Allan and Linda have no problems having discussions about Ida Lupino and other topics that most people weren’t having with people they were casually dating. But it still seems like fun.
SG: I agree and I think that's the point. The movie preaches to the choir. We're film obsessed shut-ins and having a date in front of a projector screen sounds infinitely better than going to a disco or slumming at a biker bar.
Shooting began in October of 1971. The movie had its premiere in New York City at Radio City Music Hall in May of 1972.
RB: The film was very successful at the box office, and adjusted for inflation would be one of Allen’s best grossing films of his long career. The play that it was based was staged for decades in community and dinner theaters and I get queasy at the thought of some of the genuinely terrible Allen impressions that audiences must’ve endured while they ate prime rib and cabbage rolls.
SG: Among those actors was Red Buttons who played the part in February 1971 at the Huntington Hartford theatre in Hollywood, now the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.
RB: The film is capably but unremarkably directed by Herbert Ross (who also did a lot of films based on Neil Simon plays….and Footloose). I enjoyed it, but I feel that Allen would go on to visit these themes more successfully later. Three and a half stars.
SG: Ross also delivered the masterpiece The Sunshine Boys with Walter Matthau and George Burns. He had a talent for utilizing the strengths of distinctive comic actors without rushing them. There is a nice leisurely pace to this film, as is the case with many of Allen's movies which allow the stories to flow naturally.
I just completed Robert Matzen's wonderful new book on the making of Casablanca called Season of the Gods, so it worked out nicely to see this movie at the same time. I related to Allan's reverence for film and antiques and liked the realistic depiction of the developing romance between him and Linda. The first time I saw the movie I had a lukewarm reaction, but this time I'm giving it four stars.