Talkin’ Oldies: Play It Again, Sam
Although not quite up there with the likes of Annie Hall (1977) & Manhattan (1979), Play It Again, Sam (1972) is the hidden gem in a series of early films from writer/director Woody Allen. Based on his own Broadway play, Allen stars as a man obsessed with the movie Casablanca (1942) and the character of ‘‘Rick’’, played by Humphrey Bogart.
The film focuses on nerdy film journalist Allan Felix as he attempts to move on from his ex-wife which has left him fed up and depressed. With a little help from the ghost of Bogart (brilliantly played by Jerry Lacy, and to which Allan can only hear and see), Allan begins a quest to find a new woman and reluctantly goes on a series of blind dates set up by two of his closest friends – one of which he eventually falls for, played by Diane Keaton. What follows is a succession of extremely awkward social engagements which only Woody Allen could execute to perfection with his Buster Keaton-style comic timing and physicality.
It was during this early period of films where the infamous ‘‘Woody Allen persona’’ began to take shape. After working as a stand-up comedian and writer, Allen transferred his clumsy, nebbish style onto the big screen and ultimately found success with Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971) & Sleeper (1973) – all of which he wrote, directed and starred. Sandwiched in-between these hits is the lesser-known Play It Again, Sam and although directed by Herbert Ross, it is still a quintessential Woody Allen film.
Whether or not Allen was allowed to concentrate more on his performance in front of the camera due to another director at the helm is debatable, but what is certain is his inspired turn as a film geek who is completely hopeless with the opposite sex.
If you think back over the last couple of decades to the constant bombardment of comedies with their awkward ‘‘situations’’ and compare them to Play It Again, Sam; there is only one winner in terms of comedic talent and execution. Whereas most of these American Pie-themed movies were popular and hugely successful financially, it was due to their lack of creative talent that they constantly employed the use of gross-out, explicit material and obscene language to generate laughs.
Granted, 1972 was a different time in terms of censorship and sexual reference in cinema but for Woody Allen and Play It Again, Sam there was no need to stoop so low. Similar adult themes were explored here which did mirror the likes of American Pie (1999) et al, but such as the quality of the material in front and behind the camera, an amusing perhaps, more realistic portrayal was established on screen instead.
Perhaps the films’ most famous scene is when Allan attempts to impress a blind date, Sharon (Jennifer Salt), at his Bogart-shrine apartment. Having draped impressive artefacts around the place in preparation (record sleeves, opened books, his 100-yard dash medal) and convinced himself of his ‘tremendous poise’, he falls to pieces on her arrival, knocking in to things and being unable to form words. It’s a classic comedic performance of the fool and one which has been seen numerous of times throughout cinematic history – none however, have even come close to Woody Allen’s turn here.
As Sharon arrives with Allan’s best friends, Dick & Linda (Tony Roberts & Diane Keaton), the four eventually settle down and converse over a drink before heading out to dinner. As Allan tries and fails to act suave and sophisticated, he eventually drops his act as they begin to discuss his job and involvement with cinema. Things seem to be going well until he removes a record from his turntable and puts it back in its sleeve. Whilst talking, he gesticulates and the disc comes flying out and crashes off-camera. Attempting a recovery, Allan casts the sleeve in the other direction, causing further damage, and then leans stylishly on the back on an armchair – which tips up, sending a coffee table’s contents flying. He ends up in a heap on the floor.
The whole scene is performed to perfection, almost as if it were on stage. In fact much of the play transferred straight to the screen due to its popularity on Broadway and this scene in particular remains the highlight of both versions.
Allen’s iconic persona which we all recognise today was fine-tuned in Play It Again, Sam. Whatever your viewpoint on him as an actor, writer or director one has to applaud, in this film at least, his timing, his energy and execution. He may have gone on to write, direct and appear in better, more well-known films but if you ever wanted an example of how not to attracted the opposite sex, without the use of gross-out humour, then you needn’t look any further.
FMV Rating * * * *