“Play it Again, Sam” is the Woody Allen film that is not really a Woody Allen film but then again…it really is. Huh? This is just my convoluted way of saying that Woody did not direct the film, but and that is a big but, the script and the play the film is based is pure Mr. Allen. So why didn’t Woody direct this film? Made in 1972, it was still early in his directing career and “Sam” is more of a character driven script than his previous directorial efforts up to that time (Bananas, Take the Money and Run and What’s Up Tiger Lily). Still unsure of himself, he agreed to have Herbert Ross direct.
I have been a big Woody Allen fan since I first saw him do his stand up act on the Ed Sullivan show back in 1965 and that same year caught him on the big screen in “What’s New Pussycat?” at the old Astor Theater on Broadway. Around the same period I discovered in a record store one of Woody’s comedy LP’s (Woody Allen Vol. 2) and scooped that up. Over the course of his stand up career Woody made three comedy LP’s (two on the Colpix label, “Woody Allen”, Woody Allen Vol. 2″ and his last, “The Third Woody Allen Album”, on Capital) that are now long out of print though they have resurfaced over the years in compilation copies under various names (Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years 1964-1968 and Woody Allen: Standup Comic) and cover art. The oddest cut on one of the original albums was a pantomime routine that lasted about two minutes. Yes, you’re reading this right, pantomime on vinyl! Two minutes of nothing but audience laughter. It was like watching a sit-com minus the show.
In the summer of 1967 I got my parents to buy tickets to Woody’s first Broadway play, “Don’t Drink the Water”, which ran for almost two years. Structurally, the play was a mess, but the laughs were coming at 100 miles per minute! Lou Jacobi, Key Medford, Anita Gillette and Tony Roberts starred. Woody wrote his second play, “Play it Again, Sam”, with himself in mind for the lead role of Allan Felix, a film critic for an intellectual film magazine (in the play it was Film Quarterly). The main character was so natural to the Woody persona already taking shape in his few previous films and his nightclub act throughout the sixties, a neurotic, bumbling, hypochondriac, that when another actor took over the role (Bob Denver on Broadway in the final months of its run and Dudley Moore in the London version), reviewers and audiences felt both actors could not convincingly embody the fundamental nature of Woody’s bumbling New York ethnic neurosis. The play opened in February 1969 with Woody in the lead role. Also in the play were Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts who would become regulars in many of Allen’s early films and Jerry Lacy as Humphrey Bogart. They all repeated their roles in the 1972 film.
Allan Felix is recently separated from his wife who tells him in a flashback scene, “I can’t stand the marriage, I don’t find you fun. I feel you suffocate me. I don’t feel any rapport with you, and I don’t find you physically attractive. For God’s sake don’t take it personal!” She adds soon after, “You like movies because you are one of life’s great watchers. I’m not like that, I’m a doer, I want to participate. I want to laugh, We never laugh together.”
Allan who recently went to a revival of “Casablanca” starts to receive advice from his screen idol Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) who tells him “Dames are simple. I never met one who didn’t understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a forty-five.” Bogart tells Allan to “forget about relationships, the world is full of dames, all you have to do is whistle.” Of course for Allan it’s not that simple, nothing is. He seeks advice from his close friends Dick (Tony Roberts) and Linda (Diane Keaton) who set him on a date with a girl from Dick’s office. Allan’s attempts at being ‘Bogart cool’ only result in enhancing his nervous awkwardness with his crashing into furniture and LP’s flying across the room. With another date who tells him she a free spirit, a woman who craves wild sex every night, he still strikes out when he jumps on her and she begins to scream rape, get off me! Allan is left bewildered wondering how he misread her signals. It is one bad date after another. The only girl he feels comfortable with and can act his normal self is with Linda, his best friend’s wife.
Linda is a bundle of neurosis herself, somewhat neglected by Dick who is a workaholic. Woody’s got a wonderful running gag in the script with Dick who is contantly calling his office letting them know where he is and what telephone number he can be reached at. The thing is throughout the entire film no one ever calls him. Allan and Linda eventually slip into a one night stand, underneath a very large poster of John Huston’s “Across the Pacific” starring of course, Humphrey Bogart. For Allan the affair led to self confidence, though he does feel guilty about sleeping with his best friend’s wife. For Linda, though while she admits to being fond of Allan, she wants to save her marriage and she truly loves Dick. In the finale Allan gets to live out the ultimate Bogart fantasy, the closing scene at the airport from “Casablanca”. With the plane ready to take off, he gets to recite Bogart’s famous lines to Ingrid Bergman “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Allan has found out that the secret in life is not trying to emulate a cinematic fantasy like Bogart; the secret is to be yourself. With that discovery Allan no longer needs Bogart and walks off toward the rest of his life. The play ended slightly differently with a new pretty young neighbor ringing Allan’s doorbell saying she locked herself out. She then notices a film magazine on his desk, she recognizes him asking him if he is the film writer Allan Felix. They talk, and well it looks like the beginning of a new friendship.