Woody Allen

Love him or despise him, Woody Allen is an American-Jewish filmmaking legend.

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The Schlemiel

Allen's reproduction of the image of the little man owes a specific debt to Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, as well as to the schlemiel figure. The little man at odds with his environment remains an apt metaphor for the Jewish experience in history, but it persists as an equally potent contemporary symbol and is an often-used comic device.

Allen's combination of the Jewish aspects of the schlemiel with physical characteristics of the silent clowns presents an image of a man eternally bewildered by a hostile universe. In this respect, Allen typically reproduces the basic humor in the situa­tions of classic comedies: of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp in the Alas­kan Gold Rush, of Buster Keaton becoming a boxer or a general, or of Harold Lloyd's Freshman trying out for the football team.

Allen's filmic influences, then, are many. Confining ourselves to a discussion of the influences of Jewish tradition and experience in America on his films is not done with the intention of impoverish­ing them or denying the range of Allen's borrowings, transfor­mations, or unique contributions. Rather, it is important to un­derstand the particular nature of his films and the concerns they manifest by recourse to what is surely a fundamental influence on Allen's life: growing up Jewish in America. It is not our intention to reduce Allen in any way to the sum of his influences or his back­ground, but rather to tease out the profound and personal aspects of his films by recourse to the definitional motifs of Jewish life in America.

Early Career

Woody Allen--Allen Stewart Konigsberg--was born December 1,1935, in Brooklyn. After graduating from Midwood High School, he attended New York University and City College of New York, without attaining a degree from either school. Allen began his ca­reer in show business as a gag writer, submitting jokes to newspaper and television personalities such as Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, and Ed Sullivan.

He then wrote for television shows, including The Tonight Show (1960-62) and, earlier, Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar, where he worked with other Jewish comic writers such as Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and Neil Simon. At the urging of his agents Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins, he became a stand-up comic in the early 1960s, adopting the per­sona of the little loser, the schlemiel, in awe of women and unable to succeed with them. Accentuating his slight stature, glasses, and already-thinning red hair, Allen's extremely self-deprecating hu­mor focused upon his own shortcomings and failures. Little in his stand-up routines explored the politics of the day; he was no Mort Sahl and certainly no Lenny Bruce, except in his clever language and precise insights.

The kind of parody predominant in Your Show of Shows was equally evident in Allen's written humor, beginning in 1966 with his sketches for the New Yorker. Here he brilliantly replicated serious literary forms, such as the scholarly biography or the philosophical treatise, but filled them with inappropriate content, the humor re­sulting from an obvious clash between form and content. In "Yes, but Can the Steam Engine Do This?" he recreated the career of the Earl of Sandwich, whose accomplishment he likens to those of Da Vinci, Aristotle, and Shakespeare.…

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David Desser is the director of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former editor of Cinema Journal.