50 Years Ago This Week – Woody Allen’s First Screenplay

What’s New Pussycat? premiered on June 22, 1965, and despite its very promising cast – including Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, and Romy Schneider – we at Mid Century Cinema are Not recommending it.  It was never very good and has not aged well.  (Even the venerable Andrew Sarris, then purportedly rallying to Pussycat’s defense against its many detractors, noted its “serious flaws” and observed that it was “a loud picture, and its failures are loud failures.”) 

Nevertheless, What’s New Pussycat? is notable as the first screenplay (and first movie appearance) of Woody Allen, the opening salvo of an astonishing forty-eight features he would write in fifty years (in addition to a number of plays, a few TV specials and short films, and dozens of New Yorker essays).  Now recognized as a major American filmmaker, few would have predicted this oeuvre in 1965.   At that time, Allen, who had abandoned a successful and lucrative perch as writer for television in favor of an uncertain (and for some years catastrophic) career as a stand-up comic, eventually established himself as one of the leading figures in the revolutionary new comedy of the early 1960s.   

An increasingly prominent Allen caught the eye of producer Charles K. Feldman, which led to the Pussycat script.  “Woody Allen, the nightclub comedian, is supposed to have done the script,” sniffed the New York Times in its pan of the movie, “but it is hard to believe a script was followed.”  This backhanded swipe was in fact right on the mark, as  powerhouses Sellers and O’Toole and director Clive Donner had their way with the story as the production progressed (Warren Beatty left in a huff over Allen’s own revisions before shooting even started). 

As a result of his experience (“I had no say over anything.  I could only raise my voice, and they would dismiss me or throw me out”), like many other writer-directors, Allen turned to directing primarily as a way of protecting his writing.  His “early, funny” movies soon followed, including Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Sleeper.  No longer just a quick wit, he was now “a comedian who made films.”

But still more surprises were in store.  Allen’s writing, always sharp, funny, and insightful, improved—dramatically, as the published versions of his outstanding late-seventies screenplays attest.  Additionally, Allen’s directing became increasingly sophisticated and ambitious.  With Annie Hall, Roger Ebert astutely observed at the time, “Allen has developed . . . into a much more thoughtful and (is it possible?) more mature director.”  After a decade of on-the-job training and collaborations with talents including the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, Allen’s films became visually articulate, with precise and masterful attention to color, composition and movement.  His run of seventeen films from 1977 to 1992 stands up as one of the greatest streaks in the history of cinema.  (And if you don’t like that sentence, try and make a list of the ones that top it.)

Over the past two decades, Allen has continued to write (and make) a movie a year (Irrational Man will be released in July, the inevitable “Untitled Woody Allen Project,” his fiftieth original feature, is on the schedule for 2016).  Sometime in the 1990s, it would seem, Allen became less motivated as a director, preferring to let the actors tell the story, and have the camera capture the action.  But we are lucky to have at least ten of those late-period films.  A writer writes, and Allen keeps writing.