The movie Woody Allen made before ‘Woody Allen movie’ meant anything

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Allen, on couch. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? was distributed by American International Pictures (AIP), a company that is responsible for releasing such schlocky Roger Corman productions as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death, and which made its money primarily off of grindhouse and drive-in audiences.

The crossover between the films we now associate with AIP and the films we now associate with Allen is nonexistent.

But that's kind of the joke behind What's Up, Tiger Lily, Allen's directorial debut, which screens this Sunday morning at Cafe Steinhof. It's a Japanese spy movie that, like Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Son of Godzilla (which was distributed in the U.S. by AIP), Allen dubbed into English with a new, parodic script.

The concept is strange enough, but stranger still is the seamless way in which Allen is able to integrate into the movie the kinds of surreal, libido-driven jokes that typified his early stand-up comedy routines.

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A couple of the best jokes in the film are about the inherent dissonance in a nebbishy, self-identifying (or maybe just self-skewering?) Jew speaking for Japanese spies. Allen renames the protagonist Phil Moscowitz, and even has two heavies kvetch in noticeably ethnic accents while doing grunt work by moaning, "Sol, what time's the mutiny?"

"Whenever you come over, that's all!"

That sensibility came straight from Allen's stand-up schtick. His routines were always rooted in ethnic self-awareness, often revolving around childhood traumas and threats from various Brooklyn toughs, like an incident in which Allen discovers a hulking robber in his apartment lobby who he describes as a "Cro-Magnon man … discover[ing] fire."

The humor in What's Up, Tiger Lily relies on the fact that people who think and talk like this aren't usually spy material.

The gag is made clear virtually from the start: After screening two or three minutes of unsubtitled footage from one of the International Secret Police films, Allen introduces himself and, in a deadpan tone, says that it makes sense that he was contacted to make "the definitive spy film."

Bear in mind: this is Allen's first movie as a director. He was not a total unknown at the time, having performed as a standup comedian in Greenwich Village for some time and written jokes for Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show. But appearing on camera at this point in career and assuming people would get the joke was brave: He was making a Woody Allen movie before anyone knew what that meant.

What's Up, Tiger Lily turns out to be a hilariously weird spin on an otherwise formulaic quest for a whatsit, in this case is an important recipe for egg salad. Phil Moscowitz is hired to retrieve the recipe by its owner, the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, the leader of a a country that the Majah admits is "real-sounding but nonexistent." ("We're on a waiting list. As soon as there's an opening on the map, we're next.")

The key to becoming a real country rests with Phil's successful retrieval of Majah's purloined egg-salad recipe. But to catch the villainous thieves, Wing Fat ("That's Wing Fool, you fat! I mean, Wing Fat, you fool!") and Shepherd Wong ("I'm dying, call my rabbi!"), Phil has to team up with Suki Yaki, a comely lass who Phil hoots at like an animal in heat. In fact, in one scene, the voice actor who "plays" Phil jabbers loudly as the Japanese actor onscreen peeps on Suki while she's taking a shower. 

Allen adds another layer of surreality to the picture by periodically referring to American folk band The Lovin' Spoonful, who provided the film with its soundtrack. Allusions to the group pop up, in actual concert footage of the band performing at a party, and in a scene in which extras appear to hum the movie's main theme.

The movie is relentlessly self-referential that way, much as Allen's more famous early romantic comedies feature countless jokes at the expense of his own persona. Allen even gives Phil, What's Up's perverted man of action, lines that sound like dry runs for some of Allen's later jokes, like when Phil says, "Meet me in the bedroom and bring a cattle prod."

It may not have looked like it at the time, but Allen knew what he was doing.