As Woody Allen awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into Jackie Gleason. The covers had slipped off his belly, so that he looked down from the freshly Brylcreemed pillow upon a hemisphere of flesh, which already was quivering with babyish violence.
What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting this nonsense, he thought. Only six months had passed since Sweet and Lowdown, and Mother and Father were dead. Yet his unaccustomed bulk had begun to intrigue Woody Allen, who wondered at how The Great One used to slide about in this body. Could he, too, move in rolls and waves? With firm resolution, he pushed himself off the bed.
“What’s that?” someone cried, as he hit the floor. Although the bedroom door was locked, Woody Allen knew at once this was Tracey Ullman’s voice. Something in her tone–or perhaps in this apartment, which he now perceived to be cramped and dingy–put him in mind of Audrey Meadows. At once, his limbs began to flail in self-contradiction, one arm stretching greedily as if to enclose his fictional wife, the other cocking back in mimed assault. “Wait, and I’ll let you in!” he called, though she had neither asked for admission nor threatened to leave. Was this what it meant to speak like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners–to miss the point, to babble and fume? He suddenly realized that Tracey Ullman would snap all the wisecracks, while he would be reduced to empty threats and nonsense syllables. All his life, Woody Allen had stammered, as too many ideas fought to reach his tongue. Now he would stammer for want of words.
There, in spirit, you have the premise of Small Time Crooks, one of those comic miniatures that are a particular glory of Allen’s career. I can’t guess what uneasy dream might have inspired him to take on Gleason’s persona, in the way he’s previously emulated Bob Hope. All I know is that a supposedly stable commodity, “the Woody Allen movie,” has somehow retained its identity while morphing into a feature-length version of The Honeymooners, complete with dumb pals, a cockamamie get-rich-quick scheme and the final “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
Of course, when you move from spirit to flesh, you find that Allen is hilariously out of proportion to the role he’s assumed. As Ray Winkler, an ex-con who is currently working as a dishwasher, he first shows up in midstride on the streets of Manhattan, a copy of the Daily News tucked under one arm, his hands stuck deep into the pockets of his walking shorts. The gait is energetic, but the body’s missing; the famous eyeglasses and nose seem to be bouncing on an armature composed solely of elbows and knees. Yet this is the corpus with which he claims to menace his wife, Frenchy (Ullman): a trim woman of middling size, with hair that must outweigh Ray by five pounds. “Get me my dinner!” Ray bellows; and for some reason, perhaps boredom, Frenchy rolls her toreador slacks off the bed on which she’s been reposing, watching yet another TV show about Princess Di. She’s as big as her husband and has him intellectually overmatched. But it seems that Frenchy has weaknesses. First, she actually loves the shnook she married. Second, as the Princess Di fixation suggests, she longs for respectability, and does so with all the fervor of a onetime stripper. It’s this second vulnerability that leads to a quick, rough education for Frenchy and Ray, after they strike it rich.