It’s incredible to realize just how famous Leonard Zelig was in the 1920’s and ‘30s, and how almost totally forgotten he is today. They held a ticker-tape parade for him down Wall Street. They wrote dozens of songs about the Human Chameleon, and made up dances. There was the huge bigamy scandal, when it turned out that several of his personalities had married and fathered children. And of course there was the pioneering work of Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who brought him out of his shell with compassion and hypnosis, finally finding the “true” Leonard Zelig among all those Chinese, Indian, Greek, Hebrew, obese, and Negro personalities.
I think most people rate this as one of Woody’s minor efforts, but I’ve always loved it. I love the crazy idea of a man who becomes anything anyone around him is. I love the notion of making it as a documentary. I love the care and passion brought to perfectly re-creating an era via grainy newsreels, still photos, sheet music covers, and (for the time) astounding special effects and photo doctoring to put Woody Allen into the scenes, seamlessly. We see him cavorting with Charlie Chaplin and other guests of Hearst at San Simeon, and in the background as a brown shirt listening to Adolf Hitler speak. The songs about “The Human Chameleon” are perfectly written and performed, and actually quite catchy. I was humming them over and over after I saw this.
Every faux newsreel shot perfectly captures the stilted, awkward, overly formal way people talked back then when the cameras were rolling. And I love that he got real people like Susan Sontag, Bruno Bettelheim, Bricktop, and Saul Bellow to be interviewed, going along with the joke.
To top it all off, there really is a sad and moving (though, of course, ridiculous) story underneath it all. What if you really did become a doctor when you were in a hospital? Or a black jazz musician when you went to Harlem? What led you to this condition? He actually explains it pretty well.