Tuesday, November 26, 2013


We used to come out of Woody Allen movies smiling to ourselves. There was always a satisfied feeling, as if we'd just had a nice meal, or heard a favorite piece of music. You might catch the eye of another fan in the lobby, and you'd both grin. You both knew that if nothing else was right in the world, you could count on Woody.  This sense that he was our one reliable comic genius was especially true during the early to mid 1980s, when  he moved away from his sophisticated romantic style of Annie Hall and Manhattan and made a string of compact, witty comedies. Back then there was a feeling among critics that, while these movies were fine, Allen was just spinning his wheels until his next great idea came along. But now, looking back, I think this was actually a golden period for him. I remember Broadway Danny Rose, and how I argued with friends that Danny was a slightly different character for Allen, a tougher, less neurotic character than he'd played in the past. My friends couldn't see what I meant, but we all agreed it was a good little comedy and that he could do no wrong. 
Mention Woody Allen now and you're likely to get a snort of derision. His biggest hits in recent years - Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine - were done without him in the lead role, as if people still enjoy his stories but not his face.  People either hold his personal life against him, or they complain that he's too concerned with New York's upper crust, or that he's too Jewish, or that he doesn't cast enough African-Americans in his movies. Others are so consumed by the latest 3-D Marvel Comics adventure that the idea of a small, intelligent comedy is beyond them.   I can't say if audiences of the 1980s were more intelligent than they are now, but  the audiences of today have certainly relaxed their standards.  Fortunately, there  will always be a discerning few who tire of the rabble's taste. For them, Woody Allen will be there.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I decided to look back at Broadway Danny Rose, which has a few Thanksgiving motifs, including a beautiful scene in a warehouse filled with floats for the Macy's parade. It's a good film, part of his early 1980s period, when he appeared to replace his old 1970s cynicism with a kind of warmth. Danny Rose actually says at one point that his philosophy is "acceptance, forgiveness, and love," a jarring note in the midst of one of the most greed ridden decades in American history, a notion that critic Patrick Taggart called "positively daring," and moved the Associated Press' Bob Thomas to dub Allen "the most original and daring comedy artist in films today."
It tells the tale of Danny Rose, a Broadway agent to a lot of third rate performers, including parrot acts, and a fellow who makes balloon animals. Allen plays Danny as a loyal mensch, always encouraging his clients, even if their talents don't warrant it. He doesn't greet one without saying, "You look beautiful dahlink!" Allen has been around showbiz since the 1950s, so he knew the type, and plays him with some affection, I think. Danny's future rides on a faded Italian crooner named  Lou Canova  (Nick Apollo Forte). There's a nostalgia boom going on; Danny thinks Lou is ripe to be rediscovered. The only problem is that Lou's girlfriend Tina (Mia Farrow) has been telling him to dump Danny in favor of a more connected manager.  The film is told in flashbacks by a group of older showbiz veterans sitting at the Carnegie Deli, each trying to top the other with their own Danny Rose story.
The cinematography is by Gordon Willis, a frequent Allen collaborator who also shot the Godfather trilogy. He gives the New York of Danny Rose a damp look, as if the fog of memory is constantly rolling in from the Atlantic, or as The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote recently, “He gives every frame the kind of mysterious smokiness of dusty old photographs."  There's one dreamy shot of a mist shrouded boat that Danny and Tina have jumped aboard that feels like something from Val Lewton's Ghost Ship.  There's also a wedding scene with a lot of odd close-ups that recalls Willis' work in Stardust Memories, which many chided for being Allen's attempt at a Fellini film. And the nightclub scenes where Lou sings feel a bit like something out of Raging Bull. For a movie that many consider a simple comedy, it's a visual stunner.

Perhaps borrowing a page from Born Yesterday, Lou asks Danny to keep an eye on Tina and bring her to his big gig (singing for Milton Berle!).  Tina ends up dragging Danny to a Mafia party,  where her previous boyfriend has poisoned himself because Tina left him for Lou. A couple of gangster types assume that Danny is Lou, and the chase is on. As Danny and Tina try to escape, they get on each other's nerves, but while they don't exactly fall in love, they seem to like each other. They have very different outlooks on life, though. She wants to hurt people before they can hurt her. He thinks kindness is the way to go. Finally, Danny gets Tina to the gig in time to see Lou, but he eventually learns that Lou has taken her advice to get a new agent. Danny is flattened by the news, but he soldiers on. The next time we see him, it's Thanksgiving and he's invited his various one legged tap dancers and balloon benders to his tiny apartment; they celebrate the holiday by eating TV dinners. It's not as pathetic as it sounds. It actually feels kind of cozy. There's love in the room.
If Allen is playing slightly against type as a fast-talking New York agent, Mia Farrow was virtually unrecognizable as Tina. For most of her early career, she was known for playing fragile, mealy mouthed characters. According to legend, she and Allen went to dinner one night and saw a loud  waitress with big hair and sunglasses. Farrow told Allen that she wished to one day play such a character, which was the genesis of Tina. Farrow's wonderful here, working a slight Jersey accent, her delicate features hidden under a wig and oversized shades. Her scenes with Danny are excellent, especially when she reveals her interest in decorating. "I'd fill your apartment with bamboo, and big purple pillows," she says. After agreeing that bamboo would be nice, Danny turns into an agent. "I don't see you just decorating joints like this one," he says. "I can see you decorating really big places." He shows Tina the same love he shows his clients - he's probably been buried in showbiz for so long that he can only speak in a kind of old Broadway jargon. For Danny, recognizing potential is as good as saying I love you.

Allen cast Farrow in several movies, but they were rarely a romantic couple onscreen. In their first collaboration, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, she played a woman he loved from afar. He bathed her in a glowing light, a director in love with his star. In Zelig, she played a psychiatrist who was caring for Allen. From there, in various movies, she played his ex-wife, or his longtime wife who wanted a divorce. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, she dumped him for Alan Alda. Still, for all of the films they made together, I can't recall an actual love scene between the two. The closest may have been in Broadway Danny Rose.  For a generation of Allen fans, Farrow was always a sorry second to Allen's original muse, Diane Keaton. And some still feel that way. But looking at Broadway Danny Rose again reminds me that Farrow and Allen had their own chemistry. It was unique - she played the strong character who was soft at heart, he played the weakling who actually had some integrity. Allen and Keaton had cuteness and better comic timing, but the older I get, the more I see Allen and Farrow  as one of Hollywood's great forgotten screen couples.
After their adventure, Tina's haunted by Danny.  She drops in during his Thanksgiving party, but he's still angry that she turned Lou away from him. Her voice cracking with emotion, she reminds Danny of his credo, "Acceptance, forgiveness, love." He's unbending. She leaves. He returns to having dinner with his clients. Then, like Isaac running down the street in Manhattan to stop Tracy from going to London, we then see Danny running down the street to find Tina. He catches up with her. The scene is in long shot, so we don't hear what they say, but we are relieved to see them walk together back to his place. We don't know if they stay together. The characters at the deli don't know, either. They're not even sure what became of Danny Rose, just that he has a sandwich named after him.

The film isn't hysterically funny, although there are some excellent bits. When Danny and Tina are held at gunpoint by a gangster, Danny gives them the name of a local ventriloquist. The mugs promptly put the guy in the hospital. It's a cruel, slapstick moment that provides a good belly laugh in an otherwise subtle, quiet film. The mob angle, incidentally, drew the ire of various Italian groups, and Woody came under criticism for stereotyping Italians as violent, over-emotional, and superstitious. One scene involves the two hitmen chasing Danny and Tina, only to stop mid-chase at a pizza place for a couple of slices. I understand the point made by the Italian groups, but I also find the joke funny. There were also some who found the movie too mild, as if a Woody Allen who wasn't hostile and neurotic wasn't worth watching. He'd be back to his old neurotic self two years later for Hannah and Her Sisters, his biggest hit of the decade, and another film, by the way, that used Thanksgiving as a gimmick. Danny Rose, though, is one of his most lovable characters, precisely because he's less cynical than the usual Allen character.

There's a beautiful scene where the deli coterie recall Danny's old days as a comic in the Catskills. We see Danny in a tux, entertaining what looks like a nursing home crowd. He's telling old jokes and getting only modest results. Was Danny a terrible comic? Is that why he left performing to become an agent? And why did he choose to represent such paltry acts?   Did he not want a client who might be better than he was? Did he like to maintain some control, hence a bunch of acts that desperately needed his guidance? He may not have been obviously neurotic, but there's a lot to Danny Rose if you want to look for it.

Nick Apollo Forte is memorable as Lou Canova. He performs a couple of songs in the movie, tunes he wrote himself, and one of them, Keep Italian in Your Heart,  is actually quite beautiful. Forte makes Lou an interesting character, full of charisma onstage, but a bundle of nerves and hypochondria in his personal life (perhaps he, rather than Allen, is the neurotic of the film). Forte didn't act in any more movies, but he enjoyed a modestly successful singing career, much like the one enjoyed by Lou Canova.

Broadway Danny Rose is also notable because it's one of the rare Allen films with a sense of male camaraderie. The men at the deli telling the story spend the first few minutes of the film amusing each other with bad jokes and impressions, and as I watched it recently, it seemed odd to see so many males together in one Woody Allen movie.  The scenes with Danny and Lou are also strong, making Forte one of the few male actors, along with Tony Roberts, who served as a good sidekick for Allen. According to Stephen Spignesi's excellent The Woody Allen Companion, the Lou Canova role almost went to Robert DeNiro. I don't know if he would've been any better than Forte. I'm certain he couldn't sing as well.
 Mia Farrow was asked once if it was difficult to watch the movies she made with Allen, in the wake of their controversial breakup. She replied that it wasn't an issue, because despite the problems she eventually had with Allen, the films were good and she was proud of her work. I was happy to hear her say that. Their artistic collaboration was actually the longest that Allen had with anyone, and under his direction, Farrow played a greater variety of characters than she had previously. He allowed her to show different sides of herself, at times beautiful, at times frumpy, at times touching. Tina was her brassiest role. She was a whirlwind, but nervous and vulnerable underneath. Woody and Mia couldn't last together. Perhaps Danny and Tina found a way.


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