THE BEST FILMS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN – James Napoli’s rental of the week

     May 16, 2009

Written by James Napoli

THIS WEEK: BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) – Woody Allen’s marvelous tribute to everything he has ever liked reminds us of what we like about him.

You might think a Woody Allen film is an unlikely pick for a movie you’re supposed to never have seen. Surely, one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation doesn’t belong in a column about forgotten masterpieces. Maybe so. But it’s well-known that the Wood-man’s movies do not traditionally set the box office on fire, and, in fact, a lot of his post-Manhattan 1980’s work could fall under the heading of underappreciated gems, like Another Woman, Alice, Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s hard to argue against Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors being Allen’s most accomplished works of that decade, but many of the “smaller” titles from that time have joys all their own, and none more so than Broadway Danny. So maybe it’s not one you’ve never seen. See it again, then. It’s great.

An enormously entertaining and thoughtful effort, this is a film that brings together all of Woody’s disparate influences and sensibilities. It is shot in the beautiful black and white master shots that are reminiscent of Bergman (courtesy of master cinematographer Gordon Willis) and has a Fellini-esque absurdist romanticism punctuated by set pieces involving larger than life Italian-Americans. And, perhaps most importantly, it draws upon a deep-rooted fondness for what Allen himself once was: the working comedian. From the gang of aging Borscht Belters who open and frame the movie with their Carnegie Deli conversation about old-time New York show biz; to the lower-rung ventriloquists and glass players handled by Allen’s titular character, love of the entertainer’s craft infuses many a frame. Finally, nightclub music, another Allen staple, provides the story’s impetus, as Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), the Goombah crooner who is Danny’s only potential meal ticket, might just be outgrowing his loyal, go-to-the-ends-of-the-earth manager. Come to think of it, that plot device introduces another show business theme in the film: betrayal.

Opening and closing the film are the old-school comedians who gather at the Carnegie Deli. In the course of trying to one-up each other with tales from the trenches, the story of Danny Rose is trotted out as the whopper. Danny, whose talent roster includes misfits of every stripe, from balloon folders to animal acts, has a history of finding one or two successes that immediately leave him when they start to break out. Danny is certain this will not happen with Lou Canova (Apollo Forte perfectly cast in his only film role), who is making a comeback after having a minor hit in the 1950’s with “Agita,” a song about getting an upset stomach from a troublesome woman. Danny has his golden boy set to perform for Milton Berle (he appears as himself), who is looking for a singer to open for him. The fly in the ointment is the married Canova’s mistress Tina (Mia Farrow having a ball playing a gum-smacking broad with gigantic hair and ever-present sunglasses), whose fury at her lover needs to be quelled in order for Lou to have the chutzpah to perform. Needless to say, it is Danny who must intercede, and what follows is an extended misadventure in which the unlikely duo of Danny and Tina are on the run from murderous mobsters. What Rose doesn’t know is that it is Tina who has been pulling strings to have Lou dump him for a bigger manager.

And so the screwball comedy hustles the film along until Allen masterfully turns things on a dime to deliver a poignant finale about friendship, loyalty, guilt and forgiveness. The comedy here has to be counted among Woody’s best stuff since his “earlier, funny films.” (A famous line from Stardust Memories, another underrated film with which Allen opened the decade.) His portrayal of Danny Rose, in unforgivably bad suits, giant Lew Wasserman glasses and a bad dye job, is all broad gesture and nervous speaking habits, but let’s face it no one can pull this off like Woody. We would need a separate blog to list all the magnificent shtick, but highlights include such lines as a reference to an unattractive relative who “looks like something you’d find in a live bait store”; Danny’s directing Lou to include in his song list a “tribute to great crooners of the past who are now deceased”; and the oft-repeated “I don’t mean to be didactic or facetious in any manner.” Danny’s interactions with his outrageous clients are perfectly-pitched—he loves the people he represents, with all his heart. After things go sour, he gathers them all at his house for an oddball’s Thanksgiving, and we can feel the loneliness underlying the comedy. But until then, it is straight ahead hilarious, with humor mined from dozens of memorable situations, such as a couple of mobsters who tear up money in front of one another to illustrate how little it means to them, and a wildly inventive shootout in a helium factory.

Allen and Willis set their compositions in the modern New York of the 80’s, even though it is meant to take place in the 1960’s. It is a smart choice, for it suspends the story in time in an unexpected way, working with the black and white to create a nostalgia that feeds into what the present-day geezers at the diner are feeling. Then there are the two featured songs, “My Bambina” and “Agita” which were written by Apollo Forte, and they are just right for the tone of the work, as well as being very catchy tunes that provide instrumental undercurrents throughout.

Affectionate and accomplished, Broadway Danny Rose is one of Woody Allen’s best films, and I don’t mean this to be didactic or facetious in any manner.

James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book will be released in May.

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