During the early 1980s, Woody Allen was having a particularly fertile period. In the late ’70s, after hitting it out of the park with Annie Hall, forever cementing himself in the pantheon of romantic comedy filmmakers who had once made the “early, funny films” and now yearned to be taken seriously, he became overly self-reflective. Right after Hall, Allen tried to make “his version” of an Ingmar Bergman film, and believing that his recent Oscar success allowed him to take chances, he made one of the biggest risks in his professional career by releasing Interiors. A fascinating film in retrospect, Interiors was a stark and morbidly humorless psychodrama that left him at the mercy of critics, who believed he fell as high as he had just recently soared.
He bounced back with Manhattan, one of his all time great films, a lovers’ ode to the city, painted in rich black and white, and augmented by the soaring music of George Gershwin. Allen had successfully melded his comedy with some serious themes, and it reflected the continuing maturation of this singular talent. But he was still burning from the harsh criticisms of Interiors, and released his most intensely personal, navel gazing film ever, Stardust Memories. Again, the critics launched into harsh vivisecting, and the audiences stayed away.
Luckily, Allen had (for that time) exorcised his demons, and went through a period of personal growth and change, casting (and then dating) Mia Farrow, his second muse after Diane Keaton. He began working on his most technically ambitious film, a mockumentary set in the 1920s called Zelig, which demanded that a process of denigrating the negative keep the film on the shelf for 3 years. In between that time, he wrote and directed a modest and enjoyable escapist romp, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Serious film scholars were stymied, but audiences loved it. He returned to his old stomping ground of situational comedy, and allowed his now stand-by cinematographer, Gordon Willis, to express the beauty and poetic composition of a turn-of the century, summer in upstate New York with rich colors and full-to-bursting frames of nature.
At the time, it seemed the partnership with Farrow allowed him to finally combine the two halves of his personality, the comedian and jokester on one side, with the artist yearning to express more complex ideas, into one perfect canvas. After Zelig’s successful release, he made his most unassuming, character driven comedy to date, Broadway Danny Rose.
A group of old time comics get together at New York’s Carnegie Deli to trade jokes and stories, and as the hours pass, they settle upon one of the many personalities in their business, talent manager Danny Rose. Many a tall-tale surrounds Rose, but one comedian has the “end-all, be-all Danny Rose” story, and begins a wild tale of the low-end manager who gets tangled up in a daffy broad, lounge lizards, and the Mafia.
Danny Rose was one of the most well-defined characters Allen had ever created and inhabited, and was quite removed from the “intellectual nebbish” he usually played. Rose was a talent manager to the barely talented. His roster of representation reads like a sideshow who’s-who; a blind magician, a one-legged dancer, a couple that make balloon animals, these are the “artists” no one else will manage. But Rose, as much of a schnook as he appears to be, is an empathetic, caring “lover of Broadway” who will go to the ends of the earth to support and manage his clients.
The one client he has highest hopes for, is one-time 1950s crooner, now somewhat washed up alcoholic, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte). Rose stumbles upon Milton Berle, and talks him into coming to a performance of Canova’s at the Waldorf Astoria and possibly book him onto a prime time special. The night of the big show, Canova convinces Rose to pick up his girlfriend Tina (Canova’s married) and bring her to the show, acting as Canova’s beard. When Rose arrives at Tina’s apartment, she’s deep in a phone fight with Canova and runs off, with Rose in hot pursuit. From there, a simple errand ends up being a hilarious, “off-the-rails” adventure that no one could predict. (A shoot out in a New Jersey Warehouse inhabited by Macy’s Parade floats has one of the funniest gags of all time).
The little film succeeds for many reasons; Farrow’s performance as Tina Vitale was a career high, and up until then, a wild departure for the actress, playing the loud, peroxide blonde “gumar” so believably, you forget she was once the innocent waif from Rosemary’s Baby. Critics adored her, and the simple love story with a huge heart, never pandering to the audience or its characters for contrived emotion, was a breath of fresh air. The authenticity of the world Rose and the characters’ inhabit, that of the desperate and driven comics and novelty acts that once permeated Broadway, albeit the “other” side of the boulevard, struck a chord, and became a cult classic.
Gordon Willis’ beautiful handling, once again, of black and white, gives an “old time” feel that is stark and grainy, while still allowing for the heartfelt theme of “acceptance, forgiveness and love” (Danny Rose’s mantra) to permeate every frame.
Twilight Time’s limited release Blu-Ray of Broadway Danny Rose offers up a strikingly sharp and purposely grainy print, revealing the subtlety of Allen’s direction and Willis’ incredible eye for composition and framing.
Following Broadway Danny Rose, Allen continued to raise the bar during this continually impressive period. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) , Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987) were some of the best films of the 1980s, and a strong reflection of the auteur’s seemingly limitless wealth of talent.
But of all Allen’s creations, Broadway Danny Rose is arguably one of his most heartfelt and engaging films, because it doesn’t swing for the fences. And that alone is its charm.