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Broadway Danny Rose is a warm comedy on Woody Allen's path of self-expression in the 1980s. Not as conceptually ambitious as Zelig or Stardust Memories, it was thought by some to be a change of pace for the director -- no elaborate aping of European directors, no deep messages, no cinematic tricks. It also isn't a return to, "Your Earlier Pictures - the Funny Ones". Perhaps partially inspired by Mia Farrow, Danny Rose shows Woody near the beginning of a string of great 1980s pictures.
Allen's story of the low rungs of New York show biz almost touches on Damon Runyon territory. At a social gathering in a deli, a group of standup comics listens to Sandy Baron's tale of show business's most loveable and least successful 'personal manager', Danny Rose (Woody Allen). A dedicated plodder, the big-hearted Danny cultivates a full corral of incompetent hypnotists, hopeless balloon acts, women who play tunes on glassware and an adorable guy whose bird act keeps being eaten by cats (Robert Weil of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). When he does land a decent performer, they invariably change representation the moment Danny's work gets them somewhere. Danny's present big hope for the big time is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), an over-the-hill lounge singer of old Italian songs. Lou's charm is far outweighed by his vanity and infidelity. Yet Danny supports Lou's big break, even going so far as to play the 'beard' for his girl on the side, Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), a tough cookie critical of Danny's sense of ethics and fair play.
Broadway Danny Rose is special because, perhaps for the first time, Woody Allen allows genuine affection for and kinship with the losers in the race for fame and celebrity. Danny displays some of Allen's usual neurotic schtick, but he's also a caring professional who loves people and is interested in something more than himself. His concern for his woeful clientele is genuine, and even his pitiful TV-dinner Thanksgiving gathering has a real sense of warmth and family. This makes Danny more likeable than many of Allen's previous roles. Allen had not often allowed conventional sentiment to creep into his films; he'd based his stage and screen persona on Bob Hope, not Charlie Chaplin. Even though his directing style took a big upswing in Annie Hall, most of the film's supporting characters were ciphers for comedian Alvy Singer to play against. The end of his visually mannered Manhattan did get warm and fuzzy, but Allen reserved most of the audience's sympathy for his own character, a self-centered romantic in a disturbingly exploitative relationship with a close-to-underage girl.
By contrast Danny Rose is a swell guy who maintains faith in his clients and demonstrates a real sense of ethics. His client Lou Canova is the infantile ingrate, a real louse who should be a tough guy to even be around, let alone have a relationship with. But Danny believes in Lou's potential to ride "the nostalgia wave" and supports him through his insecure tantrums and drunken spells. Danny is even better at making the best possible case for other members of the Rose talent stable, a collection of woeful acts that include a balloon-twisting couple that wouldn't impress at a kid's birthday party. But Rose gives every one of them his best, and means it. That's the real appeal here, and the distinction that sets Broadway Danny Rose apart from Allen's more narcissistic characters: an abiding respect for people.
It's this quality that wins Danny Rose his girl too, although in a roundabout way. The simple romantic triangle is never made into a big confrontational thing. Danny and the jaded Tina spend a day together evading a murderous pair of Italian-American brothers. This gives her a good look at a guy with values totally different from her own, her gangster friends and even the selfish crooner Lou. Yep, she double-crosses Danny without a single thought, but the encounter has lasting effects. Danny Rose is as corny and out-of-touch as those giant rubber balloons floating down Fifth Avenue, but he's got something that Tina can't quite pin down. It isn't all sex and powerÉ people can be attracted to people simply because they admire their principles and character.
Oh yes, the film has the usual clever lines, unlikely gangster threats, embarrassing mistaken identities and humiliating situations for Danny. But it's the sentiment that sticks.
By this film Allen has evolved far beyond his original cinematic clown. He functions well as an atypical leading man, substituting fast patter and human concern for the looks of a matinee idol. Danny Rose was originally a stand-up comedian specializing in gatherings of elderly people... a narrative flashback to him entertaining a room packed with retirees actually makes New York stand-up humor look good. This is Mia Farrow's third film for Allen and her first as the solitary romantic lead. Her caustic, unhappy Tina Vitale was quite a surprise at the time. It's funny seeing her 'wriggle' against Danny to aid their escape when tied up with rope by the Italian hoods -- she's unaware (or is she?) that the experience is turning him on. 1
Guest player Milton Berle has a couple of good non-speaking bits as himself. A standout in the film's center section is Gina DeAngeles as the angry, vindictive mother of an Italian fellow upset because Tina rejects him. Ms. DeAngeles repeated her superstitious curses ("Vendetta! The Evil Eye!") to even greater effect in John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Broadway Danny Rose is a picture-perfect transfer. Gordon Willis continued shooting Allen's B&W films after the critical success of 1979's Manhattan. The soundtrack is dominated by the ethnic songs of Nick Apollo Forte, who actually wrote the Italian novelty tune Agita and is heard singing it at least four times in the course of the movie.
I haven't seen every Allen movie, but his choice of filming in B&W wasn't a blanket preference that he outgrew. Stardust Memories is a conscious riff on Fellini's B&W Otto e mezzo. Zelig is a concept film spun from old newsreels and the B&W segments in The Purple Rose of Cairo of course represent an old movie on a screen. B&W is an essential for Allen's Weimar Noir expressionist experiment Shadows and Fog. Only Manhattan seems to have been made in monochrome strictly for aesthetic reasons -- Allen's beloved city looks marvelous in B&W Panavision, like a still photography art exhibition. Why the comedic, unpretentious Broadway Danny Rose did without color is anybody's guess -- perhaps color would have made Danny Rose's dingy surroundings look too unappealing.
Few featurettes or promotional pieces were made for Woody Allen's films, mainly because the director didn't believe in them. I remember seeing most all of Allen's movies cold, and enjoying them as a fresh discovery - no clip excerpts or behind-the-scenes exposés to encourage buzz and gossip. The competition is too crowded today for audiences to 'discover' a new movie. Promotions now run amuck -- by the time a show is released, we've already seen too much and are sick of it. Today's movie experience can be ruined by the marketing experience. 2
For this disc Twilight Time gives purchasers the film's original trailer plus a Music & Effects track, the closest thing possible to an Isolated Score Track. Julie Kirgo's amusing liner notes bring out plenty of interesting angles on the film, Allen, Farrow and Nick Apollo Forte. Julie neatly sidesteps Allen and Farrow's ongoing battles in the press, but the film itself doesn't help: in a dinner scene Danny Rose turns to a young girl seated next to him at the table and (completely innocently) asks her, "Are you married?"
MGM also mandates the inclusion of its 90th Anniversary Trailer. The clips seen are from pictures in the MGM library, which with a few exceptions (Marilyn Monroe, Sean Connery, West Side Story) gives the impression that 90 proud years of film history began somewhere around 1980. The statistics touted at the finish are ridiculously misleading. The '200 Academy Awards' and '14 Best Pictures' touted were earned either by the former MGM or were produced by United Artists and Orion Pictures, whose libraries were later acquired by the 'new' MGM. Ted Turner purchased the old MGM library, and regularly claims the same Oscar wins for its corporate legacy. If the current MGM were limited to trumpeting only the films it actually produced, this would be a pretty pitiful trailer montage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Broadway Danny Rose Blu-ray rates:
1. There's a thought -- someone needs to revive the genuinely creepy, wistful Mia Farrow horror film, The Haunting of Julia.
2. Back at Orion, Woody restricted every aspect of promotion for his pictures, right down to not announcing the title of a film until after filming. He didn't allow film crews near his set, an edict that went double for studio publicists. His trailers were produced in an aura of secrecy. When Orion needed some kind of promo for the exhibitor convention Showest, Allen provided a simple polite talking-head message -- without standup comedy - in which he greeted the audience and then read the star names from the cast list of his untitled next project.
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T'was Ever Thus.