Saturday, November 29, 2008
With All Due Respect
Sometimes I think that I should be so lucky as to wind up at Danny Rose’s apartment for Thanksgiving, having those frozen turkey dinners with Danny, Barney Dunn, the woman who plays “Begin the Beguine” on the glasses and the few others that are there. Woody Allen’s BROADWAY DANNY ROSE only really involves the holiday near the end but its ultimate message of “Acceptance, forgiveness and love” as a philosophy of life turns out to make it ideal viewing for the occasion. I watched the movie the night before by myself and it hit me in just the right way. I think that the next day I was in a better mood because of it and it should be stated that the dinner I had was much, much better than the frozen stuff that Danny serves. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE comes from the early 80s, maybe not the strongest period for Woody Allen, coming between MANHATTAN and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and a few of his experiments around this time might not be the most successful. It’s a modest film, funny and biting but not quite one of his “early, funny ones” tonally. Within the humor is an extra level of warmth and sadness, making it the sort of movie where, years after you’ve seen it, the title comes to mind and you think, “That actually was a really good one, wasn’t it?” It really was.
A number of veteran nightclub comics are sitting around the famous Carnegie Deli telling stories about their profession when the subject turns to standup comic-turned-legendary talent agent Danny Rose (Woody Allen) and his bizarre array of clients. Finally, one of them (Sandy Baron, best remembered as Jack Klompus on SEINFELD) says that he’s going to tell them the “ultimate Danny Rose story”, which he proceeds to do. Danny once represented nightclub singer Lou Canova (real crooner Nick Apollo Forte—you only think you remember it was Danny Aiello) a talent teetering on the edge of being a has-been when, as the nostalgia craze begins to kick in, Danny gets no less than Milton Berle (playing himself) to agree to come to a set that Lou will be performing at the Waldorf, for consideration to use him in his upcoming network special. The married Nick insists that Danny drive out to Jersey to collect his mistress Tina (Mia Farrow, unrecognizable) and bring her to the show as his date. Through a series of circumstances, a gangster who Tina has also dated winds up believing that Danny is actually her boyfriend who she has betrayed him for. Furious, the gangster puts a hit out on Danny, sending him on the run with Tina.
Filmed in that gorgeous Gordon Willis Black & White which adds immeasurably to the “story” aspect of it, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE features an array of over-the-top characters that are very funny but at its core is a very humanistic film. It touches on some of the themes that have come more to the forefront in Woody’s films through the years—the subject of Guilt is a particularly big one here, with Danny’s response to the question “Do you believe in God?” being “No, but I feel guilty over it,” probably a key line for Woody and his persona. Guilt is also something that Mia Farrow’s Tina has to deal with in the choices she makes and what this results in is probably what makes BROADWAY DANNY ROSE one of Allen’s most endearing films, with the nonstop use of Forte’s own song “Agita” as the score adding to the enjoyment. It’s also a very funny one as well—particularly good is the warehouse introduction to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats and Danny Rose’s classic reply to hearing how Tina’s husband, shot in the eyes, was killed gets me to laugh every single time. Those laughs get caught in our throat every now and then—what happens to ventriloquist Barney Dunn is of course funny but after seeing Danny Rose’s reaction to it, really not that funny at all.
Danny Rose is really a character from an earlier time, the sort of agent whose clients made their big media appearances on The Joe Franklin Show (Franklin, fittingly, makes an appearance when we see Lou Canova on his show). He ultimately believes in goodness and tries to make a connection with every person he comes in contact with in a Catskills way, calling them “sweetheart” and “darling”, relating everything going on to a departed relative, “may he rest in peace”—much of this was reprised with Woody’s character in SCOOP a few years ago but it didn’t hit the mark quite as well. My favorite habit of Danny’s is repeatedly apologizing in conversation for not wanting to come off “as didactic or facetious” which only makes people to tell him to shut up. Still, as he talks about his small, unimpressive client list you can tell what he’s really thinking and deep down he seems to know that the world is passing him by. His innate goodness combined with the rapid-fire patter makes him one of Woody’s most endearing characters. But in spite of how memorable the character of Danny Rose is the film is designed to be stolen by Mia Farrow in her giant sunglasses, playing the most un-Mia Farrow character she ever took on. Abrasive to the nth degree and commanding every scene she’s in, the actress is so good that even when she finally takes the glasses off it still doesn’t seem like that’s Mia Farrow under there. Forte, who makes his only acting appearance here, is ideal and the entire film is perfectly cast with a perfectly convincing array of New York-New Jersey personalities that includes Michael Badalucco in an early role as one of the money rippers at the backyard mob party. The voice of Leo Steiner, legendary owner of the Carnegie Deli, can be heard informing Danny about what’s happened to Barney Dunn. A theater marquee in New York can be seen playing HALLOWEEN III and Larry Cohen’s “Q” which is pretty cool though it does make it slightly confusing since the story is being told as if it took place years in the past. I remember Pauline Kael complaining about this in her review at the time but ultimately it feels like a minor issue.
But in thinking about the movie I come back to the Thanksgiving setting of the closing scenes, beginning with the unspoken way that the Thanksgiving Day Parade, clearly reminding Tina of the day she spent with Danny, gets her to want to make things right. This leads to the small gathering at Danny’s apartment which is no one’s idea of a grand feast, yet still extremely warm and sweet (“Hey, Danny, who’s your f-f-f-guest?”), leading to what may be one of the very best final shots of Woody’s career. Fittingly, it takes place in front of the Carnegie Deli, a location that means so much to the world the film is set in. We don’t get to hear what’s being said between the characters here but after being reminded of “acceptance, forgiveness and love” it’s like we already know and it seems like the characters deserve some privacy to work this out on their own. Funy and emotional, as well as a needed reminder of what New York used to look like, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE was just what I needed when I watched it the night before Thanksgiving. I may have to do it again on the same night next year.