Watching Broadway Danny Rose, which comes in between the delightful Zelig and the whimsical Purple Rose of Cairo, I began to realize something I never previously noticed. The early 1980s were an incredibly nice time in Woody Allen’s life, or at least his career. For all my talk of the darkness seeping into his 1977-1982 films, from 1983-1985 he was delivering a lot of kind-hearted good times.
Broadway Danny Rose lacks Zelig’s subversive intellect and Cairo’s gushing heart, but it also sheds their pretensions and serious undercurrents, which streamlines it into a simple, incredibly entertaining adventure comedy.
Broadway Danny Rose is one of the few movies from this period that I had not only never seen, but barely heard of. It also has a small fraction of the reviews and comments of its immediately surrounding films, suggesting that it’s somewhat of an underdog. Seeing it now, I felt that its (relatively) unknown status is understandable, although unfair. Understandable because it’s such a straight-forward movie when compared to its artistically ambitious and distinct neighbors, but unfair because, straight-forward as it may be, it’s really quite fun and surprisingly well-made.
The plot follows Danny Rose, a hopeless but well-meaning talent agent who represents all the acts that no one else will. When we first see him, he’s trying to sell the owner of Weinstein’s Majestic Bungalow Colony on a number of his new acts — a blind xylophonist, a one-legged tap-dancer, a dancing penguin dressed like a rabbi, etc. Finally, he brings in his star talent — a woman who plays glasses.
Danny has groomed a few big acts over the years, although as soon as they make it big, they move on to more prestigious organizations (making him the Montreal Expos of talent agents, if you will excuse an obscure reference). His luck is on the verge of changing, though, when he signs Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) — a lounge singer who was big in the ‘50s and in the midst of a comeback. In a revelation that seems familiar in 2011, as audiences inexplicably hunger for sequels to remakes of 1980s cartoons and New Kids on the Block(?)street Boys, 1984’s New York gets swept up in a nostalgia craze, and Lou, whose style is quintessentially ‘50s, goes from washed-up has-been to in-demand semi-novelty overnight.
Broadway Danny Rose ends up following (coincidentally, I’m sure) a story arc more familiar to teen-oriented sex comedies than black-and-white movies by Oscar winners. Like Dazed and Confused, Adventures in Babysitting, American Graffiti or Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Broadway Danny Rose’s story largely unfolds in one seemingly ordinary evening that veers wildly and unexpectedly out of control. That evening is a night in which Lou is scheduled to make his big break on Milton Berle’s “Nostalgia Special” — a nationally broadcast TV special. But Lou can’t perform without his mistress Tina in the audience, and Danny Rose is left with the seemingly simple task of picking her up from New Jersey and bringing her to the show.
But Tina, a fiery-tempered Italian woman, is furious after having caught Lou “cheating on me with his wife” and is refusing to attend. So Danny’s task becomes a bit more complicated — he has to not only drive her to the show, but convince her to forgive Lou and get back together with him, so that his emotionally fragile client will have the courage to step on stage for the biggest show of his career. Further complications ensue when Tina’s mafioso family confuse Danny to be her illicit lover (after he shows up at her house looking for her), and her other lover, a vital member of the organized crime community, sends his goons to whack him.
Tina, I should point out, is played by Mia Farrow in a performance that is profoundly outside of what I had previously thought of as her range. Farrow, the ultimate gentile, effete WASP, plays Tina Vitale as a bleach-blonde, big-haired Italian broad (it’s a role for which “broad” is an acceptable and accurate term). On paper this might seem like a disastrous and potentially offensive move, but Farrow is astonishingly convincing (although her Italian accent does waver in and out on occasion). As I mentioned before, I only knew a few vague details about this movie before watching it, and even though one of those details was that Mia Farrow was in it, it still took me about ten minutes before I figured out this lip-smacking mafia wife was Mia Farrow buried under some sunglasses and a lot of hair.
On the opposite end of the acting spectrum is Woody Allen, who is at his most Woody Allenesque. If you, like Ned Flanders, enjoy Woody Allen films but “don’t like that nervous fella” who always seems to show up in them, you should probably avoid this movie. Allen is more nervous than ever, his arms flail wildly with every word, and he’s so fast-talking and so verbose, almost every sentence seems to be crammed with ten more words than it needs. All of his trademark ticks and gestures are magnified and exaggerated throughout the movie.
Sometimes it’s exhausting, and even grating, watching him flounder so relentlessly, but it’s ultimately in service of his character — worrying and talking are the two things Danny Rose does best, and they’re what make him so endearingly desperate. I’ve discussed previously Allen’s likability in underdog roles, and Danny Rose is an epic underdog, whose hard luck has become New York show business legend.
Anyway, the remainder of the film largely focuses on Danny’s attempt to simultaneously rekindle Tina’s feelings for Lou, get her to show up to his concert, and avoid being murdered by the mob over the course of the night. The film is not the manic slapstick spectacle of his early films, but it is more single-mindedly comic than anything since Love and Death. Allen is firmly in one-liner mode, and Danny and Tina get into a number of set-piece pratfalls that are almost uniformly entertaining. The best being a gunfight in a warehouse containing the off-season floats of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and a massive tank of helium that explodes with predictable (but still very funny) results.
I should also mention that the movie uses another technique commonly associated with more conventional adventure films. Like Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride or Titanic, Broadway Danny Rose is a frame story — Danny’s entire tale is actually being told by other characters in the film. The movie opens, closes, and periodically returns to the Carnegie Deli, where an assortment of New York show business veterans are trading stories about Danny Rose, a man who, to them, is equal parts legend and cautionary tale. These men are all actors, musicians and producers credited as playing themselves, although I have to admit I didn’t recognize any of them (excepting Jack Rollins, the producer of every Woody Allen movie so far, and who also played himself in Stardust Memories). I read their IMDb bios though, and it turns out they are indeed an interesting group of people who no doubt are filled with stories just as good as that of Danny Rose.
Danny Rose is a legend, but his mythology is a tragic one. Despite literally risking his life to get his mistress into the audience for his big show, Danny is left in the cold when Lou Canova does as so many of Danny’s past clients have and leaves for a more prestigious agent after his appearance on Milton Berle’s special makes him a star. Making Lou’s departure especially cold-hearted is the fact that it was initiated by Tina, who so brazenly endangered both Lou’s career and Danny’s life.
The movie, which has so far been mostly devoid of heavy moments, ends on a powerfully bittersweet note. Danny is enjoying a very modest Thanksgiving dinner with all of his fellow underdogs and rejects — the clients that have stuck with him out of loyalty, but also out of having no other choice (the water glass musician from the opening makes another appearance). Tina, we find out, has moved on from Lou but is haunted by her cruelty to Danny. She has since become consumed by guilt, which is a feeling she never much had until Danny repeatedly and enthusiastically endorsed it as a way of life. As Tina shows up at his apartment on Thanksgiving, it becomes clear that Broadway Danny Rose is not a morality tale, but some sort of “guilt tale.” Danny is an incredibly nice man, and he’s nice because of guilt. In traditional morality tales, the villain learns the power of morality, but here, the “villain” (of sorts) just learns to feel guilty for being a bit of a jerk.
It’s interesting to note that Farrow and Allen have no romantic entanglement in the movie. In one conversation, Tina (Farrow) reveals that deep-down she has a soft-spot for “intellectual smooth-talkers,” although it’s out of character and unconvincing. Apart from that moment, and an awkward attempt at sexual tension in a later scene when the two are literally tied together, there is no hint at the romance we’ve come to assume as inevitable. The idea of these two people — a bombshell Italian blonde from a wealthy family and a simpering, flopsweat-soaked, broke talent agent — is absurd, but still, it’s a welcome demonstration of restraint from a director who typically writes films under the assumption that any woman, of any kind, will eventually fall in love with any character he plays.
Broadway Danny Rose is ultimately a nice, fun movie. It thoroughly earns its PG rating — there is no sex, no questionable language, and despite a subplot about the mafia trying to kill someone, no violence that ventures outside the realm of cartoonishness. It’s also incredibly well-crafted. The action moves fluidly and entertainingly from scene to scene, and the corners of the film are filled with easy-to-overlook gems (Lou’s singing, for example, is the perfect mix of impressive and cheesy, and the storytellers furnish their anecdotes with a sharp eye for authentic details). However, sandwiched amidst some of the best movies ever made, Broadway Danny Rose, like its title character, is likely doomed to be a perpetual underdog.
- “You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, but you gotta suffer a little too, because otherwise you miss the whole point to life.”
- “Angelina once predicted I would marry a Jew”
“Really? Did she happen to say which Jew?”
- “It’s very important to be guilty. I’m guilty all the time and I never did anything.”
- “He’s not cheating on you, he’s only cheating with you. He only cheats on one person at a time, that’s his style.”
- “All these weeds everywhere. I feel like Moses.”
- “My rabbi used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“No, no. But I’m guilty over it.”
- “I don’t wanna badmouth the kid, but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse. And I say that with all due respect.”
- “If you take my advice, you’ll become one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time! Really, ‘cause I don’t just see you folding balloons in joints. You listen to me, you’re gonna fold balloons at universities and colleges.”
- [after a hypnotist act goes wrong]
“I’m very sorry. I promise you, if your wife never wakes up, I will take you to any restaurant of your choice.”
- “My ex-husband’s friends used to dump bodies here.”
“Great. I’m sure you can show me all the points of cultural interest.”
- Despite a seemingly crowd-pleasing plot and tone, the movie only made about $10 million (a little less than Zelig, and a fraction of Manhattan or Annie Hall).
- Danny Rose’s fierce loyalty was based on that of Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who have literally produced every single movie Allen has ever directed.
- Nick Apollo Forte (who plays Lou Canova) is a real singer, and actually performed his songs in the movie (he wrote some of them too).
- I haven’t pointed out an uncanny Woody Allen/Sylvester Stallone parallel in a while, but here is a juicy one: The role of Lou Canova was actually written for Stallone, who turned it down. Possibly it’s a decidedly un-heroic (and fat) character and Sly was still in his prime Rocky/Rambo mode when this movie was made.
- Broadway Danny Rose was Allen’s second movie to debut at the prestigious Cannes film festival (after Manhattan). His next four films would also end up debuting there.
- Michael Badalucco, star of The Practice and background character in many a Coen brothers film has a small role as a gangster proudly ripping up $20 bills at the Vitale’s party.
- Sportscaster Howard Cosell has a cameo as himself for the second time in a Woody Allen movie. Or the third time, if you count Sleeper, in which he appeared on a “historic” television screen.
- Woody Allen got two more Academy Award nominations for this movie — Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (his first nominations since 1979’s Manhattan). He also won the best screenplay awards from the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) and the Writer’s Guild of America.