30 Years ago today – Broadway Danny Rose (film review)
Slap bang in the middle of the Woody Wow Days, Broadway Danny Rose made in 1984 is couched between 1983’s Zelig and 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. In ’86 he will make the brilliant Hannah and her Sisters, in ’89 he will make Crimes and Misdemeanours, in ’92 he’ll make my favourite Allen film Husbands and Wives, have no doubt the creepiest cause for a very public break up in the history of Hollywood romances with Mia Farrow, stagger back to make the brilliant Manhattan Murder Mystery in ’93, Bullets over Broadway in ’94 and then crash-land into shitty film world that will weird everyone out with only occasional dabs of decent films that barely look anything like a Woody Allen flick, until Midnight in Paris, seventeen years later in 2011, that although endearing, still didn’t hit the bullseye he seemed to be able to churn out non-stop in the early happiness of the Mia Farrow days. For one of the most unattractive men in Hollywood, Woody Allen always saw himself as the leading man, no doubt because of the impact his relationship with women has upon his art. Not just the women he sleeps with either, count up the people who’ve won acting awards in a Woody Allen film and with very few exceptions, you will see a string of great actresses winning under his direction, not the least of which is the likely forthcoming academy win for Cate Blanchett.
Typical of so many Allen films, his uncredited influences shine through to such an extent as to tilt the border between homage and plagiarism and in the case of Broadway Danny Rose, the influence is Damon Runyon and the ‘Runyonesque’ characters of the Brooklyn or mid-town demi monde. So many of the Runyon tropes pulse through the veins of Broadway Danny Rose, but if Allen does anything well, he does peculiar to New York well, and one of the films strengths is that his influence is as much a part of Manhattan as he is, as opposed to say a Bergman film or the obvious Tennessee Williams ‘homage’ of Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen understands and loves New York so that coupled with Runyon’s inspiration, Broadway Danny Rose rises to the supreme heights of Allen in his hey day, exuding a passionate warm imbued with usually uncharacteristic themes for Allen of love, righteousness and a committment to humanity, that draws the viewer in from the moment Allen’s Danny Rose steps onto the screen.
The film opens with a shot making its way into the famous star-lit Carnegie Deli, a group of comedic acts sitting around a table telling career related anecdotes a mile a minute. They happen to be Corbett Monica, Sandy Baron, Jackie Gayle and Will Jordan among others all playing themselves along with Jack Rollins, Allen’s long time producer. Suddenly Sandy Baron comes out with a Broadway Danny Rose story and the camera is suddenly back in time, face to face with Woody Allen as booking agent Danny Rose who is trying to seal a gig for his one-legged tap dancer and his one-armed juggler. The viewer loves Danny immediately and its an affair that will last the length of the film without interruption. Soon we learn Rose represents acts like glass players, balloon sculptors and the hypnotist that can’t wake his audience after he puts them under. Eventually Danny is representing Lou Canova (Nick Appollo Forte), a washed up cabaret act who had a one minute on the charts years ago, but whose career might be on the rebound. Lou is married, paying two chunks of alimony out of every pay cheque and announces to Danny that he is seeing a woman on the side. Appalled, Danny tries to talk him out of his love affair with Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), particularly when he discovers she used to date a gangster. When Milton Burl agrees to watch Lou in a performance, Danny agrees to act as a beard and take Tina as if she were his date to calm Lou down so he can have his wife and mistress in the audience. It is the arrival of Mia Farrow that sparks the film into new life and gives it a narrative momentum underlined by the obvious sexual tension between Farrow and Allen, particularly emphasised in a fantastically funny slapstick moment when the couple are tied together on a desk.
In many ways Broadway Danny Rose is emblematic of Allen’s 80’s art film phase after the morbid solemnity / crack pot funny films of the 70’s, a passionate homage to his old stand up comic days. Mia Farrow’s Tina Vitale is a dramatic change of pace for the waifish model, oiling her way onto the screen as a hard-edged, chain-smoking gangsters moll complete with padding, sunnies and a huge blonde wig. She’s brilliant of course, because the story goes she and Allen were sitting in an east Harlem Italian restaurant when inspiration for the role walked by, Farrow claiming she’d always wanted to play a woman just like that and the dutiful Allen then writing Broadway Danny Rose just so she could. The film hinges on the comic brilliance of Allen and Farrow, performances laced with that biting Allen wit a sterling climax being the shouting match over the top of leaking helium. If it feels as though Broadway Danny Rose isn’t quite as funny as it should be due to lost opportunities, the lines when delivered are superb – Allen at his absolute best- and the heart and warmth in the writing reveals an Allen rarely comfortable his own optimism. Couched in its nostalgia, the hopefulness transfers to the human spirit, leaving us in the closing scenes with a warm and generous Allen, happily connected to the past that defined him.
The 80’s was the birth of the blockbuster decades and many great American directors lost their way at that time, but Allen does a slight change of course toward an ariter aesthetic and comes up with film after film over the ten-year period that gave him a reputation as one of Americas most revered directors at the time. Broadway Danny Rose may have been one of the lesser Allen’s in its day, but it has stood the test of time in its wit, its warmth and the overwhelmingly compatible talents of Allen and Farrow.