Take six lovable New York comedians (Sandy Baron, Corbett Monica, Jackie Gayle, Morty Gunty, Will Jordan, Howard Storm and Jack Rollins), mix in a pair of cameos from immortals, Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. (the latter barely glimpsed as the grand marshal of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), feather in a trio of misfits (ebulliently played by Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Nick Apollo Forte); a bit of screwball comedy and what have you, but a witty soufflé of the first magnitude. In short, it’s impossible not to love Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984); a compendium of effervescence and charm, superbly photographed in sumptuous B&W by Gordon Willis. In many ways, Allen’s chef d’oeuvre harks back to his masterful opus magnum, Manhattan (1979), traipsing the familiar byways of this celebrated isle and points west to New Jersey for a riotous and memorable excursion.
‘Love’ and ‘life’ have always been the two centrally themed and sustainable commodities explored in a Woody Allen movie. Learning to ‘love life’…ah, now, that takes some doing. Yet, if anything, Allen’s formidable array of deliciously obtuse protagonists (let’s just cut to the chase and point out the obvious; that Allen plays himself in virtually every movie he’s written, starred in and directed) have a very hard time coming to grips with life - or perhaps, merely the curves it seems to haphazardly throw. Let’s not even talk about ‘love’ – a topic Allen’s chronically sarcastic alter egos know absolutely nothing about. Broadway’s Danny Rose is Allen batting his atypical best as the disparager of love.
According to Danny, it never works out. “You know what my philosophy of life is? That it's important to have some laughs, but you gott’a suffer a little too, because otherwise you miss the whole point.” Too bad Danny never takes his own advice, preferring to self-medicate with bad jokes. “I need a Valium the size of a hockey puck,” he openly admits. And we believe him too. After all, this is New York’s Woody Allen we’re talking about; a lifelong card-carrying liberal from The Big Apple; mostly in love with the city, but frequently disgusted by its citizenry; articulating this love/hate relationship as only Allen can – with adroit, razorback introspection.
The sheer joy in a Woody Allen movie is largely topographical; Allen’s love affair with New York the cornerstone of his fertile story-teller’s imagination. Taking the cliché of the ugly American to its delightfully insensitive extreme, Allen populates his version of New York with silly little creatures, heavy on the Brooklyn accent, but light on gray matter. Nevertheless, they are emotionally complex, while simultaneously remaining socially stunted. It’s a perennially good gag; brimming with familiar faces – some long gone – others having moved on in their respective careers or retired from the spotlight altogether. If Hollywood, at least in the movies, represents the expansive promise of untapped stardom and notoriety, then Allen’s vision of New York is its antithesis; a densely populated enclave of affable hams, like the blind xylophonist (Mark Hardwick) or Bird Lady (Alba Ballard); bitten by the showbiz bug, yet inevitably forgotten - even in their own time.
Drowning in this sea of disposables is Broadway’s Danny Rose (Allen); the purveyor/procurer and shameless promoter of unexceptional acts. Allen’s alter ego, unlike Allen himself, is a failed comedian; just a guy who found his niche telling awful quips to the over-the-hill Catskills crowd until he suddenly realized a quick buck could be made off of somebody else’s lousy dream; fueling the fire and fanning the flames of their fancies. Shameless liar or congenial confidant? Well, Danny’s a bit of both, and very much treasured by the six comedians (Sandy Baron, Corbett Monica, Jackie Gayle, Morty Gunty, Will Jordan, Howard Storm and Jack Rollins) gathered to reminisce about the good ole days inside Carnegie Deli – the midtown landmark pastrami house.
Broadway Danny Rose is often referenced – or rather, dismissed – as minor Woody Allen. Perhaps, in some ways, it’s true. For Allen did give himself an impossible act to follow; a formidable body of work of which this movie doesn’t immediately come to mind, appear either to stand out or distinguish itself as top tier within his canon. But take a closer look and you’ll readily discover a minor masterpiece unfolding; Allen with all his creative juices pressed into a ripening and stellar vintage, working with time-honored material, his editorial skills honed with laser-focused precision, plying the audience with this clever ‘little’ tale that, nevertheless, moves like gangbusters through it faux nostalgia and real life circumstances, touched by Allen’s ingenious sense of comedic timing and tinged with the fundamentals of perplexedly flawed male/female relationships. Such seemingly effortless liquidity is just par for the course of most any Woody Allen movie that we tend to forget just how awe-inspiringly inventive Allen has been; or rather, callously dismiss his meticulous planning as merely expected.
Woody Allen is, of course, a virtuoso at such critiques, able to clear cut the proverbial forest, merely to get to one tree; his reflections always genuine and absorbing. In Broadway Danny Rose, Allen continues to dissect human foibles with the skills of a surgeon; exposing the murky underlay that obliterates our only real chances for happiness on this earth. Allen serves as our casual omnipotent observer, invariably dragged kicking and screaming from the sidelines into the very messy thick of things. The comedy arises from our collective empathy for this little guy who just wants, but isn’t allowed, to be let alone - to interpret the world on his terms. Danny would rather not get involved, choosing life as his spectator sport. After all, it’s easier to manipulate the variables when you consider yourself above the fray. And arguably, he is more than content to remain a cult failure in the industry; the good-time Charlie who pitches for the underdogs but doesn’t really want to play on their team.
It’s therefore something of an unhappy circumstance for Danny that his latest ‘discovery’, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) is on the cusp of hitting the big time. Lou’s a sort of Tony Orlando knock-off; more clueless, middle-aged and paunchy, belting out forty year old pop standards inside some of New York’s less regarded nightclubs. Danny keeps telling Lou he could be great, but even he doesn’t believe it. As fate would have it, the nostalgia craze kicks into high gear and suddenly Lou’s landing gigs in some very high profile clubs and hotels, appearing on locally syndicated talk shows and living the good life with his wife (Sandy Richman) and two kids (Maggie Ranone and Charles D'Amodio). It all makes for a semi-pretty picture; except, Lou is ass over tea kettle in love with Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow); a smart-mouthed divorcée from an affluent clan with spurious connections to the mob.
Herein, it’s interesting to note the frequency with which Allen references the mafia in his artistic milieu; chronically billed as whacky, gun-toting ‘wise guys’ who couldn’t carry out a discrete hit with thumb screws and a bazooka. These aren’t the dapper dons or notorious ‘goodfellas’ quelled from a Martin Scorsese casting call, but rather immaculately dressed, Roman-nosed greasers whose shtick is far better than their aim. As always, Allen plays up his own awkwardness as the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ – stumbling into one heavy-handed catastrophe after another; and bumping into both trouble and the furniture as required for the good laugh.
Life gets even more complicated for Danny after he is inadvertently mistaken as Tina’s lover, the mafia sending a couple of goons, Joe (Frank Renzulli) and Vito Rispoli (Paul Greco) to take care of business after their eldest brother, Johnny (Edwin Bordo), who believed he was a viable suitor for Tina, attempts suicide; forcing Danny and Tina to flee through the Jersey shore marshes on foot. Tina isn’t exactly without blame, trusting her future to the scheming psychic, Angelina (Olga Barbato), while deviously plotting to get Lou to fire Danny so he can get a ‘real agent’ like Sid Bacharach (Gerald Schoenfeld).
Danny and Tina are held at gunpoint by the Rispolis, Danny giving up the name of third-rate ventriloquist, Barney Dunn (Herb Reynolds) as Tina’s real lover. What the heck? It gets him off the hook and it also diverts suspicions away from Lou. Besides, at last count, Barney was off doing the cruise ship circuit, far away from the Rispoli’s realm of influence. Too bad for Barney his tour wasn’t a success. He’s back in New York and incurs the mob’s wrath, winding up with broken bones and a bashed in face at county hospital. Feeling guilty for Barney’s injuries, Danny pays his bills. Danny and Tina then show up for Lou’s big show, only to discover he is severely hung over and depressed. On the fly, Danny concocts a homemade remedy to sober Lou up. He goes on, performing as only he can, and impressing Sid Bacharach, the prestigious talent agent, who signs him immediately.
With his newfound success, Lou leaves his wife and kids to marry Tina. But she is guilt-ridden on several fronts and decides to crash Danny’s Thanksgiving Day party instead. Asking Danny to reconsider his Uncle Sidney's mantra, ‘acceptance, forgiveness, and love’, Tina is instead denied all three. No, she won’t be coming back into Danny’s life….or?!? As Tina bolts from the room feeling utterly dejected, Danny almost immediately regrets his decision, leaving his own party to pursue Tina down the street. The ‘big chase’ is another stock in trade in Allen’s film-making arsenal; hardly original, though nevertheless satisfying, as we return to the deli; Sandy Baron praising Danny Rose as a real character and truly one of a kind; Broadway’s sweetheart to the downtrodden, given the Great White Way’s highest honor: a sandwich named after him at the Carnegie Deli.
Broadway Danny Rose is hardly Woody Allen’s most iconic work, or even his most fondly remembered. It is, however, immensely entertaining. Allen’s Danny is, of course, mere variation on Allen’s own acute, self-deprecating public persona. In more recent times, this has been overrun by personal scandal. Since it is virtually impossible to separate Woody Allen’s public image from the characters he plays, the allegations currently impugning Allen’s own reputation seem to mildly rub off on his fictionalized counterpart. The real revelations are Mia Farrow – at first, barely recognizable as the smart-mouthed, uber-violent Mediterranean tart, and Nick Apollo Forte as her bumbling and ineffectual Romeo.
The part of Lou Canova had been originally slated for Sylvester Stallone. Thankfully, we get Forte instead; a real entertainer, who actually wrote two of the movie’s memorable parody songs, including an infectious little ditty about indigestion. Both Farrow and Forte wow us with their subtly nuanced intellect. Remember, it takes a very intelligent person to play a moron. Tina and Lou are just about the dimmest bulbs in Broadway Danny Rose; the former coming to this realization sooner, trading horses in mid-stride to pursue a relationship with Danny instead. In the last analysis, Broadway Danny Rose is one of Allen’s subtler masterpieces; perfectly scripted, expertly played and sumptuously photographed for maximum results; a tour de force for all concerned.
MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray via Twilight Time isn’t bad. Regrettably, it also isn’t perfect. The B&W image sparkles for the most part with exceptional tonality and fine detail throughout. Too bad we also get some built-in flicker. Also, film grain can occasionally look digitally harsh. MGM/Fox have done nothing to eradicate age-related artifacts. Somehow, in B&W they appear more negligible, though no less forgivable. Honestly, this is Blu-ray 1080p. Not VHS or DVD. Nicks, chips and scratches were decidedly NOT a part of the original release print. They have no place in hi-def – period! A hint of edge-enhancement is also factored in – mostly plaguing letters in the credits, but also occasionally causing background information to ‘flicker’. We’ll accept the fact that Broadway Danny Rose probably won’t have a very big calling on Blu-ray. But if the whole point of the medium is ‘perfect’ picture and sound, then this disc leaves something to be desired.
The 1.0 DTS mono is perfectly in keeping with Woody Allen’s intent. Allen doesn’t think much of stereo. Broadway Danny Rose doesn’t need it anyhow. Dialogue is crisp and clean, music and effects nicely integrated into the one-dimensional sound mix. A minor tragedy: no extras – not even a Nick Redman/Julie Kirgo commentary. Kirgo does give us another exemplary mini-essay in her liner notes. Good stuff, as always. We also get TT’s usual isolate score and effects track; welcomed indeed. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)