Broadway Danny Rose
Director / Screenplay: Woody Allen / Editing: Susan E. Morse / DP: Gordon Willis / Music: Dick Hyman
Cast: Woody Allen / Mia Farrow / Nick Apollo Forte / Sandy Baron / Corbett Monica
Caution: Genius at Work...
A Writer-Director who infuriates as much as he delights, Woody Allen’s been through the wringer in the past few decades; the result of his personal life cresting the brim of propriety. All that interests me however, is The Work and, on that front at least, his output in recent years has seen a return to form, with pictures such as Blue Jasmine (2013).
Allen might be slowing down his metronomic output, but at least the quality’s still there. Indeed by some measures, it’s reminiscent of the spell that produced a few pictures you’ll almost certainly have heard of, if not seen – Annie Hall (1977) Manhattan (1979) – and one, now largely forgotten, that snuck-in on the tail-end: Broadway Danny Rose.
‘BDR’ as it’ll henceforth be known is, at first blush, a straightforward ‘shaggy-dog story’ about Danny Rose (Allen), a former comedian-turned-theatrical agent. Before it gets going however, Allen realises he has to lay out his stall; spend a little time in letting us get the measure of Rose-the-man. After all, if what follows is to convey any sense of conviction, it’s the least we need. So, over the opening credits, he layers-in audio of a typical lounge comedian of the period and segues to an opening inside an equally typical NYC diner: all formica tables and chromed fittings. I daresay there was a ketchup dispenser shaped like a tomato, just out of shot…
Here the comics gather and kvetch about their gigs; how old gags ‘don’t play as well these days’ and so on. Just a bunch of off-duty comics, comparing field-notes & moaning about their lives, with all the workaday mundanity of a bus-driver’s canteen. That is, until someone mentions Rose. Before we know it, Allen transports us inside the office of a club owner, where we find Rose is pitching for gigs on behalf of his clients. What really impressed me about this shot, is that Allen’s camera takes-in the audience, too: for they – and, therefore, us – fill the streets beyond the window. Allen’s showing how everything in this world, both leads to – and revolves around – the world of work. Even our entertainers have to grift for gigs, just as hard – if not harder – than their audience of taxi drivers, office workers and, yes, sceptical club owners.
To coin a hackneyed phrase, it’s not show friends, it’s show business and Rose is (probably) having to pitch harder than most, given the bottom-of-the-barrel talent he’s got to work with. By his own admission, anyone with potential soon moves-on to bigger and better things, leaving him with the dregs: a blind xylophone player, a piano-playing bird and a one-legged tap dancer (the mind boggles at the thought, just as Allen intended). Keeping things simmering, just off-the-boil, is whip-crack dialogue. Take this retort, as Rose talks of the last ‘star name’ to have left him:
I don’t wanna badmouth the kid, but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse. And I say that with all due respect.
As stated at the outset, Allen infuriates as much as he delights. I’ll admit here, to being a fan, seeing the tempo of delivery and the often-improvised lines as pitch-perfect from a writer of dialogue who seldom puts a foot wrong, certainly in BDR. Yet I know at least one other person, to whom this movie – indeed, Allen in-general – is nothing less than cinematic Marmite. You either love it or hate it with a passion. Unconvinced? Then how about this line, said to the distraught husband of an elderly lady, who’s somehow ended-up ‘locked-in’ to a stage hypnotist’s trance, with one arm raised as if in a ironic Nazi salute:
I promise you, if your wife never wakes up again, I’ll take you to any restaurant of your choice. [PAUSE] Do you like Chinese food?
I won’t deconstruct the gag here, but I think it perfectly embodies Rose’s character and, in the hands of its writer, it transcends the page. Like I said: Marmite.
This sequence over, Allen then has another of the comics at the diner, launch into the tale that’ll form the backbone of the movie: the hors d’oeuvres are over and now it’s time for the main course. Incidentally, this set-up featured actual, working comedians from the NY circuit; given Allen’s own origins in stand-up, I’ll take it as a given, that these were his crowd, back in the day and that their presence here, came as favours to one of their own.
Rose manages a cheesy lounge crooner by the name of Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who enjoyed minor chart success ‘back in the Fifties’ and who is now, thanks to Rose’s canny guidance, enjoying a mini revival on the club circuit. Think: a sweaty lump of ham, in an ill-fitting three-piece, who hides behind a clip-on bowtie and a drink problem.
As if a lack of, err, appeal wasn’t bad enough, Canova’s also conducting an affair with a striking blonde widow named Tina Vitale. Mia Farrow – Allen’s then-wife & muse – played Tina from behind a large pair of sunglasses for almost the entire picture and was therefore unrecognisable for the most part: a canny move that made her casting as an Italian-American, broadly acceptable. Rose gets the attention of TV comedian Milton Berle, pitching Canova as a guest for his show. Berle agrees to watch him at a club: so, naturally, there’s a problem: Canova wants Tina there for ‘moral support’, along with his wife. The answer? Rose must take Tina along as his guest and play ‘the beard’…
And… Well, let’s just say that one hitch in Rose’s plan, tends to snowball into another, until the bittersweet final sequence. History repeats itself, as Rose himself (along with the other comics in the diner) have come to expect, but Allen undercuts this with a final, redemptive twist, that suggests Rose will end-up with something – someone – of far more significance as a result of his travails. The film ends back at the diner, as the comics are packing-up to leave, with one endearing touch: Rose might not have ever played Carnegie Hall, but at least the Carnegie Deli & Restaurant named a sandwich in his honour. Some might call that the greater accolade…
The film is, then, inconsequential. On the one hand, it’s a scriptwriting tour-de-force. Layering-in sight gags with one-liners, it bounces along like a self-propelled pogo-stick. There’s brevity here. Wit. On the other, it’s also an empty shell – a soufflé – if you will, with little substantive filling. I mentioned at the outset, that the film was a ‘shaggy-dog story’, but that was no flippancy: the bulk of the film comprises a series of loosely-connected scenes following Rose’s attempts at getting Tina to the show. It’s a timeworn premise, seen in movies as diverse as Get Him to the Greek (2010) and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988). Along the way, we get allusions to Allen’s deeper motivations as a writer (death, guilt, sex and combinations of all three) but, in BDR – a comedy-drama, after all – allusions are all we’re getting (and all it has time for).
BDR is an amuse-bouche in a career with its fair share of lumpen bleakness.
Yet, for all that, this follows in the spirit of Annie Hall & Manhattan, in being another love-letter to both the city that Allen calls home and the characters he knew – and learnt from – when he was setting out. The film’s B&W cinematography is pitch-perfect, thanks to Allen’s long-time DP Gordon Willis and still carries a few of Allen’s directorial flourishes, i.e. the long tracking shot, that trails characters inside a building from an external POV, or having actors speak with their faces obscured by the set, leaving them as silhouettes or with just their hands shown (Robert Bresson’s favoured trick).
Then there is Allen himself. A restless, mercurial screen presence, he seemed at-home in BDR, which is hardly surprising: hell, he knew this town & these people. In watching the film, I got the distinct feeling that, had Fate pushed Woody Allen in a different direction, he might very well have become Danny Rose: his hapless alter-ego.
I never saw so many reeds in my life. I feel like Moses.