Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

David Rakoff
December 31, 2006

A misleadingly titled entry, this, as I had neither the emotional wherewithal (George W. Bush couldn’t rouse himself for Saddam Hussein’s execution. Even Nero managed a little fiddling while the known world came crashing down around him) nor the time (fuck you, Earthlink, and your fucking no-Help Desk! Thanks for…I was almost going to say “nothing” but then I forgot the two-hour hold you kept me on!) to attend the second half of today’s double-feature, Broadway Danny Rose, although it was on Channel 13 less than four weeks ago and I watched it. Still, as much of a fan as I am of the film and its beautiful advocacy of kindness, loyalty, and rachmoness, I don’t think that I’ll say anything about it here. Most importantly, though, I did see Radio Days yesterday.

When I was fourteen years-old, a friend of my parents, although a serious journalist, a woman not remotely lacking in a sense of humor—despite the Vreeland-esque, aphoristic, guillotine-sharpness of her following pronouncement—said to me, “I wouldn’t waste Henry James on anyone younger than twenty-five,” when she heard what we were reading in my ninth-grade English class. I can’t say I disagreed with her. The Turn of The Screw did very little for me back then (whereas now, I could coitainly use one….rrrrrimshot!). Radio Days is just such a surprise, where adulthood yields a bounty of appreciation. I liked it well enough when it came out in 1987. It had seemed amusing, if not a tad close an homage to Amarcord. But I had no memory of the movie’s near perfection.

Maybe its due to my middle age, my nostalgist’s love for New York, or just an ever-present personal fragility of late, but near the film’s beginning Woody Allen shows us the waves crashing in upon a stormy and rainswept Rockaway as a piano rendition of Weill’s September Song plays (it wasn’t always this romantic but “that was it at its most beautiful,” he says in the supple voice-over), and I stay misty-eyed essentially for the whole film, even through some marvelously funny stuff.

Visual depictions of radio generally just show the artifice of it all. The ungainly headphones and bulbous, depending mics. The snood-wearing close-harmony singers, and those dissembling Foley artists, shaking their tin sheet rain storms or consuming family barns in infernos of crackling cellophane while coconut-shell horse teams furiously clop to the scene. And Radio Days certainly has its share, but the thing that is so lovely, perhaps loveliest about radio—a medium I’ve done a fair amount of work for and, as my television has no cable and lives out the majority of its days in the closet, save for the odd viewing of Broadway Danny Rose on Channel 13, a medium I listen to a great deal, as well—is its sensory potency. Despite the fact that you can’t dance on it (as gigglingly observed by lovably bubble-brained Mia Farrow), radio is more visual than film in precisely the same way that smell evokes memory in an exponentially more complex manner than a picture can. That each voice and song and commercial is a madeleine for Allen is conveyed in every frame.

Another marvel is how unapologetically Jewish a film Radio Days is. Compare it to that anti-Semitic-by-omission piece of drek Avalon, also essentially a memory-film—although Barry Levinson imbued his family with not actual Jewishness so much as a box-office-hedging general ethnic quality (you know, a propensity for voluble argument along with a concomitant lack of boundaries, all wrapped up in pronouncing “turkey” as “toikey.”). Allen’s family are genuine Jews. They fast on Yom Kippur. His childhood act of larceny is effected by stealing money from Jewish National Fund boxes. Even the casting seems revolutionary. An actress I have never seen before or since, one Mindy Morgenstern, has a twenty-second role as a teacher overseeing show-and-tell. A magnificent schnozz she has, dark eyes, her hair a barely tamed wire brush. Despite Mel Gibson’s protestations about our ubiquity and media stranglehold, a face like that is an unapologetically beautiful thing to see and a rarity on film. A face straight from steerage. A relic of the decades before rhinoplasty became the default sweet sixteen present. When being Jewish still meant quotas. Back when we were Other. Dare I invoke the title of this here blog, back when we were interesting.

The film ends on New Year’s Eve. The pantheon of radio stars have gone to the rooftop of the impossibly chic King Cole Room—whose gold and white Deco interior is already looking like a bit of a 30s relic—to usher in 1944. The years go so quickly, one of them observes, feeling the first twinges of panic as his livelihood sails into obsolescence. “Then we get old and we never knew what it was about.”

It’s cold on that rooftop as they all file back downstairs. Wallace Shawn, the counterintuitively milquetoast-y Masked Avenger, calls out his trademark line to the unhearing mobs celebrating down in the street: “Beware evildoers, wherever you are!” Evildoers. Once just an overblown locution from an implausible radio drama full of unnuanced portrayals of Pure Good and Pure Evil.

And the President couldn’t even wake up.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.

David Rakoff is an essayist, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty.