"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Millon Dollar Movie

We’re getting into a definite type of situation here…

My mother took me to see Jason Robards and Collen Dewhurst in Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway for my seventeenth birthday. We went to a Wednesday afternoon matinee in late June, 1988. Before the show I interviewed for a summer job as a messenger at Sound One, at the time the biggest post-production film company on the east coast. Sound One rented out a majority of space in the Brill Building, the city landmark on 49th Street and Broadway.

The Brill Building in the 1930s and Today (New York Times)

The Brill Building was one of the homes to the music business dating back to the Tin Pan Alley Days. Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro and Carol King worked there in the Sixties. By the time I arrived, there were a just few holdovers from the music business—Paul Simon had a suite on the 5th floor—but it was mostly about film. Martin Scorsese had his offices there, so did Paul Schrader, and Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video, ran most of what Sound One didn’t.

It is a small building, only 11 stories. Today, a skyscraper hotel sits to its right on the southwest corner of 49th street. Another skyscraper is across the street on the east side of Broadway between 49th and 50th. In 1988, there was a pornographic movie theater across the street on Broadway, another one on 49th between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and yet another one on the east side of Broadway between 49th and 48th. 

I got the job and spent many days during the hot New York summer walking between the Brill Building and the Technicolor lab down on 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenue, passing by hookers with bruised arms and legs and over empty crack vials in the cracks of the sidewalks.

There was one guy left over from the old days of the music business, guy named Benny Ross. He owned “St. Nicholas Music,” which had a dusty office on the sixth floor. St. Nicholas was famous for publishing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. Benny was a nice man, shrunken little Jewish guy, always ready with a handshake and a kind word. “Hi,howareya?” He’d come upstairs to Sound One and get a cup of coffee and eat a slice of pound cake and schmooze-up whoever was in the vicinity. And he’d take the new messengers into his stuffy little office and offer up any of the dozens of free promotional records that were sent to him.

Benny was from the Old School, the vanishing show business world that is so affectionately depicted in Woody Allen’s 1984 comedy Broadway Danny Rose. Woody plays Danny Rose, a lovable lowlife theatrical manager, whose best act is Lou Canova, an Italian lounge singer. According to Sandy Morse, who edited all of Allen’s movies from Manhattan through Celebrity, they found Nick Apollo Forte, a real-life singer who plays Canova, in the 99-cent cutout bin at Colony Records, downstairs in the Brill Building. They were mixing the sound for Zelig at Sound One, came across a couple of Forte’s records and knew they had their man.

Broadway Danny Rose is all of a piece, a pastrami-on-rye sandwich shot in grainy black-and-white. It’s Allen’s gift to Mia Farrow and a fine tribute to the Broadway Area, from Damon Runyon through Sid Caesar, the Catskills all the way to the Joe Franklin Show.

The movie opens in the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue, a couple of old comics talking over coffee, one telling the other about how a surefire joke bombed last night. They are happy to be in each other’s company. Soon, a bigger group of comics are hanging out, telling jokes, making each other laugh.

The comedians are played by old friends and acquaintances of Woody’s from his nightclub days as a stand-up. They improvise beautifully and then get around to the story of Danny Rose. The whole movie has a fast-paced, alert feeling. Woody later said that Danny Rose was “more or less improvised on an impulse.”

I like to grab an idea on the fly, and work it out without delay, like when I was leaving a restaurant with Mia, and she mentioned something she’d like to do. We’d noticed at the neighboring table one of those wig-wearing Latin women, talking a blue streak, loud and insulting, with dark glasses planted on her face and Mia told me that it would be fun for her to play a role like this, at the opposite role from the skinny ingénues she’s all too often made to play.

Farrow’s Tina wears big sunglasses in almost every scene (there is only one time, looking in the bathroom mirror, where you see her eyes).

Allen tested her with and without the glasses and felt she worked so much better with them. They made the right choice. It’s one of her best and least likely performances. She’s very funny and the chemistry between her and Woody was never better. They don’t ever kiss, but you can feel the attraction there, in the hilarious wriggling scene, and when Tina goes to his apartment and offers him advice about interior decorating.

Tina’s always wanted to be a decorator but she has no confidence. Danny listens to her and kids her—“What is this, a Turkish whorehouse? I live here, Darling”—then he begins to encourage her. She brightens for the first time since we’ve met her. You can see how Danny believes in people and makes them feel good.

Tina: The boat sailed for me. I shoulda been more serious when I was younger.

Danny: What are you talking about? You got your whole life ahead of you.

Tina: Nah. You know, the trouble is, I look at my work and I think it’s ugly.

Danny: Well, you know, my uncle Morris, the famous diabetic from Brooklyn, used to say, “If you hate yourself, then you hate your work.”

Tina: I sleep at night. It’s you that’s got the ulcer.

Danny: Yeah, I got an ulcer, but you know, it may be a good thing there. You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, no question about it, but it’s important to suffer a little, too. Because otherwise, you miss the whole point of life. And that’s how I feel.

Tina: Yeah. You know what my philosophy of life is?

Danny: Ach, I can imagine.

Tina: It’s over quick, so have a good time. You see what you want, go for it. Don’t pay any attention to anybody else. And do it to the other guy first, cause if you don’t, he’ll do it to you.

Danny: This is a philosophy of life? This sounds like the screenplay to Murder Incorporated. (Handing Tina a paper bag) Here, hold this for a second. That’s ridiculous. No wonder you don’t like yourself.

Tina: Stop saying that, I like myself fine.

Danny: I’m just saying down deep, I sense that you don’t.

Tina: You’re the one that’s living like a loser.

Danny: Why? Cause I haven’t made it? You see, that’s the beauty of this business. That’s the beauty of it. (Snaps his fingers.) Overnight, you can go from a bum to a hero. Like I think it’s going to happen now with Lou, and then I’m gonna—

Tina: We’d better get going, hurry up.

Danny: Well, just let me say one thing. My Uncle Sidney, man, you know, lovely uncle—dead, completely—used to say three things. Used to say, “Acceptance, forgiveness, and love.”

Tina: Yeah.

Danny: And that is a philosophy of life. Acceptance, forgiveness, and love. So there, there’s where it is. (Walking off screen, just before the scene cuts) So tell me more about the bamboo room. I love it.

You can see Woody the neurotic here, the recurring theme about guilt, but Danny remains sunny. He’s a born optimist, a nice break from Woody’s usual pessimism.

Woody’s previous film, Zelig, was the most technically ambitious and challenging movie he’d ever made. And after Danny Rose, he shot The Purple Rose of Cairo, which was structurally complicated (it’s one of my favorite movies he made that didn’t feature him as a performer).

Danny Rose was a breather for Allen, but right in his wheelhouse, both as a performer and as a filmmaker. “I can play a seedy character,” he said in an interview. “I could play a good book maker. I could play a Runyonesque character. I could play a gambler or a seedy manager because I’ve grown up with them, and I know I can do it…that’s my range.”

Danny Rose was the first time he got to play such a loser and watching it again, I wished Woody’d done a movie about a comic working the nightclubs—the short scene with him in the Catskills doing stand-up is priceless (something like what Billy Crystal did in that awful Mr. Saturday Night, Woody could have nailed that).

Danny Rose might not have been a stretch for him but it is one of his finest performances. It’s not just a broad characterization. He’s more engaged physically, and I love his body language and hand gestures, the Chai around his neck, the sprinkles of Yiddish in his conversation, “My hand to God, it’s the Emmis.”

Allen refers to this as his Italian movie, not because of the obvious Italian stock mob characters but because of its visual look.

He told Eric Lax in an interview:

For some reason I saw it in black-and-white because I wanted to make a 1950s Italian movie. And Gordon Willis understood instantly. He said, “It just feels better to me in black-and-white, too…Broadway Danny Rose is a spontaneous film the way I like them. I didn’t have to keep an eye on the sun—we wanted a visual style without artifice. And I worked in the European way, shooting in exteriors and real interiors…

Allen and Willis pay more tribute to Federico Fellini, though not nearly as overtly as they did in Stardust Memories, Woody’s 8 1/2 . There are grotesque-looking people framed in classic compositions, in the audience listening to Lou sing, at an Italian wedding. This is the closest the movie comes to being cold or talking down to its characters. Otherwise, Danny Rose is infused with zip, from the title credits and the upbeat tempo of the fabulously terrible “Agita,” to the narrative premise—a group of guys sitting around a deli telling stories. It might not have the unrequited affection of Radio Days, but it comes close. It only turns melancholic during the last twenty minutes, though it doesn’t lose its romantic tone.

And New York City looks great in the movie, scenes on the street, in traffic, real New York,  not some blocked-off Hollywood version. It’s not as carefully composed or as classically beautiful as Manhattan, but it captures the movement of the city–in the first scene where Danny pitches his acts you can see the Times Square traffic in the background and practically feel the Fuji Film sign inside the room.

When he was at his peak, as he was here, Woody’s fast (or “lazy” as he’s often called it) way of working was really winning. For instance, Woody didn’t–and doesn’t–shoot coverage (i.e., filming a scene from a variety of angles). Watching the scene where Danny and Tina first talk politely at the Italian wedding, I kept waiting for the cutaway shot that never came. The camera tracks alongside them and Farrow, her back to the camera for the first part of the scene, changes her position, and the composition as result. John Huston and all the great old storytellers loved doing this, cutting with the camera. Woody wasn’t afraid to have a character exit the frame and just be heard off-screen (think of the “You said my wife” scene from Annie Hall), and he isn’t afraid to use wide shots and get away from the action.

Everyone was in top form here, Juliet Taylor, the casting director, Mel Bourne, the production designer, Jeffrey Kurland, costumes, Sandy Morse, editor, Mia, and of course, Woody. It may not be Woody’s greatest movie but it’s the one I feel closest to in some ways because I like Danny Rose more than just about any Woody character. Nothing will ever replace Annie Hall, and Manhattan is great, but I have a particular affinity for Danny Rose because it’s realized in a professional and unpretentious way. Most of all, it’s endearing.  There to make you laugh and cry, quick fast, just like New York.

Woody’s working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia, a clinical term that means the inability to experience pleasure. Perfect joke for that movie. But in Danny Rose, life’s pleasures may be meager but they are real, like frozen thanksgiving dinner with Barney Dunn.

[Photo Credit: AnnabelB, the New York Times]


1 omarcoming   ~  Jul 14, 2010 11:01 am

When Russ Salzberg and Steve Sommers had a show on FAN it was so bad that when I accidentally hit the button and heard them I used to think that they belonged in the Catskills represented by Broadway Danny Rose.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 14, 2010 11:08 am

LOL, I remember that show. At least Sommers would take that as a compliment.

"Shandar would wriggle."

3 edoubletrouble   ~  Jul 14, 2010 11:35 am

Keep it coming Al Belt. Thanks.

4 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Jul 14, 2010 9:09 pm

An era of New York I wishe I had lived through..does it even still exist?

Enjoying the film series, keep them coming!

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver