Maybe the early 1980s were the most creative part of Woody Allen’s film career. In Zelig, Radio Days, Purple Rose of Cairo, he did things with film that he had not done before; and would seldom do again. He moved away from the parodies that lay behind Sleeper, Play it Again, Sam, or Love and Death. They are not pastiche Fellini or Bergman films like Stardust Memories, Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy etc. They are free from the egocentricity, the desire to present the director/star as a savvy Manhattanite that appears in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah, Crimes….
Amongst this group of assorted, eclectic films, Broadway Danny Rose stands out as the most eccentric. It is completely sui generis in his career, not least for the fact that it establishes its own filmic universe, not one borrowed from Fellini, Bergman, classic photos of New York, other films. A shot of Mia Farrow looking at herself in a mirror might be an echo of Persona, but it is not used in the same way. It is a look, a style that he never used again, sadly. It verges on the Chaplinesque and, when this film came out, I did think and hope that he would pursue this route. But he did not. The other influences sketched above came back into play, plus an increasing reliance on talkiness that recalls the films of, say, Henry Jaglom.
Broadway Danny Rose is closer to the Chaplin of The New Janitor or The Bank than to any other Woody Allen film. The character he plays is a charming hustler on the fringes of show business, responsible for the careers of a bunch of bizarre no-hopers. He puts everything he has into these acts but, if they achieve any measure of success, they leave him. The basic scenario instantly sets it apart from the normal Woody Allen film. It is not about him. He is an ever-optimistic, chirpy failure: a Chaplinesque figure rather than the usual Allen hero. And then, at the end, when Tina seeks him out to apologise for scheming with Lou Canova to get him on the books of another agent, there is a scene worthy to be compared with the recognition scene in City Lights – a parallel that I do not think any critic pointed out at the time. There is real pathos here, a depth and intensity of emotion rare in Allen’s films.
It is told and shot in a very unusual way. A group of comedians meet in a deli and swap stories until, finally, one of them tells his favourite Danny Rose story. The film is mediated through this narrator – a device that emphasises both how low in the economic pecking order Danny Rose and his acts were, but also the esteem and affection in which these people hold him. The look of the film is also unusual. This is not the glossy black and white of film noir. It is not the stylish art deco black and white of musicals. This is the grimy, dingy black and white of 50s television and newsreels. The deli is a deli, not some glamourised, gleaming restaurant. Danny’s apartment has paint peeling from the walls. It has a texture of authenticity. The sequences set in resort hotels remind you of old TV variety/cabaret programmes – “live from the Coconut Grove” etc.
The film plays with the screen persona of Mia Farrow. Her elfin features are obscured behind large sun-glasses for most of the film. She is pushy and mouthy in a way she never was in her earlier films. It reinvented her screen career, showing that she could be more than just a teenage victim or a bit of decorative fluff.
Two further sequences deserve mention. When they visit Danny’s apartment to collect his things, he learns of Tina’s desire to go into interior design. His supportive, building instincts immediately click into action. The scene rounds out his character – he really does like to help people to realise their potential. The other scene involves Barney Dunn, a hopeless ventriloquist. To escape from the mobsters, Danny gives them Barney’s name, in the belief that he would be out of town or in Puerto Rico. But he is not. They find him and beat him savagely. Danny visits him in hospital and promises to help. A low-key scene, full of pathos: Chaplinesque.