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Sweeter, more gently humorous, and more hopeful than his later film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose covers similar moral ground - the notion of guilt and responsibility - and although not nearly as big a critical and commercial hit as the former film, it remains one of his most admired movies and Danny one of Allen's most likeable on-screen creations.
In Manhattan's famed Carnegie Deli, a group of old-style comics (the kind who honed their craft in the 1950s in Catskill hotels, on the night-club circuit, and, if they were lucky, with late-night appearances on the Tonight show) swap show-biz anecdotes. One of their favorite subjects is loveable schlemiel Danny Rose, a failed comic turned theatrical manager, an amiable loser with a roster of blind xylophonists, one-legged tap dancers, and balloon acts he tries desperately to hawk to every producer and club owner he can gain access to. As one comic launches into "the best Danny Rose story," the story flashes back to the time when Danny finally gets his most marketable act, a nightclub singer named Lou Canova. Together they get the break they've both been waiting for, a spot on an upcoming Milton Berle TV special. Lou once had a hit record in the 1950s, and Danny hopes to take advantage of the emerging nostalgia craze. But first, Lou has to impress Berle with his act, and he refuses to go on unless Danny will "beard" for him by escorting Lou's mistress, Tina, to the show and keeping their affair secret from his wife. Reluctantly, Danny agrees to pick up the volatile and brassy Mafia widow from her New Jersey apartment. But through a series of insane circumstances and misunderstandings, the two find themselves on the run from the vengeful brothers of a man in love with Tina.
Their escape takes them through the Jersey Meadowlands (where they're rescued by a super-hero from a TV commercial), across the Hudson on a tugboat, and into a giant facility warehousing balloons from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (where they have a shouting match with voices pitched high from inhaling helium). Safe at last and with a newfound affection for each other, they arrive at Lou's gig just in time to witness his triumph. But immediately after, Danny learns that Tina has been maneuvering behind his back to get Lou to leave him and seek more high-powered management.
It's the story of Danny's life - absolute devotion to the needs and careers of his clients followed by betrayal and rejection once they get their first shot at the big time. Devastated, Danny returns to the bizarre little acts he knows will never break through - and never leave him - while Tina finds herself unable to enjoy her new life with the temporarily more successful Lou. Although she always lived by a life's-too-short philosophy ("I never feel guilty. You gotta do what you gotta do, you know?"), she finds herself nagged by remorse, finally understanding Danny's belief that without the appropriate amount of guilt, "you're capable of terrible things." Unable to live with herself any more, she seeks him out, and finds him serving frozen turkey TV dinners to his remaining clients on Thanksgiving Day.
In its wacky comic way (with images that call to mind Fellini and a tender pathos worthy of Chaplin), Broadway Danny Rose has a lot to say about the power of imagination and the need for a positive attitude in a world where nice guys finish last and people without morals rise to the top. It's also a loving homage to a now-vanished type of show business. Although the flashback story is set circa 1969 (via a reference to the moon landing), its connections to the Borscht belt entertainment circuit; the use of Berle, the deli comics, New York local talk show host Joe Franklin; and its pointed mention of Weinstein's Majestic Bungalow Colony in the Catskills (where Allen got his start performing magic tricks at 16 years old) seem to place it much earlier. Its semi-Runyanesque dialogue and emphasis on old-fashioned values of loyalty and honesty do much to add to that impression.
A lot of the charm of the film lies in its offbeat casting. Allen himself does some of his best acting as Danny, particularly in the scene where he is betrayed by Lou and Tina, and Mia Farrow has never gone further outside her usual range and image. In a blonde bouffant, with padding under her clothes, and hiding behind dark glasses (a "very, very brave thing for her to do," acting the whole picture without using her eyes, Allen said), she is almost unrecognizable. The storytellers in the deli are all real comics with one exception, Allen's own manager, Jack Rollins, who is said to be the inspiration for the Danny character. Robert De Niro, Danny Aiello, and Sylvester Stallone were all considered for the role of Lou Canova, but Nick Apollo Forte was chosen after a casting director came across one of his self-produced albums in a record store. The ex-fisherman and Connecticut-based singer had never seen a Woody Allen film before, and to date has not made another picture. As for Aiello, he was so devastated at not getting the part, he went into a room and cried for two weeks, he said. Allen compensated by giving him plum parts in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987).
Finally, one can't overlook the part played by the Carnegie Deli as the central location for the movie. The owner, Leo Steiner, played himself in the deli scenes, and although the place had to be closed for two entire days to accommodate filming, Steiner didn't complain; in fact, he said after the film's release, business was better than ever. In the movie, Danny has a sandwich named after him at the deli - cream cheese on bagel with marinara sauce (a play on the merged worlds of guilty Jew Danny and brash Italian Tina). Later, Steiner created his own Danny Rose specialty for the menu - corned beef, pastrami and coleslaw with a customized doggy bag. Although many celebrities have had sandwiches named for them at the Carnegie Deli, Danny Rose and Dagwood (from the "Blondie" comic strip) are the only fictional characters with that distinction.
Director: Woody Allen
Producers: Charles H. Joffe, Robert Greenhut
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Editing: Susan E. Morse
Production Design: Mel Bourne
Original Music: Nick Apollo Forte (songs "Agita" and "My Bambina")
Cast: Woody Allen (Danny Rose), Mia Farrow (Tina Vitale), Nick Apollo Forte (Lou Canova), Craig Vandenburgh (Ray Webb), Herb Reynolds (Barney Dunn), Paul Greco (Vito Rispoli), Frank Renzulli (Joe Rispoli), Sandy Baron, Corbett Monica, Jackie Gayle, Morty Gunty, Will Jordan, Milton Berle (as themselves).
by Rob Nixon