Sissydude’s New Year’s Day Sinema: woody allen’s radio days (1987)
FILM: WOODY ALLEN’S FOND REMEMBRANCES OF ‘RADIO DAYS’
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: January 30, 1987
RADIOS once came in two basic models of wooden cabinets. The table-top, sheathed in oak or mahogany veneer, looked like a small, peak-roofed sentry box, with Romanesque or Gothic arches in front of the sometimes gold-flecked fabric masking the speaker.
The table-top radio added a certain tone to any suite of living-room furniture, though certainly not as much as the majestic console, the big, heavy floor-model that was a prized piece of furniture in its own right.
For most of us who were born before World War II – or even during the war’s early days – it’s sometimes difficult to realize that these extraordinary objects are now antiques, and that the material that poured from their speakers constituted a singular, if short-lived, popular art. We didn’t have to look at the radio -though we always did – to be swept up by the voice of the unknown diva on ”The Major Bowes Amateur Hour,” the awful dooms facing ”Little Orphan Annie,” the arcane knowledge possessed by contestants on ”Name That Tune,” the adventures of ”The Lone Ranger,” or the gaiety of the annual New Year’s Eve festivities at the Roosevelt Hotel, presided over by Guy Lombardo. We didn’t see a wooden cabinet, often scratched and scuffed, its speaker-fabric punctured by children who’d wanted to discover what was going on inside.
Instead we saw a limitless universe, created entirely out of voices, music and sound effects that liberated each mind in direct relation to the quality of its imagination. When Uncle Bob (or Ted or Ray) promised to send a shooting star over the house to mark a young listener’s birthday, the young listener, who had hung out the window for an hour without seeing the star, questioned not Uncle Bob (or Ted or Ray), but his own eyesight.
What’s sometimes referred to as the golden age of radio – roughly from the mid-30′s through the mid-40′s – holds a privileged position in the memories of most of us who grew up with it. Radio wasn’t outside our lives. It coincided with – and helped to shape – our childhood and adolescence. As we slogged toward maturity, it also grew up and turned into television, leaving behind, like dead skin, transistorized talk-radio and nonstop music shows.
It’s this brief and, in hindsight, enchanted period that Woody Allen remembers in his most buoyant, comic and poignantly expressed of memoirs, titled, with his unflagging, poetic exactitude, ”Radio Days.”
”Radio Days,” which opens today at the New York Twin and other theaters, is as free in form as it is generous of spirit. It’s a chronicle of a family during the radio years, as well as a series of short-short stories. These follow, one after another, like the tales of Scheherazade, if Scheherazade had been a red-headed little Jewish boy in the Rockaways, born poor, star-struck, infinitely curious, and seriously incompetent as a juvenile criminal.
The little boy, Joe (Seth Green), whose recollected thoughts are spoken on the soundtrack by Mr. Allen, is so happily lost in the world of radio that he scarcely notices the Depression around him. He has ”Breakfast With Irene and Roger,” who hobnob with the rich and famous (and talk about it the next morning), and he knows the true, inside story of Sally White (Mia Farrow), of ”Sally White and Her Great White Way,” who’s radio’s most glamorous Broadway gossip columnist. He enjoys the intense arguments about the stars: ”He’s a ventriloquist on radio. How do you know he doesn’t move his lips?”
The boy’s first loyalty is to the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), a Green Hornet-sort of radio vigilante who, at the moment of triumph, says heartily, ”It’s off to jail for you! I hope you enjoy making license plates!”
To buy the Masked Avenger’s ”secret-compartment ring,” Joe helps himself to donations intended for the ”Jewish Homeland Fund.” This leads to a good deal of physical stress in a confrontation with his parents and his rabbi, who compete with each other for the right of beating the boy senseless (in the middle of which Joe solemnly addresses the rabbi as ”My faithful Indian companion”).
Joe is, indeed, surrounded by stress and aggravation, from morning to night. ”Turn off the radio,” screams his mother (Julie Kavner). ”Why should I?” says the boy. ”You listen to it.” ”That’s different,” she says. ”Our lives are ruined anyway.” Radio is Joe’s Camelot. Never has Mr. Allen been so steadily in control, as ”Radio Days” slides from low blackout sketch to high satire to family drama that’s as funny as it is moving.
One of the film’s many performances-without-price is Dianne Wiest’s as Joe’s ever-hopeful, unmarried Aunt Bea, who’s attracted to the wrong men mostly because they’re the only ones available. On a foggy night, while parked at Breezy Point, a particularly promising suitor hysterically abandons Bea when he hears the news that the Martians have landed in New Jersey.
”Radio Days” is so densely packed with vivid detail of place, time, music, event and character that it’s virtually impossible to take them all in in one sitting. Carlo Di Palma is again responsible for the stunning photography, and Santo Loquasto for the production design.
Among the memorable presences who fill the screen there are old Mrs. Silverman, who has a fatal heart attack – her teacup halfway to her lips – after watching a white woman kiss a black man, and gentle Mr. Zipsky who, without warning, has a breakdown and takes a meat cleaver to his neighbors. Also: genial Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel), who goes next door to complain to the radical neighbors, playing their radio on the high holy days, and returns several hours later as a confirmed Marxist.
The members of the huge cast are uniformly splendid. Many, like Tony Roberts, Danny Aiello and Jeff Daniels, are familiar from earlier Allen films, while others, like David Warrilow and Tito Puente, are new.
The film is nothing if not generous with – and to – its talent. Miss Farrow is hilariously common-sensical as the ambitious cigarette girl (”Who is Pearl Harbor?” she asks in bewilderment on Dec. 7, 1941), and Diane Keaton, on the screen only a few minutes, helps to bring the film to its magical conclusion with a lovely, absolutely straight rendition of ”You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to.” It’s New Year’s Eve, 1943, and Mr. Allen’s radio days are as numbered as those of Proust’s old Prince de Guermantes.
”Those voices,” says the narrator by way of a benediction, ”grow dimmer and dimmer.”
At this point I can’t think of any film maker of Mr. Allen’s generation with whom he can be compared, certainly no one at work in American movies today. As the writer, director and star (even when he doesn’t actually appear) of his films, Mr. Allen works more like a novelist who’s able to pursue his own obsessions, fantasies and concerns without improvements imposed on him by committees.
At this point, too, his films can be seen as part of a rare continuum. Each of us has his favorite Allen movie, but to cite one over another as ”more important,” ”bigger,” ”smaller” or ”less significant” is to miss the joys of the entire body of work that is now taking shape. ”Radio Days” is a joyful addition.
Mr. Allen, our most prodigal cinema resource, moves on.