Despite the often cruel strictures of many American critics, who seem to think him a bore, I couldn’t contemplate a list of favourite films without one from Woody Allen. He is, after all, one of the most fluent directors in the US and certainly a funnier man than Jim Carrey, Steve Martin or Adam Sandler.
It may seem a little eccentric to choose Broadway Danny Rose above the much-Oscared Annie Hall, or perhaps Manhattan. It is, however, one of Allen’s most perfect films, a comedy about New York’s legendary talent agent who gets hold of a washed up crooner and propels him back into near-stardom. Allen plays Danny not as the usual Woody character, full of self-doubt, but as a minor wizard who could make a piano-playing bird into a genuine celebrity. Enthusiasm is Danny’s middle name.
Perhaps I like this film so much because it lacks the ambition that besets Allen from time to time, causing the kind of hollow copy of Bergman that was Interiors, or the cold proficiency of the admittedly very clever Zelig. Besides, it’s an incredibly true portrayal of the lower reaches of showbiz – always more fascinating than the higher echelons (as John Osborne realised when he wrote The Entertainer). And if you’re the sort of person who wants to hear what the loser has to say rather than the winner, then either Broadway Danny Rose or Radio Days come high on the list of unselfconscious but precisely observed Allen films.
Nick Apollo Forte is Lou Canova, a singer not of the first rank, and an alcoholic. He has both a long-suffering wife and a mistress who belongs to a Mafia hood. He’s so good an actor that you wonder what became of him, just as you wonder what becomes of Lou when Danny finally has to give up on him. He and Woody are the centre of this celebration of a Broadway not too far from Damon Runyan. Around them are spread the out-of-work no hopers, the vicious and ungrateful success stories, the dumb showgirls and the even dumber gangsters we’ve come to know so well in lesser if much more portentous movies.
The film starts marvellously, with a group of comics sitting around a Carnegie Deli table trading stories about Danny and his exploits on behalf of his clients. Since Allen wrote the script, even the made-up tales are funny. Then we see how Danny gets Lou on the road again, riding the nostalgia boom of the time, booking him into Top 40 concerts and finally finding him a date at the Waldorf, with Milton Berle in the audience looking for guests for his TV special.
Lou trying to persuade Danny to take his girlfriend to the Waldorf so she won’t get upset is another hilarious sequence. But if he’s good – a drunken egotist with a heart of silver – so is Mia Farrow as the girl, a brassy Mafia blonde with a taste in hair and dress styles that might suit the fashion sense of a lowly henchman of Capone.
In all, this is a film which inhabits New York just as well as Annie Hall but looks at a different kind of instantly recognisable inhabitant. Perhaps it sails near caricature at times. But then so does the world we’re observing. As for Danny Rose himself, this is one of Woody’s most actorly performances. For once he forgets himself and plays someone else. This isn’t to downgrade his other good films. Just to say that sometimes small is best.