Comedian, writer, actor, film director and auteur Woody Allen has had his ups and downs throughout his prolific career. Success came early with his funny film spoofs like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) and SLEEPER (1973), Allen hit his zenith with the Oscar winning ANNIE HALL (1977) and the critically acclaimed MANHATTAN (1979). But since 1990, Allen has had more misses (SHADOWS AND FOG, EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, and SCOOP) then semi-hits (VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA or the recent MIDNIGHT IN PARIS).
But in the mid to late 80's, Woody Allen had, in my opinion, a stretch of four films (you could throw in a fifth - BROADWAY DANNY ROSE too) that are some of my favorites in his film resume. Three of them - ZELIG (1983), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) I had seen before. But RADIO DAYS (1987), Allen's nostalgic revisit to his growing up during the Golden Age of Radio was the one I had not seen.
One reason I enjoyed RADIO DAYS is that Allen does not appear in the film. He's the narrator of the film. I like Woody Allen as an actor but sometimes his shtick gets a tad old. Playing the Allen character as a youth is Seth Green. Having Allen as the voice over is a wonderful device as he is a great storyteller. As Allen regales us with stories of his favorite radio shows early in the film, it reminded me of my father telling me about his favorite radio shows when he was a kid like The Shadow or Sky King or Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. In the 30's and 40's, the radio was the television, the Internet, MTV, ESPN, CNN, and Entertainment Tonight all rolled into one.
RADIO DAYS is a series of stories, memories, and anecdotes of Radio's heyday framed around Allen's growing up in a lower middle class Jewish family in Rockaway, New York just before and during World War II. We meet young Joe (Seth Green) who dreams up ways of buying a replica of the secret decoder ring worn by his radio hero the Masked Avenger. Joe's father (Michael Tucker) has a million get rich schemes while hiding his true profession from Joe. Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) brings home heaps of fish every day to his exasperated wife Ceil (Renee Lippin) to cook. Cousin Ruthie (Joy Newman) listens to the neighbor's phone calls on the party line ("Mrs. Waldbaum's having her ovaries taken out," she whispers to the family). Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) dreams of getting married but always ends up with the wrong man. And Joe's mother (Julie Kavner who would go on to become the voice for Marge Simpson) oversees her sweet but slightly nutty family.
Interwoven through their stories are the stars and shows of Radio: the Masked Avenger (who's really the bald, short Wallace Shawn); Breakfast with Irene and Roger; Guess That Tune; Radio G-Man Biff Baxter; Bill Kern and his Legends of Sports; and plenty of great music by the best big bands and orchestras of that era. Allen weaves in Orson Welles phony broadcast of a Martian invasion on one of Aunt Bea's dates. He also reminds us that not everything on the radio is wonderful. The first hand account of a young girl who fell down a well in Pennsyvlania ends in tragedy when the reporter announces her rescuers have brought her up dead.
One storyline that Allen uses as the bridge between his family stories and the world of radio is the fall and rise of Sally White (Mia Farrow) from Cigarette Girl at an uptown Manhattan club to gossip queen of the airwaves. Sally dreams of radio stardom but with her squeaky Brooklyn accent, her closest brush with the radio is casual trysts with radio stars like Roger (David Warrilow) from Breakfast with Irene and Roger. Fired from her Cigarette Girl gig, Sally's luck sort of changes when she accidentally witnesses her boss get shot at her new job. Hit man Rocco (Danny Aiello) takes her back to his Mom's house to finish her off but they discover they're both from the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Rocco gets her a part on a radio drama but the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupts that dream. We watch Sally go from singing to the troops to doing radio voice overs for a laxative commercial. Only after she takes diction lessons, does she find her true calling. She becomes a gossip columnist, reporting on all the show business shenanigans she saw when she was a cigarette and coat check girl.
With Sally's story, Allen captures all the different facets of the radio business. Just like when silent films went to sound, the right voice can mean all the difference in a radio performer's success or failure. Radio offered a variety of professions: singer, musician, news reporter, sports commentator, gossip columnist, actor or actress, commercial voice over talent, or host of game shows. Allen brings it all full circle on New Year's Eve 1944 as Sally and many other radio stars (Irene and Roger, the Masked Avenger, Biff Baxter) go on top of the roof to bring in the New Year. They sense the Age of Radio is almost over, lamenting it's imminent demise with the coming new year.
Allen tapped into some magical creative period with RADIO DAYS and the other films. Of the four films, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is the only modern one. But with ZELIG, PURPLE ROSE, and RADIO DAYS, he seems sentimental, revisiting childhood memories in one sense but also exploring the first half of the 20th Century and its newest diversions -- cinema and the radio. ZELIG is really his only special effects movie with Allen as Zelig inserted into historical newsreel footage and hobnobbing with historical figures, celebrities, and sports figures from the 1920's. In THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO celluloid star Jeff Daniels literally jumps out of the screen and into the real life of Depression-era waitress Mia Farrow. With RADIO DAYS, he's waxing nostalgia for his youth, the music and stars of the radio reminding him of events and stories in his formative years.
Actors from other Woody Allen films make small appearances in RADIO DAYS: Diane Keaton (ANNIE HALL), Tony Roberts (MANHATTAN), and Jeff Daniels (THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO) all appear in bit parts. If you look closely, you will also see William H. Macy and Larry David in brief roles. Woody Allen dated his leading ladies and RADIO DAYS is the only film that has his previous girlfriend Diane Keaton and his then current girlfriend Mia Farrow in the same film.
Fillmmaking is a collaborative process and I think Allen's success during this period can also be attributed to his editor Susan Morse, cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, and casting director Juliet Taylor who were involved in RADIO DAYS as well as some or all of the other three films. There is a synchronicity that happens when a director works with the same actors and crew. Creative sparks happen and everyone does their best work.
If RADIO DAYS was the end of Woody Allen's sentimental phase, his next phase would become a bit darker both artistically and professionally. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) to name a couple of films made after RADIO DAYS are meaner films about destructive relationships as people cheat on each other. Allen would eventually leave Mia Farrow for Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in 1992. And in my opinion, Allen's films got less interesting for a period of time after RADIO DAYS. But it looks like Woody Allen may have refound his magic again with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) which again has him mixing reality with fantasy. It was a style that he found success with during the mid-80's which RADIO DAYS can be counted as one of those hits.