Friday, January 13, 2017

Radio Days (1987)

USA, 88 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Woody Allen mixtape
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Seth Green, Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Danny Aiello, Josh Mostel, Wallace Shawn, Don Pardo, Kenneth Mars, Tito Puente, Larry David, Jeff Daniels, Kitty Carlisle, Tony Roberts, Diane Keaton

This charming Woody Allen picture may be somewhat overlooked because it's a tricky one to categorize. Or maybe because it doesn't seem that original. Director and writer Allen has basically taken the flashback sequences from Annie Hall 10 years earlier and blown them up into a neat little feature, just under 90 minutes like most of his movies. It's closer to an essay-film than anything, a sentimental memoir of childhood years built around anecdotes and songs connected with that early instrument of mass media, the radio. Allen touches on radio theater dramas such as The Shadow (or his version, "The Masked Avenger"), daytime gossip shows, news featurettes, quiz shows, and more, including, at one point, a hit parade of the songs that played.

The structure is freewheeling, friendly, open—deceptively easygoing, with a very sharp screenplay that moves like a stream from anecdote to tall tale and back again. His family is full of characters, a mother (Julie Kavner) and father (Michael Tucker) who present an interesting contrast to what we would see in another 10 years in the documentary Wild Man Blues. I guess "idealized" covers it. They sure look like nice parents through the prism of this movie. There is also extended family: an Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), perennially single, and more aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, and hangers-on, kooky characters all. Woody Allen's voice is all over it as the narrator, but the screenplay is as tight as anything he's done, he's never in the frame, and it often feels like sitting around talking to him, or listening, as he holds court.

And he's in great form, at ease and in full control of the material. Some of the threads disappear and reappear, such as the story of Sally White (Mia Farrow), a cigarette girl in a nightclub who eventually finds her way into radio entertainment. Others are blackout sight gags like you'd see in vaudeville, played purely for laughs. You never know what the payoffs are going to be to any scene—sometimes, as when Allen as a boy happens to see a German submarine briefly surfacing in the Atlantic Ocean, they are poignant and strangely powerful. The only common link is Allen and the ways that radio connected the people around him. It's elaborately fictional, but thinly disguised. The years covered are from the late '30s—Orson Welles's 1938 Halloween prank version of The War of the Worlds is part of an early scene—and into the war years, up to a New Year's Eve celebration welcoming in 1944.

Real life as mediated by radio is focused on a few times. The Welles prank is a great example of how radio was building and creating a mass news audience as we understand it now. Allen cheats a little by including an incident based on the Kathy Fiscus accident, a three-year-old girl who, in 1949, was trapped in a well in California and eventually died. The incident was actually more of a bonanza for early television. Until it was known that Fiscus was dead her plight was a riveting media spectacle. Billy Wilder's Ace In the Hole and Jack Webb's -30- are two movies that also used the incident. In Radio Days, however, Allen moves it back to the war years, and it is radio rather than TV drawing people together to focus obsessively in real time on the incident. It's a nice interlude here.

Allen is playing with radio on many different levels, though usually sweetened, for better or worse, with an undertow of sentimental wistfulness. He finds great ways to show, for example, how dependent radio drama is on a listener's imagination, with scenes showing what he imagined. One of the best is a news featurette about an inspirational baseball pitcher who lost a leg and kept pitching, then lost an arm (not his pitching arm) and kept pitching, and then was blinded and kept pitching. In another scene, a character complains about a ventriloquist act being on the radio, saying it's ridiculous because you can't see whether or not the lips of the ventriloquist are moving. But this throwaway gag also helps us understand how important the timing of the alternating voices in a ventriloquist's act is, how that is what creates the illusion more than anything visual.

Of course Allen works in the joke of a manly hero of radio drama being voiced by a shrimpy homunculus. That's just too easy to leave out. Wallace Shawn gets those honors again, as the Masked Avenger. Mia Farrow exercises her most piercing voice for much of the show, but she's got some good moments too. Diane Keaton even gets a cameo, singing a song. Better times, better times. One of the best parts is when Allen lines up a handful of hit songs from the period, building stories and visual moments out of them, even turning one briefly into a comical music video. If you like your 1940s reminiscing with big helpings of golden glow, and you don't have anything in particular against Woody Allen, this is a pretty nice way to spend an evening.

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