Starting off my list of films from 1984 is this Woody Allen comedy that has a lot of resonance for me because of some personal history. I never lived in New York, and I only know the Catskills from movies and TV shows over the years, but the theatrical world of variety acts and agents is something I do have familiarity with. The opening of this movie, with a set of comics eating at the Carnegie Deli and telling stories to each other rings incredibly true. I spent plenty of time waiting on my Dad as he traded anecdotes with other performers in a bar, restaurant, or magic shop. They all enjoy a funny story and they all want to one up the last story. They get caught up in the tales and pay little attention to anyone else while they are engaged. This set up rings true and although the story is a little over the top, it sounds exactly like something that could happen to show biz types without much embellishment. The ethnic stereotypes and New York setting aside, this could easily be a story my father could have told or heard someone else tell.
Danny Rose represents a clientele that works in a different spectrum of venues. He has a musical bird act, a balloon twisting act, a one legged tap dancer and most importantly a nostalgia style singer that never quite made the big time but is on the verge of a comeback. Danny is a “Personal” manager, he engages his clients and works with them to build their act, he is not just a booker. In this capacity he gets involved with the mistress of his singing act, stepping up as the “beard” for her when an important performance comes up. What ensues is one of the better Allen comedy films of the 1980s. Mistaken identities get mixed with cornball jokes and odd characters and there is also a touch of warmth to the film that is often missing from some of his more biting films.
Sometimes the humor comes at the expense of the struggling theatrical acts but it is not usually of the ironic hipster tone. That an act can get work at all in some cases is amazing but Danny Rose believes in his client list and that is the one thing that most inspires the comics gathered in the deli to talk about and even admire him. The comics may be cruel but they are honest and they understand that not everyone will be a headliner. The singer is just talented enough for the gigs he is playing and his weaknesses are self inflicted mistakes due to drinking and libido. Danny’s willingness to dive in and help, even when he knows that some of it is not going to go well should inspire a lot more loyalty and the most ironic element of the film is that the act he works the hardest for is the one that is least grateful.
Throughout the adventure he shares with the mistress and the negotiations he engages in on behalf of his clients, Danny always has a philosophy he is ready to share. Usually one provided by a colorful assortment of relatives that he drops into the conversation at appropriate points. While the platitudes may sound silly, they are often wise in spite of the fact that they are being delivered under ridiculous circumstances.
Allen plays Allen, and he even gets to riff on his original persona as a comic when it is recalled how Danny Rose got into the business. The movie is filmed in black and white which is almost a trademark for Woody Allen films in the 70s and 80s. It works really well at making a contemporary story feel like a throwback to an earlier time. My memory of seeing it in theaters is a little vague, it is likely that I saw it in one of three locations; the small house (Gold Theater) in Alhambra, the Hastings Ranch Theaters, or the Cinema General Theaters in the Santa Anita Mall. I also know I saw it much later than the opening day, but in 1984, a movie could stay in a theater for a couple of months, they were not shuttled off immediately to home-video.
[Trying to get a booking for a client]
Danny Rose: My hand to God, she’s gonna be at Carnegie Hall. But you – I’ll let you have her now at the old price, OK? Which is, which is anything you wanna give me. Anything at all.