“Broadway Danny Rose” opens at the famed Carnegie Deli located in midtown Manhattan, known for its huge Pastrami and Corned Beef sandwiches and as a well known show business hangout for many of the old time Borscht Belt comedians of yesterday. At one table dishing out old show biz stories are comedians Corbett Monica, Sandy Baron, Jackie Gayle and Will Jordan among others all playing themselves. Also in the group is Jack Rollins, Allen’s long time producer. The tales go around, back and forth, names come and go until Sandy Baron announces he has the best Danny Rose story ever. We flash back to a time not too long in the past.
Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a fourth rate theatrical agent whose client list is filled with some of oddest acts in show business including a one legged dancer, a woman who plays musical glasses, a blind Xylophonist and a stuttering ventriloquist. Danny is a good hearted loser who believes in his clients worth no matter how bad they are. He is willing to go to the extreme to keep his acts happy and get them jobs. It’s this dedication that gets him in trouble when he becomes involved with his top client’s mistress and some unfriendly gangsters who mistake Danny as her lover.
Danny’s big act these days is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), a has been lounge singer in the mode of Sinatra, Dino, Jerry Vale, Tony Roselli, Buddy Greco and Al Martino, only Lou isn’t anywhere nearly as good. He’s a one hit wonder who after twenty-five years is attempting to make a comeback. Lou also has a drinking problem and is cheating on his wife with TIna Vitale (Mia Farrow), the former girlfriend of a now dead gangster. When Lou gets his big break, a gig at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where Milton Berle is going to see the show in order to consider Lou for a TV special, Lou wants Tina there in the audience. Danny is sent out to New Jersey to bring Tina back. When Danny catches up with Tina, it turns out to be at the estate of her former boyfriend’s “family.” One misunderstanding leads to another and Danny quickly finds himself in the middle of Soprano land with a contract on his head. Danny not only finds himself on the run from the mob but he is also losing his rising star of a client when Tina tells Lou, now that he is back in the big time, he needs to get a better agent than Danny.
Allen creates a nostalgic world filled with the lower levels of New York’s show business community that he knew so well from his early days as a writer and standup comedian. There is a colorful Damon Runyon like quality to most the characters. Allen himself plays his classic Woody character, a more modern version of one of his childhood heroes, Bob Hope.
Mia Farrow is practically unrecognizable as Tina Vitale, filled with padding and makeup along with a cheap blonde wig and an endless supply of cigarettes. Farrow proved herself a comedic talent with a character who was “Jersey Shore” material twenty five years before the show existed. Having seen the waif like Farrow in many films prior to this, her performance here as a hard edged, tough Italian broad is delightfully unexpected. The character came about after a visit to Rao’s Italian restaurant in East Harlem, a well known dining spot for celebrities and the well connected. With only, eight tables, the place is booked months in advance. The owner’s daughter-in-law was a constant smoker who wore large dark sunglasses and had a mile high blonde bouffant hairdo. Farrow mentioned one night ,when they were dining there, she would one day like to play a character like this colorful woman. Taking this as a cue, Woody set about writing the story that would become “Broadway Danny Rose.”
While looking for someone to play Lou Canova, the third rate Italian singer, Woody’s casting director Juliet Taylor was browsing through the LP’s at the famed Colony Records store on Broadway, which can be quickly viewed in the film, and came across a self produced album by Nick Apollo Forte, a part time singer and part time fisherman. Nick had been singing for years, even writing some songs like “Agita” that would be included in the movie. After considering actors like Robert DeNiro and Danny Aiello Woody went with the inexperienced Forte for Lou Conova, a one hit wonder whose career has been in the dumps since that hit slid off the charts some twenty five years earlier. Forte’s career in the big time did not last long. His only other appearance on film was in “The Ellen Burstyn Show,” a sit-com that last 13 weeks or sadly, about as long as Nick’s career at the top. Today, Nick still performs live and still has a couple of CD’s out there available for purchase.
One of my favorite scenes is in the beginning of the film when the roundtable of comedians at the Carnegie Deli are discussing Danny. One of them mentions how Danny started out himself as a standup comedian and we flashback to Danny performing in a Catskills nightclub doing his standup routine, “I drove up here today,” he says. ” I love driving. You run across so many interesting people.” The scene plays out nicely as a small reminder that Woody himself was a standup comic early in his career performing in clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village as well as other spots across the country.
As with many of Allen’s films there’s a strong romantic, nostalgic feel to it, a longing for the past. We see it in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Zelig,” “Radio Days,” and even his latest “Midnight in Paris,” all have that same touch. Like most of Allen’s film the romantic imagery is expressed in long shots, a walk along a pier, or as in the final scene on Thanksgiving Day when Danny runs after Tina. Yet, the film has a gritty visual quality to it that fits the era of a New York not yet recovered from years of high crime and financial pain. This is thanks to Gordon Willis’ evocative black and white photography.
Despite Danny’s “bad luck” with clients he always remains upbeat. Even after being stabbed, figuratively speaking, by Tina, he is still there for his clients come the following Thanksgiving Day, gathering all his odd clientele in his rundown apartment for a holiday meal of frozen turkey dinners. Though the scene plays out as humorous, it is also very touching. Danny cares and does take care of these loveable losers. The film’s ending reconciliation between Danny and Tina is tender, sweet and well after spending an hour and a half with him, you know it’s so Danny Rose…and Woody Allen.