Star, Smile, Strong: Keeping Confident about the Visual Irony in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE
4 November 2012
Woody Allen’s signature style of filmmaking is best exemplified in his films of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s (arguably breaking consistency after Husbands and Wives in 1992). Humor, intellect, clever and experimental camerawork, timing, nostalgia, along with a dash of anxiety ridden neurosis are a few key parts of Allen’s unparalleled style; however, Allen’s cinematic fluency makes it difficult to pinpoint all the aspects of his mastery. Even with Broadway Danny Rose, a film often cited as simple and small, the complexity of its cinematic construction is awe-inspiring. For a simple film it tells a complicated framed story of mistaken identity. And, for a small film it spans from Manhattan to the New Jersey Marshland and back again, even gets as grandiose as, well, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, twice. This, too, is part of Allen’s style; communicating complicated and large events from the perspective of Everyman, and therefore expressing complex and big as simple and small.
Broadway Danny Rose is, without a doubt, an achievement for Allen, highlighting Allen as auteur. The film accents the key parts of Allen’s style, and one of the ways the film does this is through silent, well-placed visual irony. These ironic visual cues are easy to miss, however Allen does his best to guide audiences’ attention toward them, and once spotted these passing spectacles enhance Allen’s distinct style.
Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a talent manager in New York City. Only trouble is Danny Rose does not have much talent to manage. Danny’s cliental is made up of a one-legged dancer, balloon animal artists, and a blind juggler, all entertainers who Danny sees potential in; unfortunately, he is the only person who sees this potential. One of Danny’s clients, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), experienced some success with singing back in the 1950s, and, as luck will have it, finds himself on the road to a comeback, just so long as he can impress Milton Berle (himself) during a live performance at The Waldorf Astoria. Lou, who is now an overweight, womanizing drunk, tells Danny he cannot perform without his newest flame, a woman named Tina (Mia Farrow), at his side, and he begs Danny to act as “beard” for the night, meaning Danny will take Tina to the show so Lou’s wife will not realize her husband has another woman on the side. Danny, of course, agrees, but reluctantly. When he arrives to pick-up Tina she is mid phone argument with Lou and tells the singer she will not be attending his show. With his talent’s big night compromised by Tina’s “moody” behavior, Danny chases after Tina in hopes of getting her to The Waldorf Astoria. Unfortunately for Danny, Tina has another boy-toy besides Lou, and her other on-again, off-again boyfriend is a member of organized crime. He mistakenly thinks Tina has stepped out with Danny behind his back. All of a sudden Danny is not doing the chasing; he and Tina are being chased. With the mob in hot pursuit, Danny and Tina try desperately to make it to Lou’s big performance, but they meet obstacles at every corner, including an unforgettable—and hilarious—run-in with the floats from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Visual irony is all over Broadway Danny Rose. For example, when Danny and Lou are walking across the street during a bustling afternoon in Manhattan, they pass a movie theater and the marquee primarily advertises Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). (Q is also advertised, but the eye is drawn to Halloween III.) The marquee, glowing in lights, was not an oversight for director Allen; he clearly realized while filming this scene Halloween III was being advertised and made the directorial decision to include the theatre and its marquee in his shot.
As a brief aside, it is always interesting when a movie includes a movie within itself. Meaning, mentioning a film within a film reminds audiences they, too, are watching a movie. This can be a slippery slope. Any realism the film establishes is therefore compromised by the allusion to cinema within the film. However, in Broadway Danny Rose, the audience knows right from the start they are simply watching a story. The film begins with a bunch of comedians at a table in Carnegie Deli, and one of the men begins the story of Danny Rose and Lou Canova. Occasionally, the film cuts back to these comedians, which, in its own way, consistently reminds the audience the film is not reality and merely a story; therefore, Halloween III within Broadway Danny Rose does not compromise the film.
In fact, this visual irony adds to the film. Halloween III: Season of the Witch tanked with audiences and critics alike. Hiding behind the Michael Meyers’s-famed Halloween title, Halloween III veered away from Haddonfield’s masked homicidal maniac, instead making children’s masks the evil villain (yes, that is right, blood-sucking masks). The film is a waste from beginning to end. To digress again, it rips off a far superior franchise and was released on its namesake’s holiday in hopes of attracting a fear-seeking crowd who might mistakenly think Halloween III could satisfy their horror craving. But, back to Broadway Danny Rose, is this not exactly the type of movie Danny would get behind? Of all the people in the world, isn’t Danny Rose one of the only ones who would find the silver lining in Halloween III? Absolutely. As he walks in front of the theatre’s marquee with Lou, desperately trying to convince this washed-up singer, and perhaps himself, a comeback is right around the corner if focus is held, the irony of the shot suddenly hits the audience. Lou is to Halloween III as Danny is to whoever produced that flop. This sly irony is hilarious.
Another example of visual irony in Broadway Danny Rose is the No Smoking signs, which appear consistently throughout the film. The audience sees the signs in Lou’s gym, the room Danny and Tina are tied up in, and the storage warehouse for the Macy’s Parade floats, just to name a few places. Conversely, everyone, aside from Danny, is smoking throughout the film: Tina smokes, the comedians at Carnegie Deli smoke, even the film’s extras smoke. Already, Allen establishes irony by including, and even highlighting, these No Smoking signs while characters smoke their way through the film. Adding to that, even though Danny does not smoke he certainly blows smoke throughout the film. The popular expression blowing smoke typically refers to a person who talks to make himself/herself, or a topic at hand, sound more important than it actually is. Essentially, this defines Danny Rose, and makes his placement around the No Smoking signs just as ironic as the literal smokers in the film. While he never blows smoke about himself, as a small-time talent manager Danny’s job is to blow smoke about clients. And, Danny does not stop there; Danny blows smoke every time he opens his mouth. Be it when rambling to the 75-year-old woman visiting bedridden psychic Angelina (Olga Barbato) or the verbal rollercoaster to Tina regarding her interior decorating skill, there he blows. Once again, these ironic signs are humorous, as well as clever and always well-timed.
If popular opinion is correct, and big things come in small packages, than it must be true that Broadway Danny Rose is a small film packing something big into almost every shot. The visual irony is as distinct a part of Allen’s auteur style as neurotic character(s), tracking shots, or New York City, and it is unquestionably evident in Broadway Danny Rose.