Radio Days

May 27, 2011

With the opening scene of Radio Days, Woody Allen sets the comic-nostalgic tone that permeates his newest film. The narrator’s voice begins a “Once Upon a Time” story about two bumbling burglars ransacking a darkened home. Suddenly, the phone rings, and the dimwitted thieves decide to answer it.

Cut to the source of the call: a live radio broadcast of “Name That Tune,” where the announcer breathlessly informs the “homeowner” that he will win big prizes if he can identify some songs. Which, with amusingly misplaced intensity, the burglar promptly does (“Uh—lemme think—”Dancing in the Dark’?” “You’re absolutely right!”).

This sharp comic idea is capped by the real homeowners awakening the next morning to the sight of a truckload’s worth of unexpected gifts being dropped on their doorstep.

Throughout the film, Allen, who narrates, but does not appear on screen, balances the colorful memories of old radio shows with warm family comedy. It’s all set in the late 1930s-early 1940s (ending on a bittersweet New Year’s Eve, 1943), as Allen recalls his Jewish upbringing—fictionalized, of course—in New York.

Allen’s youthful alter ego, played by the latest in a long line of pint-size Woodman clones, Seth Green, grows up in an off-center household. Against the lived-in jumble of his extended family (the parents are played to perfection by Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law” and Julie Kavner), the boy’s imagination is fired by the magical presence of the radio. Allen’s affectionate voice introduces a string of radio stories, and they weave in and out of the family comedy with seamless grace.

The anecdotal recollections are uncannily accurate take-offs on the radio stories of the time, such as the goofily exaggerated profile of the courageous baseball pitcher who keeps making comebacks despite losing a leg, than an arm(“Luckily, not his pitching arm”), then his sight.

Then there’s the time the little girl in Pennsylvania gets stuck at the bottom of the well, and all the nation holds a vigil as rescue proceedings drag on. That’s exactly the sort of event made special by the particular power of radio.

Elsewhere, radio memories intertwine with personal ones: Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” hoax spoils a promising date for the narrator’s spinster aunt (Dianne Wiest, the third sibling from Hannah and Her Sisters); or the time the socialist neighbor’s radio blaring on a Holy Day sends Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) next door to complain, only to have him return an hour later spouting the party line: “Why should I atone? The only sin is the exploitation of the workers!”

I’m not giving away all the good parts. Rest assured there are many more—this film is a Whitman’s Sampler, stuffed with goodies and songs and gags at every level. For whatever happy reason, Allen continues to mine the warm streak of Hannah and Her Sisters (with the gorgeous work of the same cinematographer, Carlo di Palma), and his backward-looking affection is infectious.

The episodic nature of the film allows a bunch of Allen’s collaborators to step in for small roles—most prominently Mia Farrow, as a cigarette girl who charts a most unusual course to radio stardom. Also popping up: Tony Roberts, Jeff Daniels, Wally Shawn, and even Diane Keaton, contributing a pretty swan song.

On one viewing, Radio Days feels like an advisedly minor film, a polished cameo along the lines of Purple Rose of Cairo, rather than a major Allen opus. But with Allen making at least one movie a year, the occasional minor work can be allowed, and this one is particularly nice to spend time with.

First published in the Herald, January 1987

I grew up listening to nightly broadcasts of vintage radio shows on Seattle’s KVI, so I was a sucker for this movie’s particular feel and focus. Now that almost 25 years have passed since the movie came out, its evocation of that era grows even dimmer than it was in 1987, and perhaps more precious. As I would classify the majority of movies made by Woody Allen since 1987 “minor,” Radio Days is more of a major than I thought it was at the time.


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