Radio Days

Radio Days

Debi Lee Mandel

Woody Allen doesn't know from formulaic cinema. He rarely uses the same device twice; if he does, he pushes past conceived limitations to re-invent them, every time. In Radio Days, it's as if he goes beyond breaking the fourth wall: he creates the illusion that he's sitting behind us, narrating his family's home movies with boyish enthusiasm.

This makes me think: When we read biographies and memoirs, there is a general tendency to whisk through basic childhood details (granted, this is often all that is available) and move rapidly toward education to emphasize career. But when you encourage people to share their memories, it is the details of their childhood they most enthusiastically retell.

Radio Days is a pictorial history of the heyday of audio broadcasting: nostalgic without being wistful; sweet without being sentimental. In the rich, earthy colors of the 1940s, detailed to distraction, Allen recreates the era of his youth—specifically, 1943—with a confessed innocence: "The scene is Rockaway. The time is my childhood. It's my old neighborhood and... forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past. I mean, it wasn't always as stormy and rain-swept as this, but I remember it that way, because that was it at its most beautiful." Populated by the fictionalized but deftly realistic caricatures of his childhood, he covers every intricacy, not satisfied until we imagine it as vividly as he does.

Woody's disembodied voice manifests on screen in 10-year-old Joe (Green), who lives with his extended family in a depressed, ocean beach community in Queens. Two households and 3 generations fill his communal home: his parents (Tucker and Kavner); his Aunt Ceil (Lippin) and Uncle Abe (Mostel) with their daughter, his cousin Ruthie (Newman); his favorite aunt, Bea (Wiest), and his grandparents. The activities of the young boy, guided by Woody's engaging narration, weaves through multiform vignettes, illustrating the particular and diverse aspects of how early broadcasting impacted daily life. From quiz shows to talk shows to superheroes, radio dramas and of course, music, Allen composes a "New Deal"-style mural of his childhood, intertwined with stories of the radio personalities who shaped them.

Radio Days is a triumphant, heartfelt comedy that follows the same path blazed by Hannah and Her Sisters the previous year. Where that film focused on a contemporary family, here Allen takes us back through his own fond memories to a decidedly different familial environment, still to similar effect. But Radio Days has none of the cynicism that comes with the maturity of Hannah's narrative; instead, it is infused with artless wonder as the grown up "Joe" recalls his experiences through a young boy's eyes and the ever- present sound of the wireless box.

Another aspect that sets this film apart is that so often it is the character Woody represents that wanders in and out of the focal story, providing anecdotal subtext; related, but somewhat outside the action. Here, he employs Sally White (Farrow), a cigarette girl from Canarsie who is trying to break into show biz via the airwaves. While the main story has its share of comedic turns, it is Sally with her classic Brooklyn diction (better, lack thereof) that provides the punch.

Mother: Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less to the radio!

Joe: YOU always listen to the radio!

Mother: It's different. Our lives are already ruined.

Finally, Julie Kavner takes the screen and keeps it. As Joe's mother, she remains central to the story and epitomizes the young Jewish matron we'd want Woody's mother to be. Michael Tucker is the hardworking, mostly ineffectual father who spars with his wife "just because." Dianne Wiest is so endearing as the fun, husband-hunting Aunt Bea, you want to hug her and shake her all at once.

Farrow, again in character status (as in Broadway Danny Rose), still does not appear to comprehend physical comedy but is "audibly" the star of the show. Kenneth Mars returns to Allendom for a brief but hilarious stint as Rabbi Baumel, and even Diane Keaton comes back to the fold to sing Cole Porter's You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To, just in time to ring in 1944.

Other faces to watch for: Returnee Wallace Shawn as The Masked Avenger; Jeff Daniels as broadcast personality Biff Baxter; Danny Aiello as Rocco, a hitman (also from Canarsie); Kitty Carlisle (a radio celebrity of the era and later on television) singing for the Maxwell House Hour; and Larry David, whose unmistakable voice carries on in the distance as the "communist neighbor."

"To a rabbi you say, 'My faithful Indian companion?!'" ñ Rabbi Baumel

Although dialogue is always the highlight of his work, what a master storyteller like Allen knows is that everything depends upon the characters who inhabit his tales to give his words purpose. Long after the shtick and the wisecracks fade from memory, it is the raving neurotics, didactic intellectuals, and self-obsessed socialites, and, as in this case, his hordes of indomitable, cross-cultural New York caricatures who live on in the theater of our familiar memory, long after the curtain closes.

"I'm always on deadline when I'm writing, but I do have a drawer of ideas, which is worth more than a drawer of scripts." - Woody Allen, in a recent interview

Radio Days is a sweetly nostalgic film about the golden days of radio, written, directed and narrated by a man who wants to ensure that medium—and its era—are not forgotten. As Woody Allen moves into his 6th decade of entertaining, elevating and exasperating us, Radio Days stands as a monument to the scriptwriters who inspired him.

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