#7. Radio Days (1987) In compiling a list of my favorite movies, I could have typed out Woody Allen’s filmography from Take the Money and Run up to Crimes and Misdemeanors and called it a day. His movies have been with me as long as I can remember, and have been a major influence on what I like and don’t like.
As a kid, I cut my teeth on Allen’s early comedies, and could quote my favorite gags from Take the Money and Run or Bananas or Sleeper as easily as I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, they also made me feel smart when I got some of the more subtle gags, like I’d figured out a secret handshake. It was the same feeling I got as I started to pick up on the adult humor in the Warner Brothers cartoons.
When I was in college, I watched Annie Hall and Manhattan over-and-over again, feasting on the layers of comedy, philosophizing, references to foreign films, Allen’s horniness, and, in Annie Hall, the glimpses of his childhood in Brooklyn. The bits of Annie Hall that included the young Alvy Singer/Woody Allen were brief but impactful for how accurately they captured a kid’s perspective, even though the scenes were highly stylized. Part of the charm and genius of these scenes is in the casting.
Later, just before I dropped out of college, a wonderfully sour old English professor spent an entire class expounding on the pleasures to be had by feasting on Hannah and Her Sisters, which had just opened. He compared it to a Hemmingway novel or the poetry of ee cummings, which is quoted in the movie. Dr. Hagerman was right, of course, but my favorite moments were the dinner sequences where old standards played over a camera that moved through Hannah and Elliot’s apartment during holiday celebrations like one of the guests, capturing little moments, the way I do when I pay attention. Those sequences demonstrated a great feel and affection for complex family dynamics. With only pictures and mood music, Allen takes us on these brief detours that add layers of depth to an already great movie.
And so it is that Radio Days showcases these elements – the smartest writing you’ll find most years, laugh out loud moments, a story about kids and growing up and family – and woven together, they add up to a movie that is sweet and nostalgic, without giving way to sappy sentimentality.
Radio Days is a love letter to the New York of Allen’s youth (it starts in the late 30’s and ends on New Year’s Eve 1943), and he narrates the story himself, as a grown-up Joe, reflecting back on a slightly altered childhood spent in the Rockaways in Queens (rather than the Midwood section of Brooklyn where he actually grew up) with a large extended family living under one roof. Allen introduces his family, then the songs and shows and celebrities from the era and connects them to moments from his and his family’s lives that they remind him of. There was only one radio in the house and but a few channels, which forced a more communal experience than today, with so many devices and so much fragmentation.
The writing in Radio Days is economical and densely layered, with some gags set-up thirty minutes or more before they’re paid off. For example, one of the minor characters, a teenaged cousin named Ruthie, is introduced as spending an inordinate amount of time listening in on the neighbors’ calls on the party-line. She whispers to the family that the next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Waldbaum, is having an ovary removed. Cut to the neighbors at the fence, yelling at Ruthie to get off the phone. There’s a funny exchange, where half the family comes out on the porch to deny the snooping of Ruthie, with one of them finally saying, “What do we care if your wife has her ovary removed.” Later, during a scene with some other family members, Ruthie interrupts the scene, much like the teenager she is, by popping into the room with her hand over the phone’s receiver and announcing that Mrs. Waldbaum has found a pocketbook on the subway…and doesn’t know if she’s going to turn it in. She disappears and the scene continues. It’s a throwaway moment, but the repetition of them adds up to greater texture and a deepening of the characters, as well as contributing a running gag-stream based on their quirks – Ruthie’s voyeurism, Uncle Abe’s obsession with fish, and more significantly, Aunt Bea’s rotten luck with men.
The real strength in the movie lies not with the stories of the glamorous celebrities, but in those of Joe’s family. Though I was born in the 60’s, I come away from Radio Days feeling like I have a good picture of what it was like for families to band together, out of necessity, and cram three households into one modest home. We feel the tensions of not having enough space, but mostly we see how the family makes it work – through a combination of humor and escapism, courtesy of the omnipresent radio.
One of the most touching scenes has no dialogue at all, but is a recollection of the Mills Brothers song “Paper Doll” and how it reminds Joe of an anniversary party for his parents – the only time he saw his parents kiss. As the song plays, the camera moves through the house, like a stranger not wanting to interrupt. There is no sound, just moving images, shot in a nostalgic amber light. Everyone in the family is there, a glass of wine in hand, toasting Joe’s parents – a wedding cake in the middle of the table. It’s a frozen moment in time, burnished by the passing of years to the point where all is pure and idealized, the way we often do with our own memories.
Of all the things I like about Radio Days, it’s Allen’s depiction of Joe and his friends that I like best. Seth Green is wonderful as Woody Allen’s alter ego, a kid obsessed with the radio, especially “The Masked Avenger,” his favorite show. Joe’s peers are a textbook example of how Woody Allen creates memorable characters, though they only have a line or two. It seems there are two things he has his casting people look for – quirky looks and speech impediments. Early on, we are introduced to Joe’s obsession with the Masked Avenger by way of a show-and-tell presentation by one of Joe’s classmates, a kid with sleepy, hound dog eyes, and a lispy impediment that is both funny and sweet. He shows off his Masked Avenger Secret Compartment ring.
Joe’s buddies drive the point home even further. We get snippets of them doing classic boy things, like swarming in the front door of Joe’s house, then swarming out the back door moments later, loaded down with food.
Another moment finds the boys on the beach, one-upping each other with their takes on the most beautiful women in the world. Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable are thrown out. These are ten year old voices, squeaky like mice. Finally, one of them tosses out another name – Dana Andrews. The others pounce and tell him Dana Andrews is a man.
“She is?” he asks, confused.
“Yeah. Didn’t you see Crash Dive?”
“With a name like Dana?” Dana is squeaked out with extra emphasis.
It’s a classic kid conversation.
Perhaps the funniest bit in the movie happens when Joe gets an idea for how he and his buddies can get the money to buy them each a Masked Avenger Secret Compartment Ring. It involves stealing money from collection boxes they are given, in order to panhandle people on the streets of their neighborhood for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They are caught, of course, and the scene with Joe, his parents, and the Rabbi is priceless. The Rabbi is aghast at the scheme to use this money for something so frivolous, and as he finishes his lecture, Joe pipes in, “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion,” a line from “The Lone Ranger.” This sends the Rabbi and Joe’s parents into a comic fit of spanking, with each adult trying to outdo the others.
Instead of a tight plotline, Radio Days imitates life, surprising us with moments of love and grace and humor, found in the midst of the most mundane things.