During Christmas break, my family was often on the road, more often then not visiting my Grandmother in Indiana. To help pass the time my Dad bought a collection of old radio shows on cassette tape. Much as I hated (and still hate) long car trips, I did enjoy those old radio show. I remember an episode of The Burns and Allen Show where Gracie and her pet duck (who sounded a lot like Donald) flew to the North Pole on a magic carpet. There was a recording of The Bickersons, about a couple that constantly fought and was basically the Al and Peg Bundy of their day. There was Fibber McGhee and Molly, with that famous closet full of junk that would tumble down on whoever opened it (I didn’t care for that one). There was the hilarious William Bendix in The Life of Riley (“what a revolting development”). And of course the immortal Jack Benny. In this one Christmas episode Jack was in a department store. He gets the attention of the floorwalker, and as he approaches we hear horse hooves galloping. We would then hear that immortal Frank Nelson reply with his trademark “yessss?” Followed by “ask me anything, I’m a talking horse!”
Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and The Life of Riley all made a relatively smooth transition to television (although not the first time around for Riley. His first TV incarnation didn’t star Bendix but rather an unknown comic named Jackie Gleason. The Great One didn’t quite fit into Riley’s costume, figuratively speaking). In some ways these shows benefited from moving into the visual medium. On Burns and Allen, George was famous for “breaking the fourth wall” and addressing the audience directly, a fact that took on more of a directness when he could electronically make eye contact with the audience. Jack Benny’s masterful deadpan expressions were made for TV. Still, some things were sacrificed. It’s pretty hard to have someone fly to the North Pole on a magic carpet with a waterfowl, at least not without the aid of costly special effects (an unavailable luxury in the early fifties) and some of Jack Benny’s most beloved radio gags – his booby trapped basement vault, for example – simply worked better when they were suggested by sound effects rather then shown. Some shows just didn’t work. The Bickersons had three different TV versions, all of which flopped. After all, for how long can people watch a couple arguing in bed? Fiber McGhee and Molly held out longer then any radio sit-com, remaining on the air until 1959 when if finally made the jump to TV. The famous closet gag just wasn’t funny when shown in full. While the radio show ran for twenty-four years, the TV show didn’t last a season.
Woody Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days harks back to the days of old radio, before it was just a delivery service for music and a medium for insufferable pundits and shock jocks to blather on and on about whatever (I’m an equal opportunity hater when it comes to talk radio. I find Howard Stern and NPR to be as torturous to listen to as Rush Limbah and Sean Hannity). In those days radio wasn’t just something to play while trying to negotiate rush hour traffic. Radio was actually an event. Families would gather around and excitedly listen to Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on Air, to Arturo Toscanini conduct the NBC orchestra or to President Roosevelt and his fireside chats. It played in the background too, of course, and in the car. But how often today do families schedule time to sit around and listen to the radio, or watch TV, or do much of anything?
Woody Allen is easily one of the most overtly autobiographical filmmakers who has ever lived, although he’s notorious for downplaying any similarities between the events in his films and his personal life. Still, I think it’s pretty hard for Allen to deny that Radio Days is very much autobiographical, an ode to his childhood and a very special time in American history.
The time period is 1940-44, when the U.S. was finally clawing it’s way out of the Great Depression while Europe and Asia were at war and many wondered if it was just a matter of time before we had to join in the fighting. The central character in the show is Joe (Seth Green, who now provides the voice of Chris Griffin on Family Guy and produces his own animated show on Adult Swim, Robot Chicken), a young, pre-pubescent kid living in the Rockaway neighborhood of Brooklyn. Joe is clearly a juvenile stand in for Allen himself, who grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. The point is emphasized by the simple fact that Allen narrates the film.
Joe is an only child at the start of the film, though he’ll have a sister by the final reel. He lives with his Mom and Dad (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker), a loveable working class couple who, according to the adult Joe, could start an argument over anything. When we first meet them they’re bickering over whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the better ocean. The three of them live in a nice one family house. But they don’t live alone. During the depression it was quite common for extended family members to move in and help pay the rent and other household expenses.
There was Joe’s Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel), who worked in a fish market and brought a different marine animal home for supper every night, and his wife Ceil (Renee Lippin), with whom he’s also often at war. They have a daughter, Ruthie (Joy Newman), a typical teenage bobbie soxer who enjoys listening in on the neighbors telephone conversations when their extensions would overlap, something that people in the age of cell phones will never have to experience. Also there’s Joe’s grandparents (William Magerman and Leah Carrey) and his Aunt Bea (Diane Wiest), a sweet, pretty Miss Lonely Heart trying desperately to find a husband.
Each family member has his or her favorite programs. Ruthie likes to listen to the boy crooners, such as Rudy Vale. Mom listens to Breakfast with Roger and Irene, a morning talk show that she imagines takes place in an opulent Manhattan penthouse, though most likely is broadcast from a dull sound booth. Uncle Abe loves a sports show where the announcer tells some pretty far-fetched stories about forgotten athletes. In a clever example of how radio required the listener to use his imagination, the announcer tells the story of a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who lost a leg, then an arm, then went blind. After each accident we see the pitcher, sans leg, then arm, then with dark glasses. “But he had heart!” the announcer insists.
Aunt Ceil loves to listen to a ventriloquist show, much to the chagrin of Abe who can’t comprehend listening to a ventriloquist. “How can you tell that his lips aren’t moving?” he asks. This is no doubt an allusion to Edgar Bergen and his two dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. At one point they had the most popular radio show in the country. One reason why the illusion worked is because the listener was well aware that these shows were broadcast live before a studio audience. They’d also seen Edgar Bergen in movies, as many radio stars would appear on celluloid (unlike television, radio wasn’t really considered a serious threat to the movies). I’ve heard some Edgar Bergen radio shows. The illusion works. They’re also really funny.
Joe has his own favorite programs. One is The Masked Avenger; an urban vigilante who Joe naturally assumes is a six-foot tall, muscle bound matinee idol. The role is in fact played by Wallace Shawn, that short, bald character actor with a slight lisp best known for My Dinner With Andre, for playing the arrogant Sicilian Vizzini in The Princess Bride (“inconceivable”) and the toy dinosaur in the Toy Story franchise.
Joe’s other favorite show is called Biff Baxter, about an ace pilot who fights the Nazi’s. In one episode of this plotless film, Joe and his Hebrew school friends are sent out to collect money for a proposed Jewish state in Palestine. Joe couldn’t care less about about Palestine (“it’s way out in Egypt”) so he skims some of his collecting in order to buy a Biff Baxter decoder ring. Alas, he gets caught and must face the wrath of the rabbi and his parents, who often hit him upside the head (things were different then). Another amusing episode involves Joe and his friend following Biff Baxter’s advice to keep an eye out for Nazi warplanes. The boys climb to the roof of a building with a pair of binoculars and keep an eye out for any members of the Luftwaffe. They get distracted when they spy a sexy blonde woman undressing in a window. Later the boys are at school and are told that they will have a substitute. Wouldn’t you know? It’s that same platinum blonde! “We’re going straight to hell,” declares one of his friends. The other boys can’t stop smiling.
Radio Days shows us how important music is in our lives. One song reminds Allen of a time he kissed a girl who didn’t like him. Another song, “Goats Eat Oats” flashes him back to when an old man in the neighborhood ran around in his boxer shorts with meat clever (fortunately, no one was hurt). Another, particularly delightful scene has Ruthie lip synching to Carmen Miranda. Uncle Abe and Dad eventually join in. After re-watching this segment I tried to think about the first time I heard the popular songs of my childhood. Alas, I can’t remember where I was when I first heard “Beat It” or “The Greatest Love” or “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. And yet I can remember EXACTLY where I was when I saw just about any movie or TV show. I guess I just come from a more visual generation.
As is true of any great story, or stories in the case of Radio Days, is the way you can relate to them no matter how far removed they are from the present day or your own socio-economic-ethnic background. There’s one scene where Joe accidently ruins his Mom’s winter coat wit his chemistry set. His father, who gave it to his Mom as an anniversary present takes off his belt and begins to hit Joe (for the record, while I think that spanking children is a gray area I vehemently disagree with using a belt, ruler, hairbrush, or any kind of weapon on a child). Suddenly they hear on the radio a news report about a young girl named Polly Phelps who’s fallen down a well in Pennsylvania. We cut back and fourth to footage of the family, the press, and the rescue workers at the scene of the accident, then to Joe and his family. His Dad, who just minutes earlier wanted to kill his son, is now gently stroking his boy’s hair, happy that his own child is safe at home.
Polly Phelps was based on Kathy Fiscus, a three-year-old girl who fell down a well in 1949, after Radio Days takes place. What Allen could not have predicted is that eleven months after his films January, 1987 release that another toddler, Jessica McClure, would fall down a well in Texas, causing a similar media event. I can remember my Mom and Dad, probably to get rid of me so that they and the other grownups could talk, asked me to go turn on the TV in their bedroom to see if there was any news about her. I did and the moment I turned it on they had retrieved the child. I called my parents in and we all saw the now iconic image of “Baby Jessica” wrapped in bandages being carried to safety. Alas, the story of the real-life Kathy Fiscus and the fictional Polly Phelps did not end happily. In both real life and in Allen’s film, the child died.
A good deal of the film also centers on poor lovelorn Aunt Bea and her desire to find Mr. Right. In one scene she goes on a date with a man who, while driving her home, tries to pull the old “we just ran out of gas” routine. Bea exits the vehicle when he starts to put the moves on her. Just then a news report goes out over the airwaves about aliens invading the earth. Bea’s date has no trouble starting the car now, as he drives off, leaving Bea alone on the highway. This scene is obviously based on Orson Welles’ famed War of the Worlds broadcast, which actually took place on Halloween night of 1938. A little poetic license never hurt anyone.
Another one of Aunt Bea’s suitors (Robert Joy) is a very attractive, well-dressed gentleman who hasn’t gotten over the death of his fiancé. Bea finds his sensitivity to be endearing, at least until he confesses that his fiancés name was Leonard. Had Leonard lived then they’d have to wait over seventy years to get married.
Towards the end of the movie Bea meets Sy (Richard Portnow). On the day that Joe’s sister is born, Bea and Sy take Joe into Manhattan. They get to be part of a radio audience for a game show and Bea is chosen as a contestant. The category is fish, and thanks to Abe’s penchant for bringing home so much seafood, Bea is a virtual marine biologist. She wins the first top prize and spends the money on a chemistry set for Joe (the one that will ruin his Mom’s coat) and later go out to a dance palace. Bathed in the beautiful red neon from the signs in the window, young Joe looks at his aunt and Sy while drinking a Pepsi. He tells us that Sy didn’t marry Bea. He ended up going back to his wife and Bea was back to looking for her one true love. “Still, on this night, we didn’t have any thoughts except about what a wonderful time we were all having.”
While most of the film centers on Joe and his family, there’s another story regarding a young lady named Sally White (Mia Farrow). A cigarette girl working in a Times Square nightclub, she’s desperate to break into show business, with radio being her ultimate goal. Alas, her thick, nasal Brooklyn accent, clearly inspired by Jean Hagen in Singing in the Rain, is about as pleasant on the ear as finger nails running down a chalkboard. She constantly finds herself being taken advantage of by the show business types that she hopes will get her on the air.
She comes close a few times. Once she goes to a nightclub and witnesses a shooting. The hit man (Danny Aiello) naturally has to bump her off too. He drives her to a place where he can do the dirty deed and finds that he kind of likes her. He takes her to his mom’s house where his old Italian mother (Gina DeAngelis) feeds her and also finds her charming. Knowing full well what her son has to do, she convinces him that Sally isn’t too bright in the head, that she probably wouldn’t squeal if he could get her a job on the radio. Thanks to a brother who “owes him a favor”, Sally is cast on a radio drama. Just as she’s slated to speak, someone bursts into the sound booth, pushes her away from the microphone, and announces that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. “Who’s Pearl Harbor?” asks Sally. Clearly, she isn’t too bright in the head. Look closely and you’ll see William H. Macy is one of the other actors. Larry David also makes an appearance in the film as a Communist neighbor.
Eventually, Sally takes elocution lessons which lead to her having a refined, theatrical voice. With her intimate knowledge of the goings on in the theater district, Sally ends up getting a radio show as a Hedda Hopper style gossip columnist.
During the eighties, Allen had a virtual stock company of actors who he frequently worked with. Many of them can be seen in this film. This was Diane Wiest’s third film with Allen. The previous year she won an Academy Award for Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. She would later win a second Oscar for portraying a Tallulah Bankhead like diva in Bullets Over Broadway. For Julie Kavner – then best known for the TV show Rhoda and now best known as the voice of Marge Simpson – this was her second of six appearances in a Woody Allen film. Tony Roberts, Allen’s frequent co-star, makes an appearance as a radio announcer and Diane Keaton appears as a singer. If you’re a die hard Allen fan, the chance to see his two favorite leading ladies in the same film should be enough to check this movie out.
Behind the scenes, Allen had his usual collaborators as well. This was his second film to be photographed by Carlo Di Palma, an Italian cinematographer best known at the time for his work with Michelangelo Antonioni (Red Desert, Blow-Up). Di Palma first worked with Allen on Hannah and Her Sisters when Allen’s usual D.P. Gordon Willis was unavailable. He clearly liked Di Palma’s work. They went on to collaborate on a dozen films. Two other important collaborators were Dick Hyman, Allen’s long-time music director. Allen has rarely employed a composer to score his films (two exceptions are Marvin Hamlisch, who scored Bananas and Philip Glass, who scored Cassandra’s Dream), preferring to either use previously recorded music or existing compositions. For the latter he has employed Hyman to arrange and conduct the scoring sessions. No one will ever forget the job he did scoring the music of George Gershwin for Manhattan. Though a great deal of the music is pre-recorded, a good deal is also supposed to be performed live on the radio. For these moments it’s Dick Hyman conducting the orchestra (except for one scene where Tito Puente is conducting the orchestra, holding a Chihuahua ala Xavier Cugat).
Last but not least there’s Santo Loquasto, who first worked in the costume department on both A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy and Zelig. He became Allen’s production designer on Radio Days and has done so on all of Allen’s American films, right up to his upcoming Café Society. Like all great production designers, Loquasto understands that the production design, whether fabricated on a soundstage or an actual location, must be a character in the film. Joe’s home is a cozy, cluttered abode that was probably built after World War I. It’s furnished with tasteful though inexpensive furnishings. This contrasts greatly with the world of the radio stars that, at least in the imagination of the listener, are beautiful art-deco wonderlands. This is especially true of the massive nightclub during the New Years Eve sequence that ends the movie. The club is a pristine study in ivory. Later the stars go up to the roof, where Loquasto recreated Times Square circa 1942, or at least part of it. The fact that they are on a roof we see some familiar signage, most notable the famed Camel Cigarette billboard. But he also probably saved some money by just showing us the back of some of the billboards that are on the roof, including a top hat that is being raised and lowered.
Radio was not a big part of my childhood. It played in the background when I was young but I didn’t pay much attention to it. When I did get into music I preferred to listen to pre-recorded stuff. I listen to the radio when I’m driving but only the classic rock station. I inevitably turn the volume down when I hear the commercials and the D.J.’s banter that I frankly find insufferable.
Naturally, Radio Days looks back in fondness at a certain era and with a bit of sadness that the era has passed. In the films final coda the off-screen Woody Allen says, “I’ll never forget those voices I heard on the radio. But with the passing of each New Years Eve those voices grow dimmer and dimmer.”
It’s human nature to look back fondly on your childhood years and think they were somehow superior to what life today is like, even if you lived through the Depression and World War II. It’s also easy to be baffled by what young people in the present do to pass the time and feel that it pales in comparison to what you did in your childhood. Though Allen got his start in television writing for Sid Caesar he has admitted that he never really watches TV except for baseball games. I may not have grown up in the golden age of radio or what people refer to as the golden age of television, i.e. my parent’s generation of the fifties and sixties. But I can promise you that nothing gets me more excited or nostalgic then seeing a TV commercial that I remember from my childhood, or a Saturday morning cartoon like Saturday’s Supercade or Dungeons and Dragons. And I still love sit-coms like All in the Family, Happy Days and The Cosby Show, even if the titular star of the later has had a major fall from grace. I can’t deny that while I enjoy posting things on Facebook I never “tweet” or send things via Instagram and I can’t stand text messaging anyone. But I try not to judge the youth of America too harshly. Someday they will grow up and remember how much fun they had playing on their iPad while looking at bewilderment at what their own children find fun, whatever that will end up being.