Radio Days (1987): Woody Allen’s Warmly Nostalgic Tale

Woody Allen was at his prime, from his Oscar-winning film “Annie Hall” in 1977 to “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which was nominated for the 1986 Best Picture and won Original Screenplay Oscar.  During that era, Allen was the most famous and most acclaimed American filmmaker, boasting a strong cycle of serio comedies.

Vastly entertaining, warmly nostalgic but decidedly not sentimental, Radio Days, opened in January 1987, and four month later served as the opening night of the Cannes Film Fest.
Radio Days marks the beginning of Allen’s commercial decline.  Made on a budget of $16 million, the movie barely recouped its production expenses.
Based on an original script (Oscar nominated) by Woody Allen, the tale is set at the beginning of WWII (when the real-life Woody Allen was 6 year old).
The fractured, narrated feature follows the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of a Jewish family of underachievers, showing how each member of the clan is blessed or plagued (depends on your POV) by particular desires and colorful obsessions.
The real star, however, was radio itself, the pre-TV purveyor of everyday life, the primary medium of entertainment, against which the average American citizen measured his dreams and anxieties, frustrations and accomplishments.
Some evocative scenes from the family’s life are mixed and blended with tales of a group of radio actors, to whom the family (like the rest of America) listens to almost around the clock.
The nuclear family includes Seth Green as Joe, Allen’s alter-ego as young, red-haired boy, and Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker as his parents.
The large cast includes Mia Farrow, Josh Mostel (son of Zero Mostel), Dianne Wiest, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, and Diane Keaton, among others.
Other media personalities and socialites, such as Kitty Carlisle Hart (Moss Hart’s widow), Kenneth Mars, and Mercedes Ruehl, make impressive cameo appearances.
Woody Allen himself provides the wonderfully poignant narration.
Some critics found the movie to be too much influenced by “Fellini’s Amarcord,” particularly in its episodic structure, formless narrative, larger than life personalities and events, and personal rambling ruminations on what life was like in the early 1940s.
 

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Joe, the narrator, relates how two burglars got involved in a radio game after picking up the phone. He goes on to explain that he associates old radio songs with childhood memories.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s young Joe lives with his Jewish-American family in Rockaway Beach. His mother always listens to Breakfast with Irene and Roger. His father, who beats him regularly, keeps his occupation secret; Joe later finds out that he was ashamed of being a taxi driver.

Other family members were Uncle Abe and Aunt Ceil, grandpa and grandma, and Aunt Bea (Wiest), always on the lookout for a potential husband.

Joe’s favorite radio show is The Masked Avenger, which makes him dream of buying a secret decoder ring. In Joe’s fantasy the Masked Avenger looks like a hero, but in reality the voice actor is short and bald.

Other radio memories concern sporting heroes, news bulletins about World War II, a report of an extraterrestrial invasion, and a live report of the search for a little girl who fell into a well.

Joe searches with his friends for a German aircraft, but instead they see a woman undressing in her bedroom. She later turned out to be their substitute teacher. Alone on the coast Joe sees a German U-boat, but he decides not to tell anyone because they wouldn’t believe him.

Joe is fascinated by the glitz and glamour of Manhattan, where the radio broadcasts were made. He visits the Radio City Music Hall, which he describes as the most beautiful thing he ever saw.

Joe collects stories of radio stars, including that of Sally White (Farrow), whose dreams of becoming famous were hampered by bad voice and accent. As a cigar salesgirl she got stuck on the roof of the radio building with Roger, who was cheating on Irene. After witnessing a crime, the gangster Rocco wanted to kill her, but following his mother’s advice he ended up using his connections to further her career. She finally became a reporter of celebrity gossip.

On New Year’s Eve. Joe is brought down to celebrate the transition to 1944, while the radio stars gather on their building’s roof.

The narrator concludes that he will never forget those radio voices, although with passing of time, they grow dimmer and dimmer.

As noted, music plays a crucial role in the text. The rich wall-to-wall score includes “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller, “I Double Dare You” by Larry Clinton, “Opus No. 1 by Tommy Dorsey, “Frenesi” by Artie Shaw, “The Donkey Serenade”by Allan Jones, “Body and Soul” by Benny Goodman, “You and I” by Tommy Dorsey, “Remember Pearl Harbor” by Sammy Kaye, “That Old Feeling”
by Guy Lombardo, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover”
Glenn Miller, “Goodbye” by Benny Goodman, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” by Tommy Dorsey, “Lullaby of Broadway” by Richard Himber, “American Patrol” by Glenn Miller, “Take the “A” Train” by Duke Ellington, “One, Two, Three, Kick” by Xavier Cugat.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Screenplay (Original): Woody Allen
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Santo Loquasto; Carol Joffe, Les Bloom, and George De Titta, Jr.
Oscar Awards: None
 
Oscar Context:
The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was John Patrick Shanley for the comedy “Moonstruck,” which was nominated for Best Picture. Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” swept most of the Oscars in 1987, including Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Cast
Woody Allen as Joe, the unseen narrator
Hy Anzell as Mr. Waldbaum
Seth Green as Young Joe
Danny Aiello as Rocco
Sydney Blake as Mrs. Gordon
Leah Carrey as Grandma
Jeff Daniels as Biff Baxter
Larry David as Communist Neighbor
Gina DeAngelis as Rocco’s mother
Denise Dumont as Latin singer
Mia Farrow as Sally White
Todd Field as Crooner
Kitty Carlisle Hart as Maxwell House Coffee Radio Jingle Singer
Paul Herman as Burglar
Julie Kavner as Mother
Diane Keaton as New Year’s Singer
Julie Kurnitz as Irene Draper
Renée Lippin as Aunt Ceil
William Magerman as Grandpa
Judith Malina as Mrs. Waldbaum
Brian Mannain as Kirby Kyle
Kenneth Mars as Rabbi Baumel
Helen Miller as Mrs. Needleman
Josh Mostel as Uncle Abe
Don Pardo as “Guess That Tune” Host
Tony Roberts as “Silver Dollar” Emcee
Martin Rosenblatt as Mr. Needleman
Rebecca Schaeffer as Communists’ Daughter
Wallace Shawn as Masked Avenger
Martin Sherman as Radio Actor
Mike Starr as Burglar
Michael Tucker as Father
David Warrilow as Roger Daley
Kenneth Welsh as Radio Voice
Dianne Wiest as Aunt Bea

 

Credits:

Orion Release
Running time: 85 Minutes
Produced by Robert Greenhut, Gail Sicilia
Directed and written by Woody Allen
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Santo Loquasto; Carol Joffe, Les Bloom, and George De Titta, Jr.
Editing: Susan E. Morse.
Music: Dick Hyman