Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Film Review: Radio Days

"Radio Days"  **** (out of ****)

Of every movie I've ever seen, Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) comes the closest to showing what my childhood was like. For that reason, among others, I enjoy watching it and it is one of my favorite Woody Allen movies.

I grew up in 1980's America in a Hungarian family. I lived with my grandparents (on my mother's side), my parents, two sisters, my aunt and on occasion (three times) we had a dog.

My grandparents were born in the mid 1920's in the small town of Szeged, Hungary. My grandmother got a job working as a movie usher and became a movie buff. Both of my grandparents loved the movies and music of their youth - both American culture of the time period and Hungarian.

Because I lived with them, when I was born they would share with me all of their favorite movies and music. As a result I grew up listening to all the music of the 1930's & 1940's. By the time I went to school I knew all the big band leaders - Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Leo Reisman and Glenn Miller. I knew all the American movie stars of the period too - Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Veronica Lake. Because Hungarian movies and music were hard to come by in those days (and they still are) I didn't have much exposure to those things, only my grandparents and my father's stories. They would tell me about Pal Javor (considered the first leading man in Hungarian cinema in the 1930's) and the movies he made with Karady Katalin. We would listen to music by Sandor Lakatos and Lajos Boross, two of the greatest Hungarian violinist in the 1950's.

Sharing these stories with friends, it wouldn't seem I grew up in the 1980's. My family and I seemed trapped in a time warp. In our house we were stuck in 1930's and 40's American culture and 1950's Hungarian culture. In Chicago there is a radio program, which comes on every Saturday between 1pm - 5pm, called "Those Were The Days", I would listen to it (and I still do) with my grandparents and I would hear Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor and Phil Harris with his wife Alice Faye. They would also play shows like "The Lone Ranger". And I would get to see movie serials like "Flash Gordon" (1936) with Buster Crabbe, "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Shadow" (1940). My father and I would watch the TV show "The Lone Ranger" with Clayton Moore together on Saturday afternoons.

I remember the first time I dressed up for Halloween. There was going to be a neighborhood party, so all the kids would get to show off their costumes. I was four years old and decided to dress up as the Lone Ranger. None of the other kids knew who I was supposed to be. At that time the popular costume was Freddie Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series of movies. I didn't know what that was at the time for two reasons. One, I didn't like to watch horror movies when I was younger because, of course, they scared me. And my parents wouldn't let me watch them anyway. Number two was because it was too modern for me to know about. I saw about five or six other kids dressed as this character and not knowing what it was, it scared the life out of me. I started crying and my parents had to take me home. No one was scared of my Lone Ranger costume, in case you were wondering.

I share these stories with readers so you have some perspective when I say "Radio Days" represents my childhood too. I know every song Woody Allen uses in the movie. They played (loudly) at our house too. The tunes include "Body & Soul", "I Double Dare You", "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You", "You & I", "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and "September Song" among others. In a direct connection to my childhood Allen also uses "South American Way" by Carmen Miranda, it is a favorite song of one of the characters in the movie and was a favorite of my grandmother's. I remember the first time I saw Carmen Miranda in the movie "The Gang's All Here" (1943). There was never a character like her. She completely amazed me with her costumes.

"Radio Days" is Woody Allen's nostalgic look at his childhood, growing up in the 1940's in New York. The movie ends on New Year's Eve 1944, taking us through the war years. Allen serves as the movie's narrator and shows us a middle-class Jewish family. Living together is Joe (Seth Green), the "Woody Allen" character as a seven year old boy, his parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker), his Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), his grandparents (Leah Carrey and William Magerman) and various cousins (Josh Mostel and Renee Lippin). They are cramped together but happy, when not arguing with each other. They all listen to the radio, which provides them with great music, a glimpse into how the rich and famous live, adventure by listening to shows like "The Masked Advenger" (voiced in the movie by Wallace Shawn), a favorite of Joe and gives them important news, both abroad, hearing stories about the war and locally, a young girl falls into a well and a rescue mission which ensues. The radio was an extended member of the family. It created a sense of community. Everyone was hearing the same thing. For the next generation television would have the same effect.

Some have said "Radio Days" was Allen's attempt at making his own "Amarcord" (1973) the entertaining Fellini film about life in 1930's Italy. It was supposed to be based on Fellini's childhood, but, with Fellini you can never be sure what is fact and what is fiction. If you have seen both movies you can see the connection. It is no secret Woody Allen is a fan of Fellini. His "Stardust Memories" (1980) was said to be inspired by Fellini's "8  1/2" (1963). But, "Radio Days" feels personal. Perhaps Allen borrowed the structure, which is a loose episodic film, but the memories are Allen's.

As is usually the case when Allen makes a period film - "Sweet and Lowdon" (1999), "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) and "Midnight in Paris" (2011), Allen gets the "feel" of the times correct. Although this is a sentimental look at the past, Allen isn't playing around with the facts too much. The costume and production design is fairly accurate. The music fits the time period, in fact Allen often plays it really safe and uses a lot of songs from the late 1930's and goes right up to 1943 with songs like "You'll Never Know".

Allen does have some fun though with radio myths and famous personalities. He has some fun with Orson Welles famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast and popular shows at the time. Allen creates a character, Sally White (Mia Farrow) who some have suggested is based on Hedda Hopper. Sally is a young woman who greatly wants to break into radio though she really doesn't have the talent.

The movie was fairly successful critically. It was nominated for two Academy Awards - "Best Original Screenplay" and "Best Art Direction". It lost both awards but was also placed on Siskel & Ebert's "top ten" list that year. Allen fans generally consider the soundtrack to be one of his best.

"Radio Days" is a great look back at a special time in American culture. If you are familiar with this time period you should enjoy it. If you aren't it might prove to be interesting though you won't have the emotional connection the rest of us have.