The Purple Rose of Cairo 12 years on allowed me to bring a new perspective that allowed my appreciation to deepen, the intervening years have not been quite as generous with Woody Allen’s Radio Days from 1987.
Each film is a manifestation of Allen’s deep appreciation for two very different media: film and radio. While the earlier film focuses on the ability of cinema to transport individuals to a fantasy world (or as in the reversal that his film does so brilliantly – to move a fictional character from screen to reality) and has a single central character, the latter has the radio itself as the central figure including the ways it carries information to people, affects individuals in different ways (including the performers), and brings people together emotionally and socially.
Having been born in 1935, Allen would have spent much of his childhood listening to radio programs, either actively or passively. That makes this his most autobiographical film. He doesn’t appear in the film, but provides a voiceover narration for the events depicted and the connections between them. There’s no single main character, but the film centers on the narrator’s family with himself as a child (a young Seth Green) figuring in the occasional scene.
There’s his mother (Julie Kavner), a homemaker, and his father, who is ashamed of his own profession and so refuses to share it with his son. There’s aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) gradually becoming an old maid and desperately seeking a husband. There’s uncle Abe and aunt Ceil and their daughter, Ruthie, who listens to the neighbors’ conversations on the party line. Grandma and Grandpa are there too, but remain mostly in the background. All these people share a single home (and the radio) in Rockaway, Queens.
The whole movie has an episodic feel to it, leaping from anecdote to anecdote. Many of the stories are not even connected with the family, but involve the radio personalities in their off-air time. The main character in that half of the story is Sally White (Mia Farrow), an aspiring actress and singer who carries on an affair with a big radio star on the empty promise that he’ll help her get her big break.
The film is not exactly structured with a standard narrative. There’s little in the way of a story of character arc, but this is intentional. After all, when you consider your own childhood memories, are they punctuated by epiphanies, dramatic reversals and denouements? Or do they come in small bites highlighting what made the biggest impression on you?
That is Allen’s point here, coupled with the power of radio in the days before television to provide entertainment and bring people together. From this we get scenes as varied as the “Masked Avenger” stories, the presentation of musical numbers to which Bea often dances and one unifying moment when the nation sits attuned to the news report of a young girl stuck in a well while a live broadcast awaits her rescue. Watch how the father changes during that report from angry and abusive to sad and affectionate.
That sequence is reminiscent of the incident involving "Baby Jessica", a toddler who fell into a well in 1987 (only 9 months after the release of the film) and the nation sat with bated breath awaiting her rescue. Allen uses the scene to demonstrate the power of radio as a mass communication device and ends up being eerily prescient of the power of TV in the Jessica McClure case.
In terms of consistent laughs and poignancy it is one of Allen’s best screenplays. He also manages to capture a time period with natural grace. But somehow the disjointed nature of the story detracts from its ultimate power. It’s a less focused and less inspired piece than The Purple Rose of Cairo, but onveys a palpable sense of the personal. It’s worth seeking out for Allen aficionados, but if you don’t see it, you won’t be missing a great deal.