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Radio Days

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 01/08/05 22:54:23

"Olden days, golden days."
5 stars (Awesome)

Radio Days is a small treasure, at once the story of a gloriously cluttered Jewish family and a tribute to the Golden Age of Radio told without one shred of Woody Allen’s trademark angst. It is also one of his few films in which he doesn’t appear but tells his tale through his own delightfully wry voiceover narration and the eyes of a ten-year old boy named Joey (Seth Green).

The short (only 85 minutes long) film is structured as a series of vignettes – all of them wonderfully acted, the characters beautifully drawn.

The year is 1943, and all of Joey’s extended family lives under one roof in Rockaway Point, Queens. His mother and father (Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker) are a loving couple, who also love nothing more than a good session bickering with each other. They could find an argument, Allen tells us, in anything – even whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean. His Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) is a marriage-minded spinster with a knack for choosing the wrong men, including a guy who leaves her stranded when he freaks out over a War of the Worlds-type radio broadcast, and another man grieving over a dead fiancé named Leonard. His grandparents (William Magerman, Leah Carrey) spend a half-hour each day packing his grandmother into her corset – his grandfather complaining all the while that although the woman is in her 70s, her bosom is still growing. Rounding out the family is Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel), who is constantly bringing home fish from Sheep’s Head Bay; Aunt Ceil (Renée Lippin), who “dreams of a more exciting life than having to filet [Abe’s] flounder"; and their daughter Ruthie (Joy Newman), whose favorite pastime is eavesdropping on their neighbors’ phone conversations on the party line.

The radio is constantly playing in their home, and each family member has a favorite program. Joey’s mother’s favorite is “Breakfast with Irene and Roger,” in which the radio couple carries on a conversation – and drops names – each morning about their nightclubbing adventures with celebrities the night before. Joey’s dad loves the sports, with a favorite show being about a luckless baseball player who “had heart.” It is his Aunt Bea, we’re told, who loves all the music and exposes the young boy to the most wonderful songs in the world. Ruthie, too, loves the music – most of all, a Sinatra-like crooner and Carmen Miranda, whose rendition of “South American Way,” she joyously dances to, to the never-ending amusement of her father and uncle. Aunt Ceil adores the ventriloquist – a concept (“He's a ventriloquist on the radio!”) that drives Abe crazy.

Joey’s hero is The Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), whose “secret-compartment ring” he covets beyond imagining. It is this burning need to own the ring, Allen tells us, which sets him on a bit of larceny involving his Hebrew school’s charity funds.

Allen also makes it known that he has a million radio stories, and he shares some terrific ones here. One of the funniest, and most involving, is about Sally White (Mia Farrow), a cigarette girl in a nightclub who, through a fluke involving a mobster and his mother (Danny Aiello, Gina DeAngeles), goes on to have a brilliant career in radio, in her own right.

The movie is filled with wonderful cameos, including Jeff Daniels as World War II hero Biff Baxter, Todd Field as “The Crooner,” Kenneth Mars as Rabbi Baumel, Diane Keaton as a nightclub singer, and Mercedes Ruehl as a radio advertising rep, among others.

In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Joey, his Aunt Bea, and her date step into the lobby of Radio City Music Hall and walk up the stairs, through the halls, and into the balcony to their seats. Doing the same was a glorious experience for jaded old me. One can only imagine the joy in the heart of a ten-year old boy seeing that magnificent theatre for the first time, which Allen perfectly describes as “like entering heaven.”

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