With the Academy Awards almost here at last we can finally put a capper on 2011. One of last year’s most unexpected success stories was “Midnight In Paris,” which is currently nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Original Screenplay for Woody Allen. Allen’s 41st feature film was also his highest grossing of all time, but in all likelihood he'll be skipping the festivities at the Kodak Theater this Sunday. Instead, the filmmaker decided to drop in to the 92Y in New York with his old friend, talk show host Dick Cavett for a discussion about his early days in Brooklyn, the golden age of radio and his 1987 film “Radio Days” which screened immediately following the discussion.
The pair were in good spirits, reminiscing and joking like old friends. Allen, as usual, managed to end nearly every story into a perfectly timed zinger and anyone who’s seen the recent HBO special “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett: Together Again” will know that the former talk show host is just as sharp as he’s ever been. The talk, moderated by Anette Insdorf, veered more towards the actual radio than Allen’s film, but that didn’t seem to bother the crowd, which was full of many older folks who were eager to stroll down memory lane with them. At one point, while reaching for a reference he couldn’t place, Cavett asked, "Aren't there any old people here for God sakes?" with Allen quipping, "I'm old but forgetful. And glad to be."
“When I grew up radio was all we had,” Allen said. “And you turned it on, or at least in my family you did, when you woke up in the morning and when I was getting dressed the radio was constantly going. You heard sensational music... Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, [George] Gershwin, Cole Porter, [and] Rodgers and Hart inundated the household all the time.” Cavett replied by saying he felt deprived growing up in Nebraska, “We had “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and the “Too Fat Polka” sung by [radio personality] Arthur Godfrey.”
They may have had different musical upbringings but the two were on the same page when it came to the old serials and radio shows, with Cavett saying, "Radio gave you imagination." Though Allen had supposedly once called radio a superior medium to television, he was careful not to get too wrapped up in a rose colored memory of it. “When you go back and hear the old radio shows so many of them were garbage.” Allen said. “As a child I sat rapt listening to them but now there are only a few that hold up, most notably Jack Benny. But many that thrilled us as kids, you listen to now and you think 'My god how could I have been enchanted by that?'” Cavett agreed, “Any medium, any art, the majority of it is junk.”
Allen had not only grown up listening to radio but began his career there as well, writing for The Herb Shriner Show. Many years later he looked to the format as his inspiration for “Radio Days,” his tribute to the Golden Age of broadcasting.
“When I was younger I wrote for radio.” Allen said. “My first significant thing was what they called a simulcast, [which meant it played] on radio and television. I was so taken with myself that I was at the time 17 years old and I thought it was a big deal. So I took my date to the show and I was going to be very, very, impressive. It was the first one and I was going to get a screen credit. I didn't know better [so] I got on line to go in behind hundreds of people. And the producer of the show saw me and said, 'Why are you waiting on line? You're a writer on the show!' and I said, 'Yeah I want to get in and see it!' And that was my first real experience being a radio writer and seeing my name up there.”
He would go on to become a hugely successful comedian and filmmaker but Allen never forgot the impact that radio had on him growing up and used many of the infamous stories from the era as the basis for his 1987 film. “There are many things in ‘Radio Days’ that were iconic when I was a youngster. I had a bit in the movie that I cut out [where on] the kids radio show, Uncle Don didn't realize the show hadn't ended and said on the air, ‘There, that oughtta hold the little bastards,' and he was instantly fired. It’s a very famous radio story and I had it in the movie but couldn't keep all the anecdotes in the film,” Allen said, mentioning that it was cut for time.
Though radio lives on through satellite and AM/FM stations, the music stations and talk radio programs don’t really hold a candle to the lavish productions of comedy programs and suspense hours of the past. Cavett and Allen both bemoaned this demise of the format, with the former talk show host saying he was sad ”that an entire artform vanished forever. There are still radios but there is no ‘radio’ anymore.” Allen added, “Every now and then they do try and do something, a group of actors get together, but it's never really clicked.”
Allen said he was surprised at how much he had in common with Cavett when they first met. Their disparate backgrounds - with Allen growing up in Brooklyn and Cavett in Nebraska - led Allen to believe they’d probably travelled wildly different paths but noticed they both shared many similar interests. “For some strange reason we both became enamored of show business,” Allen said. “And [performing] magic tricks is a strange, weird passion like ventriloquism or juggling and for some reason, at a certain age in life, certain kids get obsessed with the [tricks]. We used to lay in bed separately [across the country from each other] and look at the catalogs [full of magic tricks] and have the same fantasies that we'd perform these. And we did. Dick became very adept and I became mediocre but enthused,” he said with typical self deprecation.
“When you look back on it, it was such a colossal waste of time. I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror. I used to go to [the local] magic shop and [I would] miss my lunches in high school. I'd starve and save my money so I could go buy a magic trick at the end of the week. And years went by of doing this to no avail! It was allegedly going to make me popular at parties. I never got invited to parties, could never get anyone to pick a card. It was a total disaster for me. I never did anything for anybody, it was the mirror and me.” When Cavett revealed that he’d won a trophy at 15 for magic, Allen tried to bite his tongue before letting out his playfully biting remark. “We suffer, they win the trophy.”
Magic is another early passion that has cropped up in Allen’s work. From his “New York Stories” segment “Oedipus Wrecks” to his recent effort “Scoop,” he had also done a play called "The Floating Light Bulb" set in 1945 Brooklyn about a teenager who becomes interested in magic. When asked about the play he dismissed it saying, “I did it 30 years ago 25 years ago at Lincoln Center and it was nothing special. I always try and be a great playwright every few years and it never happens for me. And that was one of those occasions. It was reasonably entertaining for some people and fortunately it had a limited run. I didn't have the embarrassment of it opening and closing.”
“When I started I could only write for men ‘cause I wrote for me. Then I started a relationship with Diane Keaton and was very impressed with her personally [I’m] crazy about her to this day. And I saw things through her eyes and all of a sudden I could write for her and see a women’s point of view. So she's really responsible and she turned me around. Now I think I write better women than men.”
Another nostalgia tinged breakout from last year was the silent film redux “The Artist” which drew inspiration from the matinee idols of the '20s. Just like it's depicted in the film, Allen and Cavett both noted that it was very difficult for silent stars to make the transition to sound.
“For years there was a sense that silent comedy was much harder to do,” Allen said. “When they didn't have the benefit of sound, they had to work with their bodies and props.” While Allen says he reveres the great silent comedians for their physical work he thought that dialogue was perhaps even more difficult to perform. “I thought [sound] was much harder cause you're stuck speaking with your voice. Those guys: [Charlie] Chaplin, [Buster] Keaton, who were fabulous silent were terrible when they spoke. I think dialogue is very important [and] I think music is very, very important. Ingmar Bergman, my idol, thought the use of music was barbaric,” noting that Bergman didn’t score the last 20 or so of his films and saying that it all comes down to taste.
Another perhaps even more divisive cinematic device is narration, with many critics citing it as a crutch for lazy screenwriters to spell out exposition, Allen has always enjoyed it. “I've always loved films with narration. [Writer/Director] Billy Wilder liked that too. but many people don't like that. The audience and other directors feel if there's narration you're selling out in some way the natural propensity of the medium to do it visually. But I never feel that way. When a film begins with narration I love it. And I always did.”