With the constant stream of information to which we have access, it’s easy to forget about what happened yesterday, let alone a hundred years ago. The fact is everything changes with time. Yet, the past can be an amazing source of inspiration, entertainment and ideas. Should you have any doubts about this, all you have to do is watch Broadway Danny Rose directed by Woody Allen.
Broadway Danny Rose begins with a mini-study of comedy: a comedian, Marty, complains about how he no longer knows which part of his comedy act “works anymore” to his friend (a comedian as well). When Marty tells a joke that failed him, his friend assures him that it still gets a laugh. These opening lines provide a frame through which to interpret the film in its entirety: this film is about the old still having a place if it’s changed a bit.
Taking a closer look at the film, you may see that the film shows that comedy’s failure in one medium does not imply a failure in another; an act that is unpopular today may gain popularity tomorrow; a joke that failed one comic may work for another. Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose mixes together the old vaudevillian style of comedy with the more recent movie-style of comedy. Allen’s full mastery of film allows him to continue the traditions of comedy back to its roots in the Vaudeville stage.
The genre of Vaudeville existed at its peak during the late 19th century through the early 1930s. The Vaudevillian genre had its own form, that is to say, it had a particular aesthetic illustrated through specific tropes. Woody Allen transforms these tropes in order to better and more successfully incorporate them into his film. This early shot sequence illustrates how cinema transformed vaudevillian tropes. Henry Jenkins wrote a book studying vaudevillian aesthetic called What Made Pistachio Nuts? In it Jenkins studies the comic sketch or monologue. He writes:
The comic sketch or monologue depended more upon the comic “bits,” the component parts, than upon the sense of the whole [...] Each part was expected not to contribute to the overall development of a narrative but to assist in the gradual intensification of audience response.
Above you see what a vaudevillian comic’s act was like. It was a series of jokes – if there was a plot, it didn’t always matter; to a vaudevillian comic the audience’s laughter was most important thing.
The structure of the beginning of Broadway Danny Rose gives it a distinctly vaudevillian flavor:
If the director of the film is analogous to a vaudevillian comic, then the beginning of the film consists of a series of comic bits in a dramatic monologue. As Jenkins pointed out: a vaudevillian “routine is so arranged that the introduction stamps the monologist as bright, and the character he is impersonating or telling about as a ‘real character.’ … the final point [...] rounds the monologue off in the biggest burst of honest laughter.” One can see how each comic bit in the film works to intensify the audience response, the comic bits show the humanity of Danny and at the end of the film the last story produces the biggest burst of laughter.
To go to a vaudevillian theater was to go see a lot of different acts – the vaudeville performance was a variety show. The film’s beginning, again, links itself to vaudeville, this time using this feature of the vaudeville genre. All the different acts shown in the start of the film were different acts that highlight a ‘remarkable’ skill in its performer. However, while trying to pay homage to Vaudevillian aesthetics, Broadway Danny Rose does not fail to be intrinsically contemporary of the time that saw its release.
Woody Allen delivers a great homage to the Vaudevillian comic through his film. Allen in Broadway Danny Rose creates a set of aesthetics that incorporates Vaudevillian tropes to the filmic medium, and in so doing, the film becomes a commentary on metacomedy that argues about the importance of awareness and respect of past traditions, and the importance of having access to them, while still allowing for their amelioration and expansion.