Thanksgiving doesn't inspire many movies. Yet it has a central role in one of the best movies ever made, about Thanksgiving or any other holiday: Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose (1984). I make a point of watching it every November—and so should you.
True, the film trades in broad, ethnic stereotypes: It features a fast-talking, nebbishy Jewish talent agent and a crass Italian mob widow with big sunglasses. Not everyone will appreciate its Runyonesque sentimentality about New York in the early ’80s. But Broadway Danny Rose manages to be both funny and sweet. Americans nowadays don’t think of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, but Allen foregrounds religious themes, including the need to show gratitude to God by reaching out to others. For a film by a self-consciously Jewish atheist who famously rejects religion, its meditations on God, humility, guilt, and forgiveness make Broadway Danny Rose one of the most Christian films I know.
The story is told in flashback by a comedian having coffee with friends in the old Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue. (The comedian/narrator is played by Sandy Baron, whom Seinfeld fans will recognize as Jack Klompus.) It’s about a hapless talent agent named Danny Rose, played by Allen. Unlike most agents, who are in it strictly for the money, Danny takes a personal interest in his clients. He sacrifices everything for them. He keeps up their spirits by telling them how good they are (“My hand to God!”), gives them tips that improve their acts, puts them up in his shabby, rent-controlled apartment, even waives his commissions when necessary.
Unfortunately, as soon as they get a break, Danny’s ungrateful clients inevitably dump him for better connected managers. “You must be doing something wrong if everybody leaves you,” someone tells him, and, candidly, Danny is a loser. But however much he complains about the people who repay his kindness with desertion, he refuses to change. And so, he handles only tired novelty acts that no one else wants, like a woman with big hair who plays the glass harmonica, a parrot that sings “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a one-armed juggler, and an overweight, egotistical, has-been singer who drinks too much, Lou Canova.
Danny has special faith in Lou. He becomes not only Lou’s manager but “his friend and father confessor.” Against all odds, Lou’s career starts to take off, and Danny arranges for Milton Berle, who’s looking for a singer for a TV special, to attend one of Lou’s gigs at the Waldorf. It’s Lou’s big chance. But Lou, who is married with kids, is having an affair with a mob widow named Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), and Lou can’t sing unless she’s there to give him confidence. Danny thinks it’s immoral—“sooner or later you’re gonna have to square yourself with the Big Guy,” he warns Lou—but agrees to pretend to be Tina’s boyfriend and take her to the Waldorf himself, so that Lou can do his best.
Danny drives to New Jersey to pick up Tina on the day of the performance, but the two of them run afoul of mobsters Tina has crossed, who think Danny really is Tina’s boyfriend and threaten to kill them both. There’s a shootout in a warehouse storing gigantic balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s all played for laughs. Danny throws the mobsters off the trail by telling them that Tina’s real boyfriend is a guy named Barney Dunn—another showbiz loser, the “world’s worst ventriloquist,” who Danny thinks is safely away working a Thanksgiving cruise.
The conversations between Danny and Tina as they flee the mob form the moral center of the film. When Danny complains to Tina that none of the acts that desert him ever feel guilty, she mocks him. “I never feel guilty,” she says. “You know what my philosophy of life is? It’s over quick, so have a good time. You see what you want, go for it. Don’t pay attention to anyone else. And do it to the other guy first, ’cause if you don’t, he’ll do it to you.”
Danny disagrees. Guilt prevents us from doing terrible things to other people, he tells her. Like his rabbi used to say, in the eyes of God, we’re all guilty. (“You believe in God?” she asks. “No,” Danny admits, “but I’m guilty over it.”) And Danny tells Tina his own philosophy of life. The three most important things, he tells her, counting them off on his hand, are “acceptance, forgiveness, love.”
Danny eventually gets Tina to the Waldorf, where Lou puts on a great performance that’s sure to get him the TV spot. And then, like all the others, Lou drops Danny for a new agent. In fact, it’s someone Tina herself has found for Lou through her mob connections. True to her philosophy, Tina tells Danny that Lou must do what’s best for himself and that Danny needs to grow up. Danny walks away, heartbroken at another betrayal. Later, to make things worse, he learns that Barney wasn’t away on a cruise, but home in New York, where the mobsters have beaten him so badly that he’s hospitalized. A remorseful Danny visits Barney, without revealing that he’s the one responsible, and leaves in tears.
A year later, another Thanksgiving has rolled around. Tina, who has broken up with Lou, has never gotten over her guilt at how the two of them treated Danny. Her conscience, which she didn’t think she had, torments her. Danny was right: Without a sense of guilt and accountability to God, people do terrible things to each other. (Dostoevsky put it differently: If there is no God, everything is permitted.) Seeing the balloons at the Macy’s parade, she bursts into tears, remembering her adventure with Danny the year before. She decides to go to Danny’s apartment to tell him she’s sorry.
She finds Danny hosting his annual Thanksgiving party. It’s an absurdist scene. The lady with the glass harmonica is playing “Begin the Beguine,” the singing parrot is wearing a bird-sized party dress, and Barney, who has recovered, insists on talking through his ventriloquist’s dummy. But thanks to Danny, everyone is happy and having a great time. “God love you,” Danny says, as he passes out the frozen turkey dinners—which, Barney observes, “are just as good as the real.” And much cheaper, Danny adds.
“I’ve come to apologize,” Tina tells Danny when he opens the door. Softly, she reminds him about the importance of acceptance, forgiveness, and love, and says she’d like to be friends. Shocked and resentful, he sends her away. Just then, Barney and his dummy walk over to thank Danny for the party, and the expression on Danny’s face changes from anger to guilt to recognition. After all, Tina’s not the only person who’s done things that require forgiveness. Danny himself has helped Lou cheat on his wife and almost gotten Barney killed. After reflecting for a few seconds, Danny rushes outside and catches up with Tina in front of the Carnegie Deli. We don’t hear what he says to her, but he touches her on the arm, and the two walk back together, slowly, to his apartment.
There’s nothing overtly Christian here. Given the director’s view of religion, it would be strange if there were. But personally, Broadway Danny Rose strikes me as especially Christian in its stress on accountability to God, even a God in whom we might not fully believe, and the need, in this sad, absurd world, to show other people acceptance, forgiveness, and love. Those themes don’t capture the entirety of Christianity, but they go a long way. And I think heaven will be something very like Danny’s Thanksgiving party, with its collection of forgotten losers and outcasts. The last shall be first.
As for Danny himself, in his persistence in seeing dignity in everyone; his generosity to people who can do nothing for him in return; his remorse for his own his guilt; and his capacity for transforming people through the power of goodness, he is a kind of saint. And even in this world, he gets his reward. The narrator tells us that Danny, “a living legend,” has received “the single greatest honor you can get in the Broadway area.” Look at the menu, the narrator says. “In this very delicatessen, they named a sandwich after him: the Danny Rose Special.”
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John's University.
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