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July 16, 2014

Movie Review: Radio Days (1987, Twilight Time)

Reviewed By: Hal Astell

Woody Allen pretty much always wrote stories about himself, though he tweaked the truth so none are actually autobiographies. This one is about him as a young Jewish kid in Rockaway when the radio was on all day every day and all he ever wanted was a Masked Avenger ring with a secret compartment. He's played by someone you wouldn't expect on the face of it to be believable as a young Woody Allen, here called Joe, let alone appear in a Woody Allen film, but Seth Green does a solid job. He's really young here, long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer let alone Robot Chicken, but he looks exactly like a really young Seth Green.

The script is really nothing but a dramatized collection of reminiscences, and as you'd expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.

The first reminiscence is a peach and sets the stage very nicely for all the rest. It has two crooks breaking into a house when the phone rings. They answer it to avoid waking everyone up and end up winning the grand prize on a game show called Guess That Tune. Mr and Mrs Needleman arrive home the next morning to find their home robbed but no end of goodies arriving in the place of their own stuff. It's hilarious but ludicrous at the same time, and quite a few of the other reminiscences fit the same bill. There's a sports story show that involves a baseball pitcher with heart, even though he loses a leg, an arm and his sight. There's even a radio ventriloquist.

As you'd expect, many of the reminiscences have to do with famous radio moments. Aunt Bea, in the form of the wonderful Dianne Wiest, is about to get some in a car sneakily 'broken down' by her date, when Orson Welles's War of the Worlds comes on and he runs away in terror. Sally the cigarette girl, played by the inevitable but always welcome Mia Farrow, is about to get her big break on the show when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Chekov just doesn't matter any more because the country is at war. Even Polly Phelps gets in on the act. She was the original girl down the well, and here spares Joe from a hiding for contaminating his mother's prize coat in a chemistry experiment.

There are people here beyond Farrow that are always welcome friends. The Masked Avenger has the incomparable voice of Wallace Shawn and Joe's mother has an even more unmistakable voice, courtesy of Julie Kavner who will always be Marge Simpson, whatever else she might choose to do. Danny Aiello is a hitman who needs to kill Mia Farrow, but ends up getting her onto the air instead. There are quick parts for people like Jeff Daniels, Tito Puente (and chihuahua) and Diane Keaton (who sings in the New Year). In many ways spotting them is half the fun, because everyone here is really in a bit part. Even the leads get what must be the shortest amount of screen time any leads ever got.

Pick up the limited edition (3000 units) of Twilight Time's Blu-ray release of Radio Days directly from Screen Archives while supplies last.

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