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COMPANION PIECES with Jeremy Dyson

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) / Broadway Danny Rose (1984)


Ghosts, funlands, magicians and other strangely humourous things are all part and parcel of Jeremy Dyson’s writing. As well as his own novels — The Haunted Book (2012) and Never Trust a Rabbit (2015) — he loves nothing more than to collaborate; especially with those who provide such different skill sets he overlaps with so effortlessly. Since his time as a member of The League of Gentlemen, he has gone on to co-create all manner of works; from the BBC’s BAFTA-nominated television series Funland (2005) — with Simon Ashdown — to the stage play Ghost Stories (2010) and its subsequent 2017 film adaptation, which Dyson and co-creator (and lead) Andy Nyman also went onto adapt and direct for the big screen.

 

He partnered up again with Nyman for their novel The Warlock Effect (2023) — with a six-part TV adaptation in the works — and is currently working with the prolific French graphic novelist Joann Sfar on a television series about a psychiatrist who treats monsters. Monsters of which he admires as much as the movies, “I’m envious of your shelves. That’s very impressive,” he observes as we touch upon a golden ages of physical media…

 

It’s 30 years worth minus a lot of the VHS, which I’m kind of regretting… at least from a nostalgic point of view. Seems like even something as clunky as tapes can make a comeback!

 

How can VHS possibly make a comeback?

 

As much as it’s my era — and I do love its texture — I’ll never forget the frustrations of watching films in that format.

 

Totally.

 

But it was all part of the experience that built a crucial memory of the movies during that time. Once DVD came along though, it felt like a proper education. Those years were several degrees worth of knowledge with the wealth of extra features stacked on those discs.

 

Well… that’s what I miss. I mean, that golden era of the DVD that happened from 2000 to 2010 — particularly at first, when they had budgets for it — we were in on it from the start with The League of Gentlemen series and I’ll always remember one of the joys while working on that was embracing all of the documentaries and commentaries. We tried to pack in as much as possible for everyone to enjoy and learn our process.

 

A league of their own. Jeremy (Left), Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.


It’s such a shame that has vanished on the vanilla releases. I’ve just rewatched The League of Gentlemen for the umpteenth time and I can’t help but dip into all of the extra features. The ones that you all provided for Arrow Films — especially Theatre of Blood (1972) — are always so entertaining and informative and have helped keep the flag flying for physical media. Like you say, it really was a golden era.

 

I was older but I always think that if I was a teenager during that period… what an education having directors talk about their movies, going through their work scene by scene. That’s such an incredible tool for learning.


Absolutely. So, talking movies...

 

Forever enjoyable...

 

In looking at your choices for conversation, how did you settle on this specific double bill?

 

It was like a bolt from the blue. We’ve always watched It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas; an extraordinary film that gets more and more remarkable each time you see it and easily in my top ten movies of all time. Broadway Danny Rose is a film I love. It is very underrated but, personally, I feel it is one of the best in Woody Allen’s canon. It may be pushing it to say it’s the best, but it’s certainly up there. What’s interesting is it’s quite atypical for one of his films, yet also contrasts so well with his other work. Another interesting thing that has happened is the passing of time, which has shifted what his canon looks like. Because for all of my film awareness — growing up and becoming aware of his talent until only a few years ago — the received wisdom was that Manhattan was at the top with Annie Hall just behind it — and then probably Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives — that was the peak. Although it’s a very beautiful film visually and still has much to enjoy, Manhattan is now very difficult to watch because of everything that’s played out with his private life going public.

 

Brings in that common question of art versus artist.

 

Yes. A film built around a very queasy power imbalance of a man in his forties; his personal life writ large on screen. You can’t reframe it really. On top of this, there are also just the shifts in attitudes and culture. Also, his later work is sort of thematically repetitive; everything being luck in the universe and that it’s all blind fate and blind chance with romantic love sitting on top of all that. That became less and less interesting to me. So, once all of that stuff starts to fall away and it reveals Broadway Danny Rose as being this thing that is quite different from what it appears, I think time has revealed it to have hidden depths and it’s a film of his that I keep coming back to along with Radio Days, which you could also do a companion piece about those two. So, broadly speaking, all of this highlights the desire to talk about it, because I don’t see or read that much out there on the film and find it fascinating.


"... crucially, at the centre of both films,

the lead characters are giving in and sacrificing to

all these people. In going broader here, for such a

famously Jewish writer/director, Broadway Danny Rose 

is such a Christian film; that Christian ethic, in the way

these characters sacrifice themselves."


— Jeremy Dyson


What do feel the thematic connections are with It’s a Wonderful Life?

 

To begin with, interestingly enough there is this unintentional parallel between the two in the structural elements; in that they both start with first-person narrators telling us about each of these characters, with vignettes. For George Bailey, it’s a higher power with the angels and for Danny Rose, you’ve got all the wonderful old comedians sat around the Carnegie Deli telling their Danny stories, which, introduce the protagonist through little sketches before we get into the meat of the main story.

 

They complement each other perfectly and other parallels between the two became more apparent when watching them back-to-back for this interview. Director Frank Capra at the time saw It’s a Wonderful Life as being his masterpiece. It was his intention as a comeback film after the war to pour everything he had learnt into it. It became this big statement piece, which is exactly what it is… and then because it had this odd release — pushed forward by a couple of weeks due to RKO’s Sinbad the Sailor being delivered late in January of ’47 — it made it slightly out of step with the times, so it came and went. All kinds of accidental stuff like that added to its misstep, but the myth that it was this box office disaster that ended Capra’s career wasn’t true. It did okay, but it was certainly not a favourite of that year and barely received any nominations, if at all. Once it was syndicated for television (as with most films) it had a second life and became the cultural phenomenon that it is. I mean, it’s disguised as this Christmas ritual but it’s so much more than that — a much, much bigger work.

 

A good parallel to begin with is the character journeys.

 

It is quite interesting to look at that from the outside in; that both the leading men are playing against type, particularly Woody Allen who is massively against type, and I think it stands out from all of his performances; the one that’s furthest away from who he actually is. I might include Deconstructing Harry, in that hindsight has once again revealed that maybe he’s closer to the character he plays in that particular film… closest to who he actually is [laughs]. Every other character he plays are either metropolitan, educated, or a middle-class New York wise guy on the edges of being intellectual… and Danny Rose couldn’t be any further from all of that. Woody Allen does some of his shticks but the actual character of Danny is this archetypal schlemiel loser. Not educated. No taste. His clothes are terrible. If you think about all the other characters he plays, he’s generally a hipster in one form or another. Danny is the opposite of all of that. He’s not a lady’s man — by his own confession — which makes it all the more unusual in that there is this huge stretch between Woody the man and the character he is playing.


Schlemiel loser. Woody Allen as Danny Rose.


Likewise for Jimmy Stewart. Although there are some aspects of George Bailey that riff on his previous Capra characters, at his core George is a loser in the same way that Danny is a loser. He has these big dreams, these big aspirations, but he just can’t get there, because life gets in the way — well, it’s more than just life, as we’ll come to — and all of this, again, is a big stretch from who Jimmy Stewart was at the point that he was cast in the role. The biggest difference is that George Bailey never fought in the war, he stayed at home and it was his brother who went off to fight. That’s another source of pain for him in the story. Stewart, famously, was the biggest (or at least the most well-known) Hollywood war hero. He was in the Air Force; he was decorated, flying 20 active service missions. That’s a massive difference between the character he’s portraying. On top of all this, it was his first post-war film… and everybody knew that.

 

So, there is something about the actor disappearing into the part in both of these films that makes it so intriguing… and something about that draws you in as well. Weirdly, because we normally think of Woody Allen playing a version of himself, there is something that is (oddly) distancing about it all that keeps you outside the story, “Oh, it’s just Woody”. That doesn’t happen in Broadway Danny Rose, you are completely sucked into these stories, which start off as an anecdote and then end in a place of deep pathos. I mean, the pathos couldn’t be any deeper when you get to George Bailey’s crisis and I feel these are some of the more interesting echoes with both of those characters.

 

They both have these aspirations but things are constantly in the way and. sadly, the choices they make in their lives set them off in different directions.


Ghostly echoes. Writing partner and lead actor Andy Nyman in GHOST STORIES (2017). The film shares some portentous parallels to a not so wonderful life in which a character is "punished for their virtues".


Yes… and in paraphrasing Nietzsche, “If you really want to make somebody suffer, punish them for their virtues. There is no greater pain.” Crucially, this is what happens to both.

 

It’s such a powerful message.

 

George Bailey gives and gives and gives and then through absolutely no fault of his own he’s thrown into this suicidal crisis as a result of his uncle’s laxity – which he bears no responsibility for – and yet George has to sort the family mess out and is ultimately overwhelmed by it all

 

They are characters that seem to feel like they’re in the eye of the storm, surrounded by a circle of (un)supporting characters. In It’s a Wonderful Life he is constantly reminded by those who surround him within a small town.

 

Yes, a small community. And also, crucially, at the centre of both films, the lead characters are giving in and sacrificing to all these people. In going broader here, for such a famously Jewish writer/director, Broadway Danny Rose is such a Christian film; that Christian ethic, in the way these characters sacrifice themselves.

 

A fascinating perspective.

 

Danny even says at one point — when he’s giving his philosophy of life to Mia Farrow — quoting one of his uncles who had this beautiful perspective highlighting three things in life: acceptance, forgiveness and love. That is not Jewish… but a Christian ethos.

 

What do think the influence is on Woody Allen, in terms of how he’s written that? Do you think he’s just literally stepping back as a writer, away from his heritage etc., and just writing that character from a different perspective and belief?

 

Absolutely. That’s why I love it so much. I think it’s one of his best pieces of writing because it’s such a beautiful and thoughtful short story. The length is another reason these two films go together so well as a double bill; because Broadway Danny Rose works as a second feature as it’s so tight at 84 minutes it feels like a short story or epilogue. As well as somewhat of a hybrid script, It’s a Wonderful Life was actually derived from a short story, which I think is linked mainly to the third act. Everything prior to that is Capra’s invention.

 

It’s interesting to see that happen a lot in Hollywood during that era. Capra, in particular, in how he developed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with the film starting off as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and then reshaped into something else.

 

Through such extended periods of development, Capra was always prepared to do that. He had this perfectionist side to him; It’s a Wonderful Life going through many drafts. Whereas, in contrast, Woody Allen is famous for just filming his first drafts… hence his pace.

 

His output over the years is astonishing.

 

The quality is remarkably consistent and at times stratospheric. And that run from Annie Hall through to Husbands and Wives — which is 15 years or something — is just extraordinary.

 

In looking at both Frank Capra and Woody Allen as directors, on the page, you don’t necessarily see the connection but when you let them rest a little you can actually see the similarities, even down to how certain things are shot.

 

Even the worldview that goes from film to film; all of those great Capra works are imbued with his sensibility, his worldview, his ethos and philosophy, just like Woody Allen’s.

 

The anti-capitalist point with Capra too.

 

Yeah, again he was a nakedly political filmmaker, which is, of course, what got him into trouble when the witch hunts started — although he went the other way — but none of that was disguised.

 

Gang relations. Mia Farrow as Tina Vitale.


Talking about ‘disguise’. In coming back to the casting and against type, Mia Farrow is unrecognizable.

 

Such an extraordinary performance and outside of Rosemary’s Baby, by a stretch, I think it’s her best performance. Again, she was known as this urbane metropolitan girl — lover of Frank Sinatra and all of that — and here she is cropping up as this kind of working-class low-life wife of a gangster.

 

'Trashy' Farrow.

 

[Laughs] As you say, “unrecognisable”. You would never know it was her in that extraordinary costume with the big glasses and the rat’s nest hair piled up on her head and early eighties ski pants. She just disappears into the role.

 

Likewise in It’s a Wonderful Life you have some beautiful against-type castings in Lionel Barrymore playing the bad guy Mr. Potter, an actor who was beloved; I mean known for playing curmudgeons but they were always lovable. He’s a monster in this. At the time that would have been really shocking. It’s a bit like Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager; this nice guy persona and comedic force who turns up suddenly playing this monstrous character. But that carries an extra charge because of it. In fact, Capra had a prosthetic made for Barrymore because at first he was worried that people wouldn’t buy him as Potter due to that lovable demeanour. The other one is H.B. Warner, who plays Mr. Gower, the drugstore owner. He was famous for playing Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 version of King of Kings. Even into the ’40s that was still what he was known for. So, seeing him as this other tragic forlorn figure — especially in the Potterville version — would have been a real shock for audiences back then.


An earful. The brutal opening of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE in which Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) clouts a young George Bailey (Bobby Anderson) around the ear.


The original incarnation of Mr. Gower where he is about to take his own life is so dark.

 

The assumption that It’s a Wonderful Life is this saccharine, sentimental film couldn’t be further from the truth as it’s a surprisingly challenging watch. As you say, “so dark.” It just burns you in many, many places.

 

It’s a prime example of those qualities that the likes of Spielberg inherited where they lure you in with the saccharine and the sentimental approach and then just hit you in the face with something unexpectedly dark and twisted.

 

But, again, I would challenge that sentiment with It’s a Wonderful Life because it starts in quite a dark place. It even begins with a suicide, in the sense we are told that’s where we’re going by the celestial voices. Then that first substantial scene with H.B. Warner — which is brutal — where you see little George Bailey’s ear bleeding [laughs]; Jesus swiping him round the head because his son has just died that morning. There’s nothing sentimental about that and I challenge anybody to watch the scene and not be in bits by the end of it. It’s one of the most powerful moments in Hollywood filmmaking and truly hooks you in.

 

It’s pure cinema. People talk about certain films manipulating feelings… that’s what cinema does!

 

Personally, I don’t think it’s manipulative because it’s telling a story. It’s showing you a character descending into his own death. Because here’s the other brilliant thing about It’s a Wonderful Life that makes it quite unique — especially as a mainstream Hollywood film — if you ask people who the antagonist is, casually most people would say it’s Potter. But it isn’t, because Potter is quite a minor character. He’s almost a subplot, a device just to get George to that crucial tipping point. The antagonist for George Bailey in It’s Wonderful Life is George Bailey. He is his own antagonist and he’s wrestling himself for the entirety of the film. It’s the struggle between his ambition, his desire to get out and his duty. But it’s his sense of decency, which has kept him there.

 

It’s so well made as a film we can almost see the ‘wonderful life’ he was meant to have and that’s what makes it all the more devastating because everything is just a grasp away… something he can’t quite reach.

 

Absolutely. It’s interesting to note that in some of the earlier drafts — and there were many versions of them — there were two George Baileys: a good version and a bad version. I think there were eventually three versions; all of which played as alternative forms of George rather than no George at all. In those drafts, he received all these wishes but it only led to him leaving a trail of broken hearts behind… or something like that.

 

It feels like there is a whiff of all of that under the surface… almost permeating the final film.

 

I think you’re right. Like an argument that’s been developed and it reached its perfection in the version that was made. That was the process that got them there. But, yeah… in terms of being his own antagonist, I think you’ve got some of that tension with the character of Danny Rose in the sense that he’s a loser but someone who is imprisoned by his own decency.

 

And there’s a really beautiful moment — again, a lovely echo of It’s a Wonderful Life – towards the end where — not out of malice, but because he thinks it’s okay; Danny gives a guy’s name (a ventriloquist) to avoid being beaten up, thinking this guy is on a cruise. But on hearing he isn’t, the guy ends up beaten. Danny runs to his bedside and, even though he has no money himself offers to pay his hospital bill. That tells you everything about who he is as a person. Which is thoroughly good and decent; to the point he has imprisoned himself and denied himself any success that he craves. Then there is this beautifully dark ending that seems to let in a chink of light where we see him in this awful flat living in poverty, but with his failure clients all around him who he has invited over for Thanksgiving. He’s so poor he can only give them TV Turkey dinners. He doesn’t get the bread baskets full of cash as with George Bailey but he finds a friendship in the redeemed character Mia Farrow plays… because that’s what he has been to everyone else and it’s so touching. It’s this lovely open ending that plays on your mind; that maybe they will end up complementing one another. That light that is let in.

 

Again, very Christian… it also feels like a Last Supper scenario and doesn’t end how you would expect it to end.

 

Yes. And, as with many of his films, it is a fantastic New York movie because it documents a New York that has now vanished. It has this glorious opening in the Carnegie Deli — which is no longer there, sadly — and it preserved that way of life just as it was disappearing. At the, when meets back up with Farrow, it has that lovely circularity to it, that symmetry of ending where it starts. That’s another pleasure of it.


Monochrome Manhattan. A perfect NY shot capturing the Midtown's Carnegie Deli.


So to pull these two films together how would you summarise what resonates the most about both of these films?


Well, firstly, I think with It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s the life-affirming nature of the film that draws you in. There is a deep truth to the protagonist’s suffering, because even if you’ve not had anything as extreme in terms of life crisis: a) everyone relates to that sense of failure — that’s universal; whoever you are, whatever you’ve achieved or haven’t achieved, there’s always more — and b) there is always a sense of “If I did this or I did that and what stopped you getting to that.” So it’s totally universal. Everybody, I think, can identify with how George Bailey feels about himself and his circumstances. Even if you’ve not hit the lows that George hits, there will be a point most people will have in their lives where they feel they are betrayed by their circumstances. This is what pulls you in… and the film gives you an answer to that. In that sense, another biblical reference is rather resonant and reminds you of “The Book of Job”, in which a good man, a blameless man suffers for his virtues. All the time he asks “Why?” and God responds, “Who are you to ask me why? You have no right to ask me that.” Nevertheless, there’s light at the end of the story.

 

All of this maps onto both of these films.

 

Intricately. The high scale and high concept of it all in Capra’s film and the catharsis that you get because of how low George has sunk never feels like melodrama but the real deal. A lot of that has to do with the writing, but, obviously, with Jimmy Stewart’s extraordinary performance.

 

The bar scene alone: PTSD Jimmy Stewart’s performance destroys me every time. It's so raw and helps cement all of the above.


Impeccable. But everyone en masse supporting him is also superb and help provide so many standout scenes. It’s full of so much emotional truth. This is all part of why it’s such a perennial film as you find more and more in it because it’s so beautifully crafted on every level. Again, I think that there is the same appeal in Danny Rose because you identify with him; those times when everyone feels like a loser too, so you can’t help but find yourself in him and his vulnerability… and maybe it flatters you if you identify with his decency as well, which, I would like to think, we all have that in us too.

 

We need more stories like that today.

 

Well, we do. I was trying to think, when did I last see a comedy that was as funny and genuinely humane as either of these films?

 

Brian and Charles was the last one that stands out to me from a couple of years ago.

 

I haven’t seen that one yet.

 

It projects that microcosmic idea of a small community and an ordinary character with big ideas through the lens of a mockumentary. It’s a beautiful little film with so much character and humour.

 

Now I have to check that.

 

You’ll love it. Very British and brings high concepts crashing back down to earth, which is what we are brilliant at.

 

I will take that recommendation. I mean, It’s a Wonderful Life – let’s be honest – it’s a complete one-off.

 

It’s true. Coming to my final question: if you were hosting this as a double feature, which cinema would you present these films at?

 

It would have to be at my favourite local cinema, the Cottage Road in Leeds because it is one of the very few buildings that have remained totally unchanged from my childhood. It was a cinema I went to regularly and has retained its structure; it hasn’t been divided into separate screens so still has this beautiful auditorium.

 

The Cottage Road Cinema in Leeds, UK.

Wow. That dates back to when?

 

If I recall, it was built in 1905 and I think it’s been functioning as a cinema since 1912; originally as Headingley Picture House. It’s one of the oldest cinemas in the country.

 

What’s its secret say that it’s survived that long?

 

I think Woody Allen would appreciate that it’s just luck. There is a small northern chain that owns it along with some other picture houses in the North of England. I guess they probably bought them cheaper enough that they never had to worry about overheads etc.; covering costs and just about making it all work. There is a concentrated student area so I’m sure that helps. It’s such a pleasure to visit because I now take my daughter there, because they have regular screenings of old movies, which, of course, you can do so much easier now in the digital age. They recently did the reissues of the Powell and Pressburger films across the autumn… these gorgeous new prints.

 

Well… what an insightful chat this has been. Absolutely wonderful, Jeremy, thank you so much.

 

It’s been a pleasure, Rich.




You can follow Jeremy via Twitter @dysonjeremy. His recent novel with Andy Nyman, The Warlock Effect, is out now in hardback and available in paperback on June 6th. Pre-order now.

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