Wikipedia says that The Purple Rose Of Cairo is inspired by Sherlock Jr, Hellzapoppin’, and “Six Characters In Search Of An Author”, but when Woody Allen started writing the screenplay, it’s very likely that the entire story stemmed from one simple idea: What if movies were like plays?
What if the camera wasn’t really there, and characters from within the movie could walk through the cinema screen and into the aisles of the cinema? What if the people on our side could hold conversations with the people on the other side? What would they talk about? The Purple Rose Of Cairo is the result of all these questions, written and directed by Allen, starring Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels in roles that fit them like gloves. Farrow plays Cecilia, an abused wife struggling to keep her head above water during The Great Depression. Daniels plays two men, who are essentially the same man. One is Tom Baxter, the movie character who walks through the screen and into Cecilia’s life, and the other is Tom’s creator, Gil Shepherd, whose up and coming movie career is jeopardised when Tom escapes.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start from the beginning, because Allen sets it up brilliantly. Cecilia works at the local diner, but she’s as clumsy as I am on a good day. She breaks so many plates, and has so many chats with her sister during work that her boss fires her. I judge him for not firing her sooner. She returns home to her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), who demands food on the table. This Monk is a real piece of work. He is the kind of man you just want to shove into a wood chipper. He’s adulterous, he drinks alcohol like water, he beats his wife, demands massages and meals from her, expects her to bring home the bacon, and then apologises for everything, blaming the booze. Cecilia threatens to leave him many times, but she somehow always comes crawling back, which is annoying, because it makes him right.
The local cinema becomes her sanctuary. That place that no evil can ever seem to reach — it is even more secure for her than a church. The movies are her escape from reality, much like they are for the rest of us. She immerses herself in them, gets caught up in their stories and their people, and forgets about her troubles. This time, the movies respond, and Tom Baxter steps out of frame. We find out that he’s unhappy in the movie world and he wants to be free, and that the reason he stepped out is because he kept seeing Cecilia in the cinema. They start dating, and Tom explores. Allen’s treatment of the script and his characters here is very delicate. He has created two people, both running away from something nasty to be joined together in happiness. They are in complete bliss, and this bliss has blinded them to the realities of life — Tom takes Cecilia out for dinner at an expensive restaurant one night and pays with his fake movie money, unaware that it isn’t allowed. Cecilia is so broke that she never stops to wonder if Tom is capable of paying. They are swept up in each other’s troubles, becoming the solution for both.
But Tom is still just a movie character. He isn’t real. When he gets punched, he doesn’t bleed or get hurt. He has false ideas of what love is, and how life should be. When he kisses Cecilia for the first time, he’s surprised to learn that there is no fade to black when the love making is about to start. His knowledge is limited to the knowledge of his character. He knows nothing else, and almost seems incapable of learning anything else. He is stuck in a time that demands more than anyone can give. Cecilia knows this. Tom doesn’t.
A lot of the couple’s explorations are funny and well written, and Farrow and Daniels both share an optimism that’s different from each other’s. But it’s the idea of walking through a cinema screen that is Allen at his most intelligent. We all know he can write good, witty dialogue, but where would that dialogue be if Tom had remained in his movie and Cecilia in her miserable life? Sometimes with just one great idea, everything else falls into place. We watch movies all the time, and Allen is smart to exploit this. He makes us think and question our reasons for going to the movies. But The Purple Rose Of Cairo is also fun. How exciting would it be if Han Solo flew the Millennium Falcon right above our heads?
Best Moment | When Tom first walks out of his movie. It almost took me by surprise. It’s quite refreshing to experience originality in a movie again.
Worst Moment | Nope.