You can’t learn to be real. It’s like learning to be a midget.
I can think of few things more polarizing than Woody Allen. You either love his movies, or you hate them. For some people, it seems like a choice not based on the quality of his films, but as a reflection on the character of the auteur himself and his public dalliances with a very young (but of legal age) adopted stepdaughter. Personally, I love Allen’s films, though I have not delved deeply into his pre-Annie Hall work, or for that matter many of his films prior to Mighty Aphrodite. The Purple Rose of Cairo has long been on my list of Allen films to see, and with its DVD release, I finally had the chance.
Cecelia (Mia Farrow) lives in a small factory town in New Jersey during the Great Depression. Her husband Monk (Danny Aiello) is an out-of-work abusive oaf, and she supports the two by working odd jobs and waitressing. Her escape from the doldrums of her life is the local bijou, where every week a new fantasy plays on the silver screen to whisk her from New Jersey to places she can only dream of. One week, the new film is “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” about a group of socialites from New York City who while in Egypt meet a dashing explorer, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). After Cecelia sees the movie several times, the most peculiar thing happens: Tom begins to speak directly to her, and steps off the screen into the real world. Once in the real world, the fictional character has a difficult time adjusting to life during the Depression, but he knows one thing for certain: he loves Cecelia. This, of course, is at odds with her controlling husband’s desires to keep his wife on a short leash. Meanwhile, the theater is in chaos as the film comes to a halt and the characters on screen wait for Baxter to return so they can get along with the story. This also catches the attention of the movie studio, who dispatches Gil Shepherd (also Jeff Daniels), the actor to plays Tom Baxter, to control the situation. He also falls for Cecelia…
When did film become an art form?
When did it cease to be about entertainment?
When did it become wrong for the silver screen to become an escape from the heartache and pain around you?
The 1970s were the first decade after films went from pure entertainment to art. Certainly the decade produced some of the best films in history, but on the other hand, for a time it became a liability to be entertaining. Woody Allen fell into that trap himself with his aspirations to be the American version of existential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. With The Purple Rose of Cairo, he makes a paean to the golden era of Hollywood, when movies could be nonsensical as long as they had a happy ending, where everyone was rich and smoked and drank and was never unhappy. Sure, it was a fantasy, but what fantasy shows people what they already have? In the middle of a Depression, who wants to be go to the movies to see their lives mirrored? That was the entire point of Preston Sturges’s amazing Sullivan’s Travels. In Purple Rose, Allen seems to be making that appeal through an absurd fantasy where one of these rarefied movie characters comes down from the screen into the morass that is real life. Tom Baxter wants real love, not something that’s been fashioned by the god-like writers. Cecelia too wants real love, because she’s sure not getting it from her lout of a husband. They both want what that other has, but in the end they come to a tacit understanding that each needs each other where they belong, he up on the screen to provide escapism, she in the audience to be entertained.
I wish I could find so much more to say about The Purple Rose of Cairo, but words seem to fail me. I watch movies to be entertained. I like the artistry of films as much as the next film buff, but at times I feel like the rest of the film lover community turns its nose down at people like me who like certain movies for their escapist pleasures. I see this movie as an affirmation that it’s okay to have fun at the movies. Or maybe I just need to stop reading Cineaste.
MGM’s DVD presentation of The Purple Rose of Cairo follows the lead set by their other releases of Woody Allen’s movies. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It shows some grain at times, and a dust speck or two. The color is a bit subdued, but it matches the tone and era of the film. For a Woody Allen film, it’s quite acceptable. The same can be said of the two-channel mono soundtrack. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and liner notes.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is lighthearted and fun, strongly recommended to all film fans, whether you watch movies for the fun of it or the appreciation of the art.