The Purple Rose of Cairo

by Damian Cannon

A delightful tale centred on how cinema can change lives, if only when the lights are down, Woody Allen combines romance with intelligence to great comic effect. Hauling her way painfully through the Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) slaves in a diner while her slobbish husband Monk (Danny Aiello) fritters their money on booze and gambling. If he only loved and cared for her the situation might be bearable, but he doesn't. The sole respite for Cecilia comes when she nudges a few coins across the counter of the local picture house, eager to immerse herself in a celluloid fantasy. The newest release, which mixes socialites and explorers, is a real cracker and Cecilia winds up sitting through it a number of times. However, during the latest screening her idol Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) halts in the middle of a speech and starts a conversation with Cecilia! To top that, Baxter then hops off the screen and into the audience!

It turns out that Baxter has seen Cecilia so often that he's fallen in love with her, hence his momentous decision to enter the real world. The pair run out of the theatre and into the open, leaving behind them patrons and actors stunned alike. All Baxter wants to do is live a normal life, free from the shackles of performing the same role endlessly. Hiding out in an empty New Jersey fairground, Baxter proclaims his longing for Cecilia, despite the fact that she's already married. He turns out to be such a great kisser (all fictional movie characters are) that she almost agrees, only returning to the abuse of Monk at the last minute. Back at the Jewel Theatre chaos reigns, with the Manager (Irving Metzman) stranded in the middle. The audience, a broad sweep of Jewish stereotypes, want their money back while the actors lounge about on-screen, playing cards and bickering.

Eventually frantic calls reach all the way to Hollywood and into the office of Raoul Hirsch (Alexander H. Cohen), the film's producer. Shocked by the bizarre situation, and wary of a mountain of law-suits, Hirsch and actor Gil Shepherd (who played Baxter) take a rapid cross-country flight. Now the situation is set to become really complicated, with Baxter and Shepherd in the same town. So far Cecilia has fallen heavily for her fictional friend, wooed by his deep romantic streak and unabashed optimism (of course, being made-up, he's perfect). The strange thing is that he only understands the constraints of a movie, which causes problems when it comes to paying real restaurant bills. His fellow actors, tired and grumpy, perk up when Hirsch comes to see them, although their latent egotism still shines brightly. Inevitably Baxter must be persuaded to return to the film, but how?

The Purple Rose of Cairo contains so many wonderful elements that it seems arbitrary to pick out any as special, yet there is one theme which runs strongly throughout the entire film. This is the manner in which common relationships are turned upside-down, most obviously with the transition of Baxter from fiction to reality. Further along this resonates with the abandoned film cast switching from performing to viewing, as they wait to finish their scene, and the flipped relationship of Cecilia and Monk. Perhaps this is Allen's way of indicating that a movie, no matter how frivolous, can have a worthwhile impact on its audience (together with the fact that the real world can never be as perfect as the fictional, that this is a pipe-dream)? If so, it can all be summed up in the expression of Mia Farrow as she sits entranced while Astaire and Rogers dance their hearts out; in a series of subtle graduations her face transforms from a mask of sorrow to radiant joy (even though the world outside remains as horrid as ever). Such is the power of the moving-picture!

On a side note, the performances and script are both excellent (each bolstering the other). There's a wealth of humour to be found in the story, particularly in the way Baxter tries to apply movie precepts to the real world, although this is leavened by a deep emotional counterbalance (skillfully applied by Allen). If anything, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a touch too manipulative, notwithstanding the terrific finale.

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