The Purple Rose of Cairo

Woody Allen, 1985

They always say you ought to write what you know, which is why so many films chronicle the creative process. From Sunset Boulevard to Adaptation, Hollywood’s favourite subject is itself. But great as they are, most of these films seem determined to make the audience understand the pain of the artist, the stress of putting together a production, how hard it is to make something look effortless. It’s rare to find a film that appreciates the finished product above all, and understands the spell it casts over the ordinary person sat there in the dark.

Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of those films. Set in Depression-era New Jersey, it stars Mia Farrow as Cecilia. She’s a timid woman with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello), and a stressful waitressing job which she constantly jeopardizes with her clumsiness and daydreaming. Her only comfort is the cinema, where she can lose herself in shimmering Hollywood gloss for an hour and a half.

After catching Monk with another woman she musters the courage to leave him, but has nowhere to go but the cinema. Playing that day is a screwball comedy also called The Purple Rose of Cairo. She watches every screening, fantasizing about the handsome explorer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). In a moment of true film magic, she notices Tom is forgetting his lines and distractedly glancing at her from the screen. The gimmick from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr is reversed to glorious effect, as Tom steps out of the screen to run away with Cecilia. The rest of the characters are furious, as their story is stalled without him. Much to the dismay of the theatre owners and studio bosses, they pass time by insulting the audience.

Tom Baxter leaving the film within a film... Confused?

"Always when the kissing gets hot and heavy, there's a fade-out..."

The scenes between Tom and Cecilia are delightfully witty, as Tom comes to terms with the real world. He struggles with the idea of making love without fading out, and laments that he never met his father who “died before the movie began”. This plot alone would be enough for a perfectly charming film but Allen finds a way to add extra weight and intrigue to the story, as Cecilia is forced to choose between Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom.

For a film nerd like myself, there are plenty of allusions to classic cinema. The credits are accompanied by a piece of real Hollywood magic; Fred Astaire singing Cheek to Cheek, which is reprised at the end with Top Hat playing in the movie house. The cinematography of the 1930s is impeccably recreated, especially when Tom takes Cecilia back into his film for a night-on-the-town montage, replete with superimposed neon signs and a kaleidoscope of overflowing champagne glasses. The mixing of colour with black and white is reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death, with the colourful real world in definite contrast to the Heaven of black and white movies. Also, the stereotypical narcissism of actors is reflected in the bickering of the fictional characters, the running joke being that each one believes themselves to be the main character.

The conclusion is emotionally crushing, but that’s just the way it goes in the real world. Cecilia finds solace in movies once again, watching the enchanting Fred and Ginger through her tears, while we watch her through our own. But despite its melancholy aftertaste, I find myself revisiting The Purple Rose of Cairo repeatedly. Each time it seems to hurt a little more, but who knows, maybe next time it will end differently…

Five pith helmets out of five

One Response to “The Purple Rose of Cairo”

  1. “…maybe next time it will end differently…”

    I thought I was the only one who thought that when I watched movies.

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