The Purple Rose of Cairo

  • Title:  The Purple Rose of Cairo
  • Director:  Woody Allen
  • Date:  1985
  • Studio:  Orion Pictures / MGM
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Dianne Wiest
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’m sorry about the money.  I had no idea.” — Tom
“That’s OK, it’s not going to be so easy to get along without it in this world.”  — Cecilia
“I guess I’ll have to get a job.” — Tom
“That’s not going to be so easy, either.  Right now, the whole country is out of  work.” — Cecilia
“Well then, we’ll live on love.  We’ll have to make some concessions, but so what.  We’ll have each other.” — Tom
“That’s movie talk.” — Cecilia

“I’m confused.  I’m married.  I just met a wonderful new man, — he’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.” — Cecilia

The Purple Rose of Cairo is set in the 1930s in a small town in New Jersey.  Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a waitress, and not a very good one at that.  Her husband is a bum, not only in the sense that he’s unemployed, which he is, but he treats her terribly — he beats her when he’s drunk, he’s disrespectful to her all the time, he takes her wages and spends them on gambling, beer, cigarettes and other women. And Cecilia isn’t even a good waitress – her customers scream at her and tip very little, if anything.  Her boss screams at her as well.  Cecilia has one escape, one place where she can relax, get away from her awful life, and dream of some place, some thing, better — the movies.

So once a week, at least, she goes to the local single screen movie theater and watches the movie that’s come to town.  And she knows all about the various actors — their names, their roles, who they’re married to and divorced from.  In short, Cecilia is a fan of the movies.  But look at her life:  this is before TV, and the film itself was made before the Internet, computer gaming, or on-line gaming (a “computer game” in the 1980s would have meant an arcade game like Pac-man, or maybe a system attached to the TV with cartridges of games, such as Atari or Intellivision).  Theatre would have been too expensive for a waitress in the ’30s (heck it’s too expensive for a waitress now) – if her small town even had one.  And, yes, they had radio in the 1930s, but in the major cities like New York, not in small towns, like Cecilia’s home in New Jersey.  Besides, maybe she prefers the visual element and the fantasy of film.

One day, Cecilia catches her husband with another woman — she tries to leave him, but loses her job as well.  When she bumps into one of the local “ladies of  the evening” on the street, she realises she has no skills, no job, and no where to go, and she reluctantly goes back to her husband.  But at one point, she ends up at the local movie theater, watching the same film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, over and over and over again.  She’s watching the film, quietly crying, when suddenly, the character of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in the film, looks at her and addresses her, before stepping out of the film to meet her.  Tom and Cecilia run off.

The other actors in the film are perplexed and try to figure out what to do, being unable to move the story along without Baxter.  The movie house is in a panic.  Audience members are demanding their money back as the actors on the screen do nothing but talk to each other and insult the audience.  The theater owner calls the producer of the film in Hollywood and RKO (the studio that produced “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in the film). Soon, Hollywood types and the actor who played Tom, Gil Sheppard, are in New Jersey trying to figure out what’s happened.  Throughout the film we get snippets of what’s going on, on the screen and with the execs from Hollywood (such as the Tom Baxter character forgetting his lines in Chicago, and eventually Tom Baxter’s trying to get out into the real world in Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit).

Meanwhile, Tom is, Pinnocco -like, is enjoying the fun of being a “real” person — though he’s a bit confused about the real world.  But he’s convinced he’s in love with Cecilia.

The film moves back and forth between Tom and Cecilia’s romance, Cecilia’s “real” life, and the Hollywood execs trying to figure out what to do.  Gil Sheppard (the actor who played Tom, also played by Jeff Daniels) arrives and meets Cecilia.  Soon Cecilia’s in the midst of a love triangle, or quadrangle if you include her own husband.  Tom tells Cecilia he’s fallen in love with her over and over again.  Before long, Gil is also claiming he’s in love with Cecilia.

Tom, having discovered his money isn’t real, takes Cecilia to the movie theater.  He takes her into the film and brings her to the Copacobana for a date, then takes her for a night on the town, which is shot in a Art Deco, 1930s-style montage sequence.  After their date, he takes her back to the ‘real’ world.  There, they run into Gil.  Gil also claims to be in love with Cecilia, and that he will take her away with him to Hollywood.  Cecilia is forced to make a choice – and she does, she chooses Gil.  Tom, the perfect romantic hero, goes back into the film.  Gil has her go home to pack, and when she returns to the movie theater, he and all the Hollywood people have gone.

Soon, Cecilia is back in her old life.  And the last shot of the film is her face, lit by the light of the silver screen as she watches Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance to “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat.  Cecilia smiles, just a little bit, as she watches the film, with a Mona Lisa smile.

Cecilia is a representation of the audience; and how film writers and producers perceive the audience (this is, after all, a Woody Allen film).  She’s not dumb – she knows that actors play the characters in the films she watches, and that the films aren’t real.  But the escape they provide is something important – not hope exactly. Because Cecilia also knows, especially after her experience with the fictional Tom and the actor Gil, that no White Knight will ride in to town, and take her away from all this.  But films provide some time away from her awful life – her awful job, her terrible husband, and her boring small town.  In short, it’s a chance, for a few hours a week, to pretend she’s someone else, or to pretend there actually can be a happy ending.  It’s a brilliant commentary on movies, really.

Oddly enough, one weird thing about watching the film now, is that even though it’s a period piece, it does look a bit dated.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but it does.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of  5 Stars
Next Film:  The Ref