The first Woody Allen comedy for which Allen has remained behind the camera, The Purple Rose Of Cairo is set in 1930s New Jersey during the depression. The story follows a timid and fumbling waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow in her fourth consecutive Woody feature) who goes to the movies every other night in order to escape an unhappy reality. Her disinterested husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), is out of work and spends his time drinking, gambling and playing craps on the street with his other unemployed cronies and “beats on” Cecilia when she gets in his way.
Cecilia loves the movies, and she is content to go alone into the dark, pleasant anonymity of the movie house as often as possible. Undoubtedly cinema emerged as America’s second national pastime during this period of economic strife.
When The Purple Rose Of Cairo is in season, she is so taken with the film that she returns to see it 5 times in its in week-long run, and the only person who notices this devotion, is Tom Baxter (with an excellent performance from Jeff Daniels) of the Chicago Baxters – a charismatic explorer who happens to be a character in the film. So smitten with Cecilia is he, that Tom steps out of the black and white screen and into the real world, right before the film’s audience and his fellow ensemble cast. This strange, transcendent instant is arguably the most beautiful conjuring of Allen’s craft, a moment of magic that propels endless, fantastic possibilities for the two screen-crossed lovers.
The films comedy is principally provided in the hilarious exchanges of the remaining ensemble (a priest, an heiress, a countess, a maid, a communist and a couple of gentlemen) with the enraged and dramatic New Jersey audience who continue to visit the theatre if only to heckle or be heckled by the vain society types. Farrow is most gracious in the closing scene but when she meets actor Gil Shepard (also Daniels) who plays Tom, she is exuberantly star-struck and happier than we’ll ever see her.
Producers believed the film’s success to be compromised by its somewhat tragic ending. There is arguably a glimmer of hope that emerges from Cecilia’s sadness, either way; this jewel in Allen’s 1980s series is not to be dismissed. With The Purple Rose Of Cairo, you are certainly in for a magical experience in another of his grateful love letters to that golden age of cinema.
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