Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/14/09 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Written and directed by Woody Allen, The Purple Rose of Cairo tells the story of a woman during the Depression of the 1930s struggling to get by including a loveless marriage. When a character from a film she's watching leaves the screen to comfort her, her life starts to go into an upswing until the actor who plays the character starts to arrive complicating all matters. A comedy-drama that bends all sorts of genres, it is considered to be one Allen's finest films of his career. Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Glenne Headly, Edward Herrmann, Van Johnson, and in her first of many films for Woody Allen, Dianne Wiest. The Purple Rose of Cairo is an extraordinary, magical film from Woody Allen and company.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a waitress who works at a diner in 1930s New Jersey with her sister (Stephanie Farrow) as her home life isn't any better as she has to deal with her brutish and unemployed husband Monk (Danny Aiello). Cecilia finds escape by going to the movies as one day, she sees a new movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo about a group of bored socialites who meet an explorer named Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) during a trip to Cairo. After being fired from her job due to her incompetence and discovering that Monk is cheating on her, Cecilia decides to see The Purple Rose of Cairo again where something strange happens as Tom notices Cecilia feeling sad as he walks out of the screen to ask what is wrong with her. The film is suddenly stalled when Tom enters the real world as Cecilia gives Tom a tour of the real world while the actors in the movie are stuck wondering what is going on as they can't do anything.
With Tom amazed by what is happening as he and Cecilia become friends, things get more complicated as the audience that watches the film wonders what is happening as its producer and the film's star Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), who plays Tom, goes to Jersey in hopes to save his acting career. Gil finally meets Cecilia as he tries to convince his character to return to the movie which doesn't go well. Tom wanders around while Gil befriends Cecilia as she falls for both Tom and Gil despite being married. While Tom manages to get the attention of a hooker named Emma (Dianne Wiest) who takes him to a brothel. With Gil promising Cecilia to take her to Hollywood, Cecilia finds Tom as they return to the theater as she enters the film as things get more chaotic. Gil also appears in the theater making Cecilia confused about which world to be in.
The film is essentially a period piece about a loopy woman who finds escape through the films. Yet, when a character of that film suddenly walks out of the screen and appear to her wanting some adventure, thus comes a bizarre love triangle when the actor who plays the character appears to her. What Woody Allen creates is a genre-bending film that is part-romance, part-comedy, part-period piece in which, everything works. It's about fantasy and reality where the character of Tom is transfixed by the real world as he's the most innocent character in the film unaware of things that go on in the real world. There's no fade-outs during kissing scenes, due to the Hayes production code of the time in films, which Tom wonders after he kisses Cecilia. Even Tom's encounter with hookers is innocent as he has no idea what a brothel is or any sexual reference speech means.
Then there's Gil who is an actor on the verge of a career breakthrough finds his character threatening the chance for him to play Charles Lindbergh in an upcoming film. Gil isn't as innocent but more complex as, like Cecilia, is a dreamer who is transfixed by her innocent, loopy persona as they talk about his movies and such. Yet, there's something about Gil who is desperate to have Tom back in the film for the sake of his career where he seems selfish on whether he's acting or being himself. Holding it all together is Cecilia, a dreamer who is trying to find escape in a loveless marriage. Yet, she's flawed because she's loopy and stammers when she lies while couldn't really hold a job despite working hard to pay the rent and such. Finding some form of adventure in both Tom and Gil gives her life meaning but when a decision is made about what happens next. The film ends ambiguously with a variety of emotions. There's sadness in some part but also a bit of happiness about what's going on at the same time.
Allen's script is filled with witty dialogue, commentaries of the film world at the time, as well as a true description of the Depression era. Allen's direction is truly spectacular in its intimacy and his approach to bending genres. Not utilizing the tricks of the old 1930s film, he only does that for the actual film of The Purple Rose of Cairo with some amazing visual effects. The way he uses stock footage of cities for some of the fantasy sequences are dazzling as Allen is proving himself to be a director that knows to use an old style while create something that is magical. At the same time, Allen is aware of the message of how powerful a film can be where he mixes realism and fantasy to the point that this film is a great escape in itself. Allen understands how much an audience can be transfixed by a film and he does so in creating a film and a film-within-a-film where the overall message is to sit back, relax, and watch a good movie. In the end, Allen just doesn't succeed in that approach. He does a lot more than that in creating a unique, touching cinematic experience.
Helping Allen in the visual department is his then-regular cinematographer Gordon Willis, who creates a wonderful look with its use of dark colors and low-lights for some nighttime, interior sequence to a film that is dream like. For the film version of The Purple Rose of Cairo, it's shot in grainy black-and-white like the old 1930s film style with some bright lights and dabbles of gray in the background. At the same time, that film is cropped in an old full-screen ratio like it was before the invention of the widescreen format. Willis work is immensely superb in its richness and devotion to the period of 1930s New Jersey. Longtime Allen collaborator Susan E. Morse does great work with the film's editing as it's mostly straightforward with smooth cuts and transitions while the film-within-a-film has more style with the use of dissolves, fade-outs, and other stylistic transitions to give it an old time feel.
Production designer Stuart Wurtzel, set decorator Carol Joffe, and art director Edward Pisoni do spectacular work with the look of the film from the decaying buildings of New Jersey to the old cars that are used. Even the brothel in its interior setting has a fascinating look. The look of The Purple Rose of Cairo film in its posh setting has something amazing which included a white telephone that Cecilia is amazed by. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland does some fantastic work with the costumes, notably the explorer suit with the big hat that Tom Baxter wears along with some of the fancy clothing the actors in the Cairo film including some glamorous dresses and such. Sound editor Dan Lieberstein and recording mixer Rick Dior do some very good work with the sound, notably the way the Cairo film has a unique sound with scratches heard in the film and such. Music composer Dick Hyman brings a smooth, melodic score filled with old-time, 1930s ragtime piano while the soundtrack is mostly dominated by ragtime music and pieces from Fred Astaire in the film Top Hat as it opens and closes the film with style.
The casting by Juliet Taylor is phenomenal with some notable small roles from Michael Tucker as Gil's agent, Alexander Cohen as producer Raoul Hirsch, Juliana Donald as a film usher, Irving Metzman as the theater manager, Mia Farrow's real-life sister Stephanie as her sister and fellow waitress, and Glenne Headly as a hooker in the brothel. In the role of the actors in the film version of The Purple Rose of Cairo, there's Deborah Rush as the glamorous Rita, Zoe Caldwell as the Countess, Van Johnson as the Countess' date Larry, Milo O'Shea as a priest, Karen Akers as a nightclub singer, John Wood as a composer, and Edward Herrmann as the main actor as they all have some funny lines. Notably Caldwell who says a boorish comment towards an audience member's wife. One very memorable minor role that really stands out is Dianne Wiest in her first of many films for Woody Allen as a hooker named Emma. Weist's stylish, no-nonsense performance is filled with charm and wit as she really stands out in every scene she's in.
Danny Aiello is very good as Monk, Cecilia's selfish, gambling husband who couldn't find work as he is a brute of a man but does love Cecilia. Aiello's performance is definitely fun to watch as he and Jeff Daniels, as Tom Baxter, is great displaying the fighting style of the times as Aiello really stands out. Jeff Daniels delivers a tour-de-force performance in the dual role of Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd. Daniels exudes all of the innocence and exuberance of Tom Baxter with such energy and charm while in Shepherd, there's a bit of a smugness and realism as well as a side of him that is a dreamer. It's a great role from Daniels, who is one of the more underrated working today, as this role reminds audiences into why he is one of the best in the business.
Finally, there's longtime Allen staple Mia Farrow in a wonderful role as Cecilia. Farrow's performance is definitely wonderful as her character is a dreamer who loves to talk about the film she had just seen yet has a hard time paying attention. Even as she puts out the wrong orders, forgets something, and drops plates. Cecilia is innocent but also a bit clueless as she is dealing with a troubled marriage and always threatens to leave him. In Tom and Gil, she finds a sort of escape and adventure along with the idea of a new life. There's a lot of exuberance Farrow puts into the role as it's clearly one of the best performances she put in her career.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is a majestic, whimsical, and heartwarming film from Woody Allen and company. Featuring great performances from Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels with notable standout supporting roles from Danny Aiello and Dianne Wiest. It's a film that is funny, it's entertaining, has a great sense of drama, and has something that audiences can relate to about the power of films. While it may not rank high with more regarded masterpieces like Annie Hall, Hannah & Her Sisters, and Crimes & Misdemeanors. It's a film that is still Allen at its finest and certainly one that is worth re-watching over and over again for all of its charm. In the end, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a dazzling film from Woody Allen.
Woody Allen Films: What's Up, Tiger Lily? - Take the Money & Run - Bananas - Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) - Sleeper - Love & Death - Annie Hall - Interiors - Manhattan - Stardust Memories - A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy - Zelig - Broadway Danny Rose - Hannah and Her Sisters - Radio Days - September - Another Woman - New York Stories-Oedipus Wrecks - Crimes & Misdemeanors - Alice - Shadows & Fog - Husbands & Wives - Manhattan Murder Mystery - Don't Drink the Water - Bullets Over Broadway - Mighty Aphrodite - Everyone Says I Love You - Deconstructing Harry - Celebrity - Sweet & Lowdown - Small Time Crooks - The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - Hollywood Ending - Anything Else - Melinda & Melinda - Match Point - Scoop - Cassandra's Dream - Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Whatever Works - You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - Midnight in Paris - To Rome with Love - Blue Jasmine - Magic in the Moonlight - Irrational Man - (Cafe Society)
The Auteurs #24: Woody Allen: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2 - Pt. 3 - Pt. 4
The Auteurs #24: Woody Allen: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2 - Pt. 3 - Pt. 4
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