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The Purple Rose of Cairo
Remind Me

The Purple Rose of Cairo

A film with definite personal significance for Woody Allen, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) is a love story about a rather meek woman named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who is mad about the movies. Even though there's a Depression on in 1930s New Jersey, Cecilia, a much abused waitress, forgets her troubles at the sanctuary of the local Jewel cinema. It is there that she, like countless other viewers, can escape her own unhappy life in screen fantasies of rich penthouse dwellers, beautifully dressed women, Egyptologist adventurers and nightclub crooners. Allen's script takes a sudden whimsical turn, however, when screen fantasy becomes reality and one of the characters in Cecilia's current favorite picture The Purple Rose of Cairo jumps out of the screen to declare his love for her. While Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) woos Cecilia, and her thuggish, gambler husband Monk (Danny Aiello) grows suspicious, Hollywood bigwigs begin an effort to retrieve the strayed screen character. In the meantime, the other actors trapped within the The Purple Rose of Cairo plot flounder -- playing cards, arguing -- unable to continue with their storyline until Tom Baxter returns. Allen adds yet another oddball wrinkle when the actor who created Baxter, Gil Shepherd (Daniels), arrives in New Jersey from Hollywood to find Tom and ends up falling for Cecilia too. A battle ensues for Cecilia's love waged by the real life, imperfect Gil Shepherd and the exquisitely flawless Tom Baxter, whom Cecilia freely admits, "he's fictional, but you can't have everything."

The dual role of Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd was originally cast with Michael Keaton, whose work Allen admired and who took a significant cut in salary for the privilege of working with Allen. But Allen eventually felt that, despite a strong performance, Keaton was too contemporary and hard to accept as a character living in the 1930s. After 10 days on the set, Keaton and Allen amicably parted company and Daniels was cast in the dual part of Shepherd /Baxter.

Like Cecilia, Allen grew up an obsessive moviegoer who soaked in the pictures that played in his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. Allen's favorite movie theater palace as a boy was the last-run Kent, home of 12-cent films, which he called "one of the great, meaningful places of my boyhood." Before the Kent was torn down, Allen created his own homage to this beloved picture palace by filming part of The Purple Rose of Cairo there. Writing in The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, Mark Estrin notes the significance of film-going in the movie, "Like Manhattan (1979) before it, and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987) after it, The Purple Rose of Cairo examines the healing power of popular art."

The fantastical, whimsical elements in The Purple Rose of Cairo have also been described by Allen biographer Eric Lax as inspired by Allen's own childhood, and his love of magic tricks -- a passion he still indulges to this day. Growing up in Brooklyn, Allen was a remarkably precocious kid who showed signs of his later creative avidity even in high school when he wrote jokes for columnists and television celebrities. Though he is most often compared to the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Allen's particular approach to cinema has been more accurately compared to that of Preston Sturges and Buster Keaton because of the way he uses comedy to treat his vision of American life. In fact, The Purple Rose of Cairo clearly shows its debt to Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924), as well as Fellini's The White Sheik (1952), in the way it playfully blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

One of the most unique features about The Purple Rose of Cairo is its remarkably downbeat ending, which provoked the wrath of his studio Orion. Orion executives asked Allen to change the painful conclusion, which punctured the escapist fantasy of the rest of the film, but Allen refused. A dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast who routinely avoids the Academy Awards when he is nominated, and who often gives Oscars he has won to his parents, Allen's approach to filmmaking can be equally idiosyncratic. According to Julian Fox in Woody: Movies From Manhattan, the director was insistent on filming some scenes in Piermont Village, "a bleak town on the Hudson River....The shoot there stretched from a scheduled ten days to a chaotic three-and-a-half weeks. This was due to the early arrival of winter blizzards, just after the storm windows had been removed from the main street shops, ready for filming. For the sake of authenticity, storefronts and window displays had been altered in advance, the shopping area was sealed off and many locals suffered huge financial losses. Even seven months after the crew's arrival, reported Nick Rosen in London's Sunday Times, contractors were still trying to put the town back to normal."

The Purple Rose of Cairo was the fourth Allen film to star Mia Farrow and only the second without Allen appearing in a role. Some have said Allen's absence from the film was partly to blame for its lack of commercial success. Though the film is not embraced as a consummate Allen film, and many consider it a plainly inferior work, Allen has called The Purple Rose his favorite film in his oeuvre. "It was the one which came closest to my original conception."

Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Production Design: Stuart Wurtzel
Music: Dick Hyman
Cast: Mia Farrow (Cecilia), Jeff Daniels (Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd), Danny Aiello (Monk), Dianne Wiest (Emma), Deborah Rush (Rita), Edward Herrmann (Henry), Stephanie Farrow (Cecilia's sister), Van Johnson (Larry), Zoe Caldwell (The Countess), Milo O'Shea (Father Donnelly).
BW & C-82m. Letterboxed.

by Felicia Feaster