I have a natural prejudice against The Purple Rose of Cairo: I so adore Woody Allen’s usual film character (his quintessential New York neurotic is as a funny, and as deceptively versatile, as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stoneface) that I automatically resent any Allen film in which he does not appear. But not even I would argue that the addition of Allen the actor, or indeed the addition of anything, could possibly improve this, one of the finest, and most bittersweet, of American comedies.
Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a scatty waitress in a 1930s New Jersey ravaged by the Great Depression. Her husband is a deadbeat boozer and the sadness of her life is alleviated only by her frequent pilgrimages to the local picture house. Up on the screen, in a world of spats and champagne, white telephones and one-liners, are the impossibly attractive characters of The Purple Rose of Cairo – the kind of urbane and exotic escapism beloved of Depression-era audiences (and those modern moviegoers prone to sigh and declare, ‘I love old movies!’ at any glimpse of black and white cinematography). Standout among these characters is Jeff Daniels’s dashing, pith-helmeted Tom Baxter – ‘of the Chicago Baxters: explorer, poet, adventurer; just back from Cairo, where [he] searched in vain for the legendary purple rose’ – and Cecilia returns to watch him again and again.
Eventually, intrigued by her incessant attention and desperate to meet her, Baxter steps off the screen and into the real world. The audience erupts, the management go mad, news reporters appear and so, eventually, do the movie’s makers. Accompanying them is Gil Shepherd, the actor underneath Tom Baxter’s safari outfit (and also, of course, played by Daniels). After a chance meeting and an afternoon’s ukulele-playing, Shepherd, too, falls for Cecilia – and soon she is being romanced by both a Hollywood movie star and his latest character. It’s one of the great comic plots, as spectacularly absurd as the storyline of any of the great screwballs, but resolved with an honesty and intelligence that the endings of few movies can match.
When asked to nominate his favourite of his films, Woody Allen frequently cites The Purple Rose of Cairo, not because it is necessarily the best, or the one for which he has most affection, but because it is the movie that, by the time it reached the screen, most exactly resembled the vision he had of it when he sat down to write the script. Even the most auterist major movie is the work of several ensembles and a couple of committees, and so it is remarkable to see one as cohesive and as consistent as Cairo. This isn’t to suggest that simple fidelity to a scriptwriter’s original concept of a film is automatically a mark of quality – only that is here, in a movie entirely without the muddled compromise and thematic loose-ends that so often infect films subjected to focus groups, studio-imposed script doctors or arguments in the editing suite.
Cinema as an escape from the woes of America’s Great Depression is not a new theme – in fact, it is almost a cliché – but its treatment here is uniquely skilled. There is, for example, more psychological resonance – and, I’d wager, more historical accuracy – in the urgent hope in Farrow’s eyes as she gazes at the cinema screen than could be found in any documentary or lecture about 1930s America. And it is in the exquisite balance of period detail and emotional accuracy on the one side, with farce and fantasy on the other, that Cairo’s brilliance is most obvious.
Although the script and performances are equal to those of any of Allen’s many masterpieces (and, considering that Woody has written both more Oscar-nominated scripts and more Oscar-winning roles than any other screenwriter, that is a major compliment), it is the film's visuals that are primarily responsible for the impact of story. The grim and grimy browns of the costumes and backdrops instantaneously transport us to the period (and prefigure those that would star in that festival of nostalgia, Radio Days, which Allen would make two years later); and their contrast with the uncanny recreation of Golden Age sets and cinematography shown in the film-within-a-film not only reinforces our immersion in the era, but also makes a world in which a character stepping out of a cinema screen, or an audience member stepping into it, is both suitably amazing and utterly believable.
Although critical reaction to Cairo was – and remains – pretty much universally rapturous, the film is often omitted when cinephiles name Woody Allen’s best movies. This, I’m sure, is because of the very reason I was initially turned-off by it: Allen doesn’t appear onscreen. Without the spectacle of his comic alter-ego, bumbling, mumbling and spilling jokes of genius about penis envy and anti-Semitism, no Allen film will be ever be seen as emblematic of his work – but that shouldn’t stop it being as acclaimed as any other entry in his oeuvre. The Purple Rose of Cairo is as much a masterwork as Manhattan or Annie Hall.