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Hey, some movies are so coordinated and self-sufficient that everything good about them is self-evident. It's fun to analyze this Woody Allen movie, as long as one realizes that a mediator isn't necessary -- this one communicates its interesting ideas so well that critical explanations would just get in the way. An admiring reveiwer's description suffices well enough.
In the middle 1980s the lure of warm and fuzzy caught up with the smart and cynical Woody Allen, and he began a string of what were to becomes his best remembered movies, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days and Crime and Misdemeanors to name three. Right in the middle of these gems landed The Purple Rose of Cairo, a gentle tragedy that's also one of Mia Farrow's very best -- Allen does not give himself a role, and Farrow carries almost the entire picture. The disc boutique Twilight Time has more or less done it again -- watching this new Blu-ray is like seeing Allen's fantasy for the first time.
1985 was long before Allen began recycling ideas, even though this concept is almost certainly a revamp of one of his comedy essays, such as once appeared with regularity in the New Yorker. Allen could turn one-joke fantasies into little spitballs of wit and achieve literary grace and harmony in a single page. The concept for The Purple Rose of Cairo can be distilled to a single sentence, but Allen makes it into one of the more touching tales of The Great Depression.
Maybe the basis of this show is Griffith's silent Broken Blossoms: if D.W. did this story with Lillian Gish and special effects by Buster Keaton, it could have been a dynamite 1918 feature. Unhappy small town wife and waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) has an elegant name and a tender heart, but she's wilting in an environment not far removed from that of The Little Match Girl. Her brutish unemployed husband Monk (Danny Aiello) abuses her terribly even as he cheats on her, and there's really nowhere else for her to turn. Cecilia passes her days at the local movie theater, losing herself in the glamorous dreams from Hollywood. Then one day a miracle happens. With no job and having left Monk, she sits through the same picture, The Purple Rose of Cairo five times. The on-screen character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) suddenly breaks from the script and begins talking to her, a celluloid shadow conversing with a person in the audience. Cecilia is even more aghast when Tom steps off the screen and into three-dimensional reality. Tom's fellow cast members implore him to get back in the movie where he belongs, but the rebellious Tom has decided to 'do some real living', with Cecilia, a girl who obviously appreciates him.
Fantasies described using words like 'winsome', 'twee', or 'precious' can sometimes grate like fingernails on a chalkboard, but The Purple Rose of Cairo becomes more harmonious and meaningful every time it unspools. It's a clever movie in-joke to have a character walk off a screen, as Buster Keaton did way back in Sherlock Jr. Tom is limited by his experience as a character, a guy who is basically prepared for a "madcap Manhattan weekend" and little else. As he tells Cecilia, I never knew my father. He died before the movie began," Does Tom need to really eat? Or to use the bathroom? He cares for Cecilia, but surely can't help her with her realistic problems. He doesn't realize that his bogus stage money won't work out in the real world. Tom's conception of God are the screenwriters that created him, and made him a poetic and sensitive -- and fairly sappy -- young love interest, not the film's leading man. Ground down by her horrible life, Cecilia doesn't care that Tom isn't real flesh and blood: "What am I doing? I'm married. I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything."
The amusing mix of actors left marooned on the movie house screen -- Edward Herrmann, John Wood, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Zoe Caldwell -- find themselves in a Pirandello-like limbo. They know their lines, their character descriptions and little else. With Tom missing they can do little but argue among themselves, bickering over which of them is the most important character. Characters wander in from the wrong reel. One tuxedoed swell (Herrmann) eventually brings up the possibility that they on the screen are real, not the audience in the theater. The debacle leads to some panicked phone calls to Los Angeles, which sends the producer-director, several lawyers and Gil Shepard, the actor playing Tom Baxter (also Jeff Daniels) flying out to try to put things right. The absurdities pile up with logical precision: the consensus is that movie characters can't be allowed to seize their freedom like Baxter, or communism will take over. The actor Shepard falls in love with Cecilia as well, giving her a unique romantic choice to make. Perhaps the show was sourced in the same Allen brainstorm that created Play it Again, Sam, where Woody's standard nebbish mixes with Humphrey Bogart, another apparent escapee from the movie screen.
The premise rides on the ever-so-delicate illusion that what we see on the screen is an alternate reality. When we connect emotionally with a film, there can be a real frisson if a character looks directly at the camera... directly at us. When we were little kids, some of us thought the actors were behind the screen, looking out at us. When the cast of RKO's Purple Rose goes off script and can do nothing but stand around, we also reflect on how 'dependable' old movies are: they don't change. Watch The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon for the nth time, and they invariably end the same way.
The more amusing things becomr, the more we hope that Cecilia will find some kind of escape. She does get her own 'madcap Manhattan' night on the town, even if most of it is apparently spent standing still while a montage of marquees and bubbly drinks swirls around her. A lesser writer would have Ceciia remain a 'character' like Tom, and live happily ever after as a new face written-in to The Purple Rose of Cairo. But Allen stays true to the reality of the movies, which is that they are a sweet betrayal. When we exit back to the street our life will be waiting just where we left it. In the classic moviegoing experience, they were entertainment for the masses. Working-class people that wanted to escape into a romantic fantasy away from the grinding problems of life: even if only for eighty minutes.
With all these heady ideas floating about in his concept, Allen wisely keeps his show on the light side. The brightest scene sees Tom invited into a 'house' on the outskirts of town, where he can't quite figure out what all the attractively-dressed women are doing, just lounging around the living room and competing for his attention. "Just what kind of club is this?" Among the girls is actress Dianne Wiest, who immediately became a recurring member of Woody Allen's acting clan. The working girls find the too-innocent-for-words so appealing that even this scene bursts with unexpected warmth.
Allen and Mia Farrow resolve the story in the only appropriate way, on a downbeat note. Oddly, we're not left depressed, as we know all too well the importance of keeping a separation between movies and real life. Our fantasies betray us all the time. Farrow's instincts are excellent. Her Cecilia is of course pathetic, one ofa million foolish ducks overwhelmed by life and retreating to movie fantasies. Mia Farrow's screen persona is both more vulnerable and less neurotic than Diane Keaton, which makes her the ideal leading lady for this part of Woody Allen's career.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Purple Rose of Cairo is a polished scan of this classy show, one of many Allen pictures photographed by Gordon Willis. The improved contrast range of Blu-ray allows the scenes to stay dark and rich, whereas older cable TV transfers tended to lighten Willis' images. This makes us more aware of Ceciia's cloth coats in the cold weather; we just want to reach out and buy the woman a warm meal.
Twilight Time's disc has an isolated Score Track for Dick Hyman's effective music, and his excellent but never-mentioned theme song One Day at a Time. It is sung in perfect period pitch by Karen Akers, the character in Purple Rose's movie-within-a-movie who is destined to meet and fall in love with Tom Baxter. An original trailer is present as well. Julie Kirgo's liner notes deliver the unwelcome news that The Purple Rose of Cairo was not a box office hit, which would seem a crime of, 'say it ain't so' proportions. Ms. Kirgo probes deeper into Allen's clever filmic concept. The TT series is a classy, rewarding way to re-experience Woody Allen's pictures, or discover them for the first time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.