9. Purple Rose of Cairo
Purple Rose of Cairo was a film I stumbled upon while attempting to watch every Woody Allen film. I didn’t expect that not only would I love it, but it’d be my all time favorite Woody Allen movie. The film affected me so deeply that when I took a class on Woman in Film I wrote my final paper on it. So instead of a regular right up... here is that final paper.
It’s been said that the best writer/directors are people who appreciate film and know the history of film. If this is true than Woody Allen is one of the best writers in the business and the evidence is Purple Rose of Cairo. Written around the same time as Radio Days (his ode to Radio celebrities) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (his ode to the theater) Purple Rose of Cairo is a tribute to the world of film during the Great Depression.
The film follows Cecilia, a waitress during the great depression who is obsessed with movies. The only way she can get through work is by talking to her sister about the movies she watched the night prior and the only way she can escape her bad home life is by going to the movies every night. It’s when she attends her fifth viewing of Purple Rose of Cairo that one of the film’s side characters Tom Baxter notices her from the screen and in a homage to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. he walks off the screen and into her life.
The plot line gets a more complicated when the studio that produced Purple Rose of Cairo decides that they need to stop Tom Baxter from destroying the studio’s reputation so they send Gil Shepard (the actor who played Tom Baxter) to talk some sense into his creation. Gil agrees to go out of fear that this will destroy his career, which is just starting to rise.
The film falls perfectly in between 1955’s Sullivan’s Travels and 1998’s Pleasantville. All three of these films have the same underlying message which is that film provides great escapism and in Sullivan’s Travels and Purple Rose of Cairo the message is that the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be good.
In Sullivan’s Travels the filmmaker Sullivan is sick of writing and directing slapstick comedies during the Great Depression. He goes out and attempts to “know” what it’s like to be poor and struggling so he can write a serious drama about the depression. While he lives as a homeless guy and even winds up in prison at one point he discovers that while everyone is upset their one source of entertainment is watching slapstick movies (specifically a Disney cartoon). It’s made very clear throughout the movie that Sullivan’s “slapstick comedy” isn’t necessarily good. Even Sullivan admits that, but it’s the perfect escape.
In the movie Purple Rose of Cairo the movie that Cecilia watches (also called Purple Rose of Cairo) isn’t a very good movie. The jokes are quite lame and the plot is absolutely directionless and random. The dialogue and storyline is also lacking but because of the times and living condition neither Cecilia or anyone else really cared about that, they just wanted to be entertained.
When Tom Baxter first walks off the screen the movie’s tone changes from very realistic into a world of fantasy. This is also where the drama of the film becomes a comedy because as Tom Baxter is off the screen all the other characters in the film need to discuss how they can continue the movie without Tom Baxter. The people in the audience however either don’t understand that they’re no longer watching a movie or others just don’t care. One woman complains to the theater owner that she “saw this movie last night and this wasn’t how it happened last night” and says that she wants to “see the movie she saw last night again.”
Later on in the film though the theater has various people in the audience just watching the characters interact. The characters in the movie are confused by this and even ask audience members why they’re still there and one man says, “we find this very interesting”. It’s safe to say that the reason they find it interesting is because they’re watching characters that aren’t suffering through the depression.
While all this is going on Cecilia and Tom go out on the town and while out for dinner they have a very insightful conversation about the importance of film as escapism. Cecilia tries to explain to Tom about the suffering of the Great Depression and realizes that he’s never heard of the Depression or the Great War. She goes on a list about the problems in the world about people being homeless, poor, sick and suffering to which Tom says, “That doesn’t happen in my world, in my world we never disappoint.” Which very well may be the most crucial line in the whole movie because it really explains why we go to movies. We go to see the happy ending that we don’t normally get in real life.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
This is quite an ironic line at the same time because it is a red herring to the way the movie actually ends. In the end Cecilia has fallen in love with both Tom Baxter the Character and Gil Shepard the actor. The three of them are standing inside the movie theater in front of the screen and Cecilia has to choose between going onto the screen with Tom or running away to Hollywood with Gil. In the end she chooses Gil and Tom very sadly walks away and goes back into the screen. Gil tells Cecilia to quickly grab her things from her home and meet him at the theater in an hour.
Cecilia goes to her home and begins packing her things when her husband arrives and tries to stop her. Cecilia stands up to her cheating, alcoholic and abusive husband telling him that she’s fallen for an actor and she’s going to live the good life. With that she locks up her suitcases and goes running out the door.
Cecilia is waiting outside the theater when the owner comes out and asks her what she’s doing. Cecilia says that she’s waiting for Gil Shepard and the owner says that he already left “as soon as Tom Baxter got back onto the screen.” Cecilia gets really depressed and begins to slowly walk into the movie theater holding her luggage. She slowly sits down in the seat and stares at the screen. She’s watching Top Hat an old musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She walks in as he sings the song “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”. The film continues to cut to Cecilia and then cut closer to the screen and then cuts closer to Cecilia’s face. As the camera gets closer to her face she slowly smiles and becomes really focused on the film.
After Woody Allen had made the movie he was told if he “slapped a happy ending on the end then he’d have himself a hit” to which Woody Allen replied, “ It is a happy ending.” At the end Cecilia stands up to her husband and gets out of a bad marriage and while she’s now homeless and jobless, she can still escape into the world of film.
Woody Allen has stated many times that this is one of his favorite movies that he’s ever written. Of all of his movies he said that this as well as Stardust Memories and Manhattan came out exactly the way that he envisioned them to look and feel.
In the end Purple Rose of Cairo is a movie that the viewer can relate to while watching because you’re watching someone “escape” into film while you, yourself are escaping into the world of film.
There are few films that sum up the importance of the film making experience quite like Purple Rose of Cairo.