In her review of Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), critic Pauline Kael wrote: “it seems scaled to [Mia Farrow’s] cheekbones.” This is Kael at her charmingly brief, astute best, inspired by what may be Allen at his best. Allen jumps from the diving board of Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock Jr., Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and his own Play It Again, Sam (1972). In turn, The Purple Rose Of Cairo influenced film such as Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief(1989), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). When released, The Purple Rose Of Cairo received almost universal critical acclaim, but its downbeat ending and flights of fancy put off American audiences.
I vaguely recall a review of the mediocre Bing Crosby vehicle Pennies From Heaven (1936). The critic (I think it was Leslie Halliwell) made a point that the Depression era man was all but forgotten, an alien in the contemporary world. Not to Allen, whose warmth here is both sensitive and genuinely emotional. Allen finds the pulse of a Depression era prerequisite: balancing fantasy with the all too austere physical world, which demands Allen’s deflating-the-cinematic-tire finale.
The lead performances from Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow are exemplary. Perhaps the most unfortunate repercussion of the acidic Allen/Farrow split is the loss of his ultimate leading lady. She is matched by Jeff Daniels’ insipid matinee idol and Danny Aiello‘s thug of a husband (Allen acted opposite Aiello in 1976 in Martin Ritt’s The Front and the two would collaborate again in 1987’s Radio Days). As he did in Midnight In Paris (2011), Allen embraces the simplicity of romanticism while offering a droll critique, shorn of cynicism.
Stuck in a loveless marriage to her husband, Monk (Aiello), and in a low-paying job as an New Jersey waitress with a tyrannical employer (David Kierserman), Cecilia (Farrow) seeks sanctuary in her daily visits to the cinema. On one such occasion, the screen character of Tom Baxter (Daniels) literally walks off the screen and into her life. In the real world, Tom, a product of the Hays Code with remnants of silent screen mannerisms, discovers the alien concepts of sex, pregnancy, poverty and street fighting, which allows for ecstatic, precise comedy. Gil (also Daniels), the Hollywood actor who plays Tom, enters the real-life drama, giving rise to Allen’s clear-eyed peeves (we knew they were coming). Still, Allen’s writing is exquisitely stylized. Watching this film from his middle, mature era, we realize that it’s not his directing—which has become jaded in the last decade—that impresses, but his writing. Of course, Allen includes his self in his assessments, mocking the pretentiousness of his own Bergman adulation, while extolling those small movies which make us laugh.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is an innovative, folksy classic. Who would think that possible from Allen? Actually, it’s totally within character.