The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of the few films of Woody Allen’s mature period to embrace simplicity, and with it a sense of uncynical whimsy. The film centers on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a waitress barely surviving in Depression-era New York. To retreat from her daily misery, she makes regular trips to the local theater, watching every film that plays there less for their quality than their ability to transport her somewhere else for 70 minutes. One day, her escapism becomes literal when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), a minor character in a frothy, jet-setting romance, notices Cecilia in the audience and steps out of the screen to be with her.
Cecilia reacts to this turn of events with pure elation, and her giddiness pervades both Farrow and Daniels’s performances. Cecilia must contend with an abusive, swindling husband (Danny Aiello) and a boss (David Kieserman) who uses the Depression to terrify his employees into total obedience, but Farrow plays her with a joie de vivre that is all the more powerful for not being rooted in oblivious naïveté. Cecilia knows that her husband is a lout and that their financial situation is grim, but she radiates an inner strength by resolving to hope for something better, and her bliss when Tom walks off the screen is infectious. For his part, Daniels plays up the stiff, insistently good-natured traits of a 1930s character: He strides instead of walking, makes grandiose gestures not yet matured out of silent mime, and he enunciates in the real world as if he’s still compensating for primitive, tinny speakers. But Daniels doesn’t resort to caricature, which would leave Tom open for mockery. His wide smiles and earnest speeches attain a degree of genuine humanity and, taken with Farrow’s wide-eyed joy, constitute one of the least cynical portrayals in an Allen film.
The leads’ boundless charm extends to the wry manner in which Allen directs his usual existential hang-ups. The director fills the gaps in the trim story with cutaways to the film that Tom left, where the other characters sit around in the parlor in which they’re trapped, unable to move forward now that the story has been upended. Allen gets a great deal of mileage out of tracking down the logic of self-aware but predestined characters: Out in the real world, the romantic Tom reveals his Hays Code limitations when he betrays his total ignorance of sex, while back in the fictional movie, a waiter at the Copacabana reacts to Tom’s liberation by seizing his own, kissing off an eternity of fetching drinks for patrons to burst into an impromptu tap-dance routine.
Eventually, some of Allen’s innate grumpiness wins out. Tom’s absence introduces the possibility of freedom in American film, and Hollywood responds by denouncing it and sending Gil (Daniels), the actor who plays Tom, to New York to make sure his doppelgänger returns to his rightful place. Gil’s attempts to manipulate Cecilia by playing on her trusting nature draw a sharp line of separation between the egomaniacal repulsiveness of the people who make movies and the undeniable power of the movies they make (something that, in retrospect, acts as a handy reminder for enjoying this or any of Allen’s earlier, classic work). But even if the film ends on a downer, it remains a fundamentally hopeful film, one that owes as much to Preston Sturges’s egalitarian Sullivan’s Travels as the meta-cinematic tricks of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. In one final wrinkle of reality and fiction blurring, the director tweaks Sturges’s story so that the pretentious, insecure artist who needs to be reminded of the joy that “common” movies give audiences is Allen himself.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray looks solid, faithfully representing Gordon Willis’s beautiful cinematography without offering any revelatory restoration. By the same token, the image hasn’t been overly scrubbed, and the visible grain retains many details of the softly lit exteriors and the worn interiors. Flesh tones are natural, while the occasional glimpses of Willis’s masterful use of light and darkness are delightfully unreal. The sound is equally passable, a bit hushed for a lossless track, but absent any errors or inconsistencies.
Twilight Time’s disc comes only with trailers and an isolated score track, as well as a booklet containing a brief essay by the label’s staff writer, Julie Kirgo.
Woody Allen’s most charming feature gets a fine, if unremarkable, Blu-ray from Twilight Time, but the film’s simple pleasures need no special treatment.