For some the meaning of life is the movies. And some readers of this article may be lost without them. Isn’t that absurd that the movies as opposed to some divine being in the universe should be the meaning of life? … Or at least part of it? Perhaps you believe in both!
This is why director Woody Allen’s (1935-) The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) is a cult movie as well as a wonderful evocation of a person who comes up so close to the maelstrom of the wonder of the movies that it spills into her real life and her real life spills back into the movie within the movie which is also entitled The Purple Rose of Cairo.
This Woody Allen movie was made in the era when Mia Farrow (1945-) was Allen’s muse. They created such memorable movies together as Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992) which is not to name all of them. It was a partnership both on and off the screen and many may know of the bitterness and recrimination with which it all ended and which goes on to this day.
Yet, The Purple Rose of Cairo captures the essence of that team for all time… Its absurdity goes hand in hand with the fact that many of us have enjoyed love affairs which have turned to hate and loathing and you wonder how you were with that other person in the first place. Some people are trapped in such relationships which may seem even more absurd such as Mia Farrow’s character of Cecilia in this movie.
Cecilia’s bad marriage in the film and her general dislike of her gambling, boozing and unfaithful husband makes us wonder if she was ever happy with her partner… Once upon a time Mia and Woody were happy and we have this masterpiece to show for it. The film seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the filmmaking couple.
And speaking of great teams, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the movie opens with Fred Astaire (1899-1987 pneumonia) singing: “Heaven. I’m in heaven…” from the Irving Berlin (1888-1989 natural causes) song Cheek to Cheek which features in the movie Top Hat (1935). It introduces one of the most memorable dance routines by Astaire and his screen partner Ginger Rogers (1911-95 natural causes).
Astaire and Rogers were the essence of talking movies when they first became truly glossy and became a part of our consciousness and even a part of our dreams as both a suspension of disbelief in viewing them and in our real lives as we discuss movies and the actors and directors that make them.
Top Hat was a movie which came out at the height of the Depression when The Purple Rose of Cairo is set and the height of screwball chic when World War Two was not yet on the horizon and to become a reality. It was still a time of innocence and the Production Code helped prolong that innocence. America and much of the world was in love with films during the Great Depression as an escape from their day to day lives.
Only a true lover of black and white movies of that era will fully appreciate The Purple Rose of Cairo as it follows the browbeaten and physically beaten Cecilia as she lives in New Jersey in a loveless and childless marriage with Monk played by Danny Aiello (1933-2019 brief illness)… Cecilia works as a waitress and takes in laundry to make ends meet and spends what’s left indulging her passion for movies at the local cinema.
The latest movie showing there is The Purple Rose of Cairo and Cecilia goes back to see it several times… We learn that the black and white movie is about bored rich people and one of them suggests they go to an exotic locale to spice up their lives… It is in Egypt while they are searching for something in an ancient Egyptian tomb that they come across a pith-helmeted archaeologist by the name of Tom Baxter. He is searching for the Purple Rose of Cairo which in legend grows wild in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian queen due to her lover having previously painted a rose purple as a show of love for her. It’s a lovely sentiment and totally unbelievable but it is the type of escapism that audiences loved. This movie within the movie is a kind of screwball comedy. The ingeniousness of the purple rose plot point in the film within a film is that people in the future will see The Purple Rose of Cairo as a rose painted by Allen for his then love Farrow long after the pair are dead and gone. The movie will forever be that elusive rose in film tombs or vaults to be uncovered by film lovers of ancient movies. It is typical of the movie lover’s never-ending quest for the perfect film.
These rich people take Tom Baxter back to New York and their lavish apartment and then take him on the town to nightclubs where a striking woman in black is singing the torch song Let’s Take it One Day at a Time. It is a song which you could easily imagine belonged to one of your favourite romantic musicals of the era.
Have you ever watched a movie so many times that you know several of the lines and you tell yourself you love this movie? Of course, you have! You may even think that if only I could be inside that movie… It seems like the perfect world in which to inhabit – compared to the one I live in now, you may say!
Anyway, for those who have seen The Purple Rose of Cairo and I mean the real movie, you would know that Cecilia is watching the film within a film when Tom Baxter looks at her out of the corner of his eye. Cecilia is startled and then he says directly to her from the screen: “My God, you must really love this picture…” It is then that the character jumps from the screen. He then whisks Cecilia away and leaves the rest of the cast as well as the cinema audience dumbfounded as to what to do next….
This interaction between the cast of a show and the ‘real’ world was first explored by the father of absurdist theatre Luigi Pirandello’s (1867-1936) Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). That play had a theatre invaded by ‘characters’ who the director wants his actors to play… Except that the actors can’t play the characters because they are not really the characters! So, the characters play the characters… In the end it turns out to be a wasted day for the director. But it is that blurring of the distinction of real-life people and actors on the stage or screen which is delved into as well as that crossing onto the stage itself.
Only a couple of years after it was first performed in New York, actor and director Buster Keaton (1895-1966 lung cancer) made a movie entitled Sherlock Jr (1924) which came up with the concept of a projectionist at a cinema falling asleep and entering the movie he is showing… Another movie called Hellzapoppin’ (1941) starts with a projectionist once more, which breaks down the fourth wall, or the invisible wall which separates the actors from the audience, as the characters in that surreal movie interact during moments of the film with the cinema audience watching it.
“What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience?,” says Shemp Howard (1895-1955 heart attack) as the projectionist in Hellzapoppin’.
These examples of the fourth wall being broken are direct influences on The Purple Rose of Cairo but Allen’s film explores the parameters of this world to an extent which it had never before been attempted. In fact, there’s a scene in Allen’s movie which has the audience throwing insults back at the insults hurled by the characters on screen in what is perhaps the ultimate breakdown of the fourth wall.
Archaeologist Tom Baxter appears to be the perfect man to Cecilia because he has been written that way – “He’s fictional … but you can’t have everything,” she says somewhere in the film.
Tom professes his love for Cecilia and this is where the movie starts to get a little complex as it deals with people, or men who are real, compared to those which are not.
Hollywood is in a panic over the possibilities of a Communist plot as word spreads that a character has fled the movie… The producer flies to New York with the actor who plays Tom Baxter whose name is Gil Shepherd. Both Tom and Gil are played by actor Jeff Daniels (1955-) of Dumb and Dumber (1994) fame.
Gil Shepherd is the real man in the movie, or so he claims to be… and he is also vain, slightly devious and massively career driven, as he is on the cusp of stardom and may be offered the lead role in a biopic of aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-74 lymphoma)… Gil bumps into Cecilia by accident and learns that she knows Tom… Gil learns that the couple may be in love and shows and interest in the starstruck Cecilia who flatters Gil to the point where he says he is smitten by her… Tom later takes Cecilia into his black and white world of The Purple Rose of Cairo where the champagne at the nightclubs all taste like ginger ale…
Cecilia is given a tour of this world of the rich with Tom who professes his love to her. Any plans Cecilia has of staying with Tom in this whirlwind romance are ruined by Gil turning up the theatre where The Purple Rose of Cairo is showing. He coaxes Cecilia from the screen with plans of a future for them together since he offers ‘real’ life and not a fictional one. So, Cecilia picks the real man, like she did with her husband Monk, many years earlier, over Tom.
Heartbroken, Tom re-enters the movie after being dumped and Cecilia goes home to pack and once more leave her husband for Gil. Monk jeers at her as she leaves: “It ain’t the movies! It’s real life!” about her apparent delusions of a life in Hollywood.
When she returns to the cinema, she finds all of the Hollywood people gone, including Gil, and the celluloid copy of The Purple Rose of Cairo possible burned or destroyed. She leaves the theatre shattered, only to return for the new feature which is Top Hat. Cecilia settles down in her seat as just another patron, this one more heartbroken than most… as Astaire begins to sing Cheek to Cheek like he did at the beginning of Allen’s movie: “Heaven. I’m in heaven…”
And we watch Cecilia’s face as she forgets her present life and once more becomes entranced by the glossy and wonderful life of the screen… and we see in her eyes that the hurt of the experience of The Purple Rose of Cairo is temporarily being erased and that it will never affect her true love of cinema… and once more, during the bravura scene of Astaire and Rogers dancing, she has totally forgotten the world around her and has become a part of that world which only lovers of movies can truly understand. It is a world in between which belongs to only the viewer. Heaven?
There is the possible notion of cinema being a type of religion or opiate for the masses who love it to forget their woes in times of trouble. Cecilia is once more at the altar and we know that she will be all right as she will always have the movies no matter how bad the real world treats her. The escapism of the movies doesn’t judge her. It literally offers heaven on earth. She doesn’t have to wait for an afterlife and despite the fact there is a small tithe at the door, she is free to admire the actors and actresses as they portray a life which may not be real – but who wants too much real life in the movies anyway?
There is a scene in a church in The Purple Rose of Cairo in which Cecilia asks Tom if he believes in God as he or she’s “the reason for everything, the world, the universe…” and Tom replies that his God is the screenwriters who created the movie he escaped from. So, even his world is imperfect, despite its creators. Cecilia says God is something much bigger than that and it is “…a reason for everything, otherwise it would be movie with no point or no happy ending.”
The ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo is bittersweet and depressing if you look too deeply as the point is that it was the movies and not God which saves Cecilia from further misery and that is the happy ending. Or is it?
There are those who pray at the altar of movies and even if those idols are false in the eyes of organised religion, movies offer a type of spiritual life when there is no other option.
If we look at the real people who play the roles in the movies, the so-called film idols or stars, like the Bible, the movie lover learns moral lessons from their lives as well as their character’s lives and their mistakes and dilemmas beyond the gossip of who they are dating or about to marry.
This makes both sides of the screen, the stories and characters in the movies and the stories of the performers two distinct but linked part of the world that is the heaven of the movies. It almost seems all encompassing. This screen worship goes further today in a world of Netflix and even television reality shows in which another dynamic is at play of the real world and real people.
The Purple Rose of Cairo can be deadly serious at times but it still delivers its messages sandwiched within a generally light tone about the two worlds of the movies and they are all contained in one movie and on one screen. It’s not the greatest movie ever made but even when Allen suggested that he didn’t care if all his movies were flushed down the toilet after his death, he still said this movie was one of his best.
The case of Cecilia maybe a once in a lifetime experience just like that moment when it hits you that you find a particular movie from the 1930s or 40s in which you think you would like to be within its frame. It happened to me during a low-point in my life when I watched Thrill of a Romance (1945) starring Van Johnson (1916-2008) and Esther Williams (1921-2013 in sleep). I was worried about my weight and there is a tenor played by Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) in the movie who throws caution to the wind about his diet at the end of the story. The music and the MGM trappings, the romance… at that moment I wanted to be inside that movie. It once again shows how those who are depressed may be relieved by such trifles. But I am being contemptuous.
Van Johnson is in the movie within the movie of The Purple Rose of Cairo and that is one of the nice touches which only Allen’s casting could possibly conceive.
There is another scene where Tom is taken back to a brothel by some working girls who want to show him a good time for free in the back room… But Tom’s heart is so clean for Cecilia that he declines: “I’m hopelessly head over heels in love with Cecilia.” He discusses the wonder of childbirth instead with the prostitutes. Earlier in the film when Cecilia first leaves Monk, she meets a crossroads with a fallen woman crossing her path… Cecilia has no alternative to return to her husband or become a streetwalker herself.
The Purple Rose of Cairo won a BAFTA, or British Oscar, for Best Film and Allen got many other plaudits for his screenplay…
The Purple Rose of Cairo is a fantasy and only a movie after all… But it examines just how much we love movies and how in reality we should never really meet the real hero or heroine behind our favourite film characters as they are only human and just as flawed as the rest of the cast which populates our ‘real’ lives.
At the end of the movie, there is the actor Gil Shepherd, sitting pensively on the plane back to his ‘real’ life in Hollywood, knowing he has done wrong to Cecilia, but it was all just a part of the job. He will always be a passenger in Hollywood and never a real hero like the flyer Lindbergh. If his career takes flight, it will be hollow and we are to learn a moral lesson from Gil’s actions, if he can’t himself. But this is the conundrum of human nature after all … many of us do not learn from our past actions.
There are those of us who don’t believe there is a God up there in the heavens. They may have been hurt so much as children or teenagers by others that they just cannot believe, no matter how hard they try. Even those who do believe can’t believe all of the time! Some may find solace, if only for an hour or so, or even only minutes at a time with the art form of the movies. It’s something which began with the live theatre until several inventors found a way to commit images to celluloid and then it became a part of everyday life long before we were born. Somehow the genie of the lamp or projector released through this pairing of acting and technology created a kingdom all of its own. And for those who long for more, or something else, than what Christ has to offer, the screen has become a part of heaven on Earth. In a way, it offers a kind of immortality and certainty for those who participate and share its lore… And if we can’t be one of those characters or actors on-screen or off, we can worship them or imagine ourselves in their place.
The beauty of the kingdom of the movies is we can enter at almost any time!! And there are so many keys of this kingdom… If you take one of them like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Top Hat, you already know that true love of the movies can last a lifetime. And if you do believe in both God and the movies, or if you just believe in the movies – then heaven can’t wait! “Heaven. I’m in heaven…”
This article is for the believers like Cecilia and all the men who would like to be the Tom Baxter were it not for the real world.