I got lost in a reverie the other night. Really, I try not to let that happen very much since I don’t like thinking about the past. But I found myself drifting into memories of my old hometown movie theater, the Scarsdale Plaza, a place I have many fond memories of going to. Originally opened in 1931 and featuring 1,149 seats (according to the Cinema Treasures page
), for the bulk of my childhood it was a second-run house—at one time prices were 99 cents for all seats (that’s how long ago this was) but that amount of course went up over the years. With films usually playing for a week unless they were held over, I saw the place packed to the rafters on some Saturday nights as well as afternoons when there was barely anyone else there other than me. The Plaza is also the theater where I went to the movies by myself for the very first time on an odd occasion when they played a double bill (something they never did) of TOP SECRET! and AIRPLANE! in the fall of ’84. I must have told my parents I was going to a friend’s house. Do other people remember the first time they went to the movies by themselves? Did they tell their parents where they were going? Were they afraid? Were they worried somebody would think what they were doing was strange? The theater is long gone now, replaced by apartments and I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since that happened. Maybe I’ll return someday but I don’t look forward to seeing what the site looks like now. I’d rather it stay the way it is in my memory. Not much can be found on the internet about the theater’s long history, which included live performances long ago, but one odd footnote about the place was how it served as the location for the Fine Young Cannibals “Ever Fallen In Love” video
from the SOMETHING WILD soundtrack, so at least for me there’s an actual record on film of what it looked like. I also have an ‘E’ from the marquee that must have fallen down one day, picked up by me and slipped under my coat as I kept walking. I still have it. I’m even looking at it now as I write this.
One film that I didn’t see at the Plaza (which may mean that it never played there, but who knows) was Woody Allen’s THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, released in early 1985, but watching the film again recently made me think of going to that theater back in those days when having such a place in my hometown really did seem a little magical. That’s not a feeling I have anymore when I go to the movies. Part of what happens when you leave your hometown, part of what happens when you grow up I suppose and that magic begins to dwindle. I feel lucky to have a single-screen theater like the Vista
right down the street from me and I love going there but it’s not quite the same. It never is. PURPLE ROSE has the bittersweet feel in how if you reach out to touch one of these films you believe that everything you ever dreamed of can come true. It can’t, of course. Not that way anyway. But sometimes when you get lost in those movies, even the silly ones, maybe especially the silly ones, at the right moments nothing ever seems completely impossible.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a waitress in New Jersey during the depression with a cruel, loutish husband named Monk (Danny Aiello) and very little to look forward to but going to the movies at the local theater, a modest movie house known as the Jewel. She finds herself particularly loving the latest attraction, an RKO lark named THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. She sees it twice in two days and then, on a low after being fired from her job and knowing that Monk is cheating on her, she goes to sit through it again. And again. And again. Until out of nowhere the pith helmet-wearing character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), “poet, adventurer, explorer of the Chicago Baxters” stops what he’s doing in the middle of the story and, deciding he has to meet this woman who has sat through the film so many times, steps down off the screen and whisks her out of the theater (“I’ll go get the manager!” a helpful usherette calls out to the house). The other characters are no longer able to continue the story and when word gets out to Hollywood about what has happened Gil Shepherd (also Daniels) the actor who played Tom flies to New Jersey with the film’s producer in an attempt to find Tom and get him back in the movie. But Tom has already fallen in love with Cecilia and refuses to go back. But when Gil falls for her as well Cecilia finds herself having to make the ultimate decision between reality and fantasy.
So much of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is right there at the beginning in a simple close-up of Mia Farrow’s face, staring longingly at the poster for this film that she hasn’t seen yet. We know she will, we know she’s already in love with everything that it represents to her. As becomes clear from the excerpts of it we see, the film in question may be presented as silly from our perspective but Cecilia’s attachment to it certainly isn’t. A New York of fantasy, a world of fantasy, populated by people living glamorous lives that are all she’s ever dreamed of. The basic conceit of PURPLE ROSE is of course famous from Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. and was used again later on in LAST ACTION HERO but consistent with Woody Allen’s other forays into magical realism (particularly last year’s acclaimed MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) there’s no attempt by the story to explain how the character of Tom Baxter has been able to emerge from the film. A few reporters on the scene at the theater are heard questioning how it could have happened (“This could be the work of reds or anarchists!”) but for the most part the happening is immediately accepted by all, with Gil’s agent simply stating, “In New Jersey anything can happen.” The character of Tom Baxter has done it, case closed, with lots of offhand asides continually addressing the screwy logic of it all that could come from no one else. Even Gil Shepherd isn’t amazed by the occurrence so much as annoyed at what it all could do to his career.
The second film in which he doesn’t appear, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is one of Woody Allen’s shortest films and also feels like one of his most concise in terms of laying out its plot and thematic goals in an extremely swift manner, with not a single beat feeling wasted or superfluous. I’d forgotten how soon it is into the film when Tom Baxter enters the real world but it feels like a model of laying out the information in a way that it doesn’t need to be a second longer and the first twenty minutes are just about as expert a stretch of storytelling that the writer-director has ever accomplished on film. And taking a look at random scenes throughout the film reveals how he’s directing it to emphasize characters at certain points in the narrative, doing much more than just plunking down the camera as people sometimes seem to think he does. The way the baffled audience members of the Jewel react to what has happened (“I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week, otherwise what’s life about, anyway?” asks one desperate woman rushing out of the theater) combined with how the characters of the titular film deal with the situation, stranded in that penthouse set due to what a ‘minor character’ has done and unable to move forward to the next scene (“What if all this just a matter of semantics?”) is not only eminently quotable but oddly touching as well, with the idea that those onscreen yearn for our real world just as we yearn for the fake one. And in the relationship between Cecilia and Tom it becomes truly heartfelt, Woody Allen exploring his own thoughts regarding reality vs. fantasy, moving effortlessly through the absurdity of a movie character who doesn’t know how you make love if there’s no fade out mixed with the wistful dreams of owning a white telephone.
Barely able to pay attention to her waitress job for more than ten seconds without talking about which movie stars are married to each other Cecilia, essentially a version of one of Fellini’s heroines, isn’t a total innocent and at least she knows that movie-like talk of ‘We’ll live on love’ ultimately won’t do any good. She’s all too aware of the reality of the depression around her with a meager waitress job and lout of a husband, in an impossible situation, not even knowing how to possibly do anything to change it as much as she may dream that she can. The cinematography by the great Gordon Willis (his final collaboration with Allen) paints the harsh reality and gorgeous fantasy in the right way and no amount of CGI could make the lightning-fast emergence of Tom from the screen ever seem more impressive than it is here. The silvery black and white look of the film within the film makes it clear how magical all this can be no matter how artificial it may seem, making it all seem like a dream that you want to remain a part of. But you can’t. Tom is the real innocent of the two, not even realizing the money in his pocket is fake, and when he pays a visit to a church he confuses the concept of God with the men who wrote the film he fled out of, an interesting contrast with Gil Shepherd’s continued insistence that he has an actor ‘created the character’. Maybe thinking a screenwriter actually has power is the surest sign of innocence of all come to think of it but amusingly both men get upset whenever someone refers to Baxter as ‘a minor character’, the only thing they ever seem to agree on.
One of the few films that Woody Allen has ever displayed pride in during interviews (“It was the one which came closest to my original conception,” he has said), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO really does gain on repeat viewings as I get older, telling me more and more about my own obsessions with any random film that I feel drawn to over and over again—if you’ve already seen it you already know how bittersweet it ultimately really is and the emotion that comes out of this absurdity always feels genuine, even when the movie pauses for a beat like in the throwaway joke of the matire’d at the Copacabana realizing that the plot is being chucked out. The sense of wishing for something other than what you’re stuck in is palpable even when just played for a joke (“I met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.”) and because of this the ending, controversial for some, feels absolutely correct. You can’t escape into what is ultimately just a fantasy, at least not for good, even when it’s right there in front of you and there really isn’t any other way for the story to resolve itself. Unlike numerous other films where Woody Allen ends things on a hard cut to black leading into his familiar-looking credits in this film he instead allows a gentle fade out to occur over the final image as a way of providing some kind of comfort, this film’s own version of the famous last shot of NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, as if to say that if nothing else Cecilia has this. This is the only place she’ll need to be. Sometimes when I’m in the right movie theater it’s the only place I need to be as well.
It’s tough to determine what might be Mia Farrow’s best work in all of her Woody Allen films but this one certainly ranks up there right from that first glimpse of her and showing how eager she is to be in that theater on opening night. Naïve and hopeful, beaten down by her marriage and the depression but a certain glow as well that you can see what the fictional Tom Baxter responds to. She’s just wonderful in this film. Jeff Daniels replaced Michael Keaton (who was a little too modern, apparently) ten days into shooting and he nails the nails the ‘poetic idealistic quality’ of Tom Baxter in a way that feels effortless, a wide-eyed innocent in every possible way in every gee-whiz gesture, not even understanding the concept of someone in the real world who would fight dirty. And as the Gil Shepherd half of the equation never at all seems like the same person, balancing a desperate cockiness that he clearly feels he’s earned even if no one else does with a slight tinge of terror that this scandal really could end his career. Danny Aiello’s Monk never seems like anything other than a lout, but he’s an oddly human lout, swinging from believably threatening Cecilia and desperately trying to get her to stay in a way that feels genuine as well. Up on the screen in the RKO production of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO are the likes of John Wood, Edward Herrmann, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Milo O’Shea and Karen Akers, each responding to this interruption in their set narrative with absolute perfect comic timing and I only wish we could cut back to them a few more times. Dianne Wiest makes her first appearance in a Woody Allen film as a hooker who unknowingly encounters Tom Baxter, doing more with her eyes in one close-up while trying to figure out what the deal with this guy is than some actors do with an entire performance. The very familiar Irving Metzman (few things say ‘filmed in the New York area during the 80s’ like the presence of Irving Metzman) is the theater manager, Michael Tucker is Gil’s agent, Mia Farrow’s sister Stephanie plays her onscreen sibling and Gleanne Headly is another one of the hookers in the brothel. Also noteworthy is Dick Hyman’s original score, one of the few in a Woody Allen movie during the past thirty years and it captures the feel of the movie in the movie and the chaos all around it just right.
I still dream of certain nights at the Plaza, some of them with my family, some of them with friends, some of them alone. If you find me in just the right mood you’ll be able to get me to recite the recording heard whenever I called the theater. You might have to wait until I’ve had a few drinks for when I’ll be willing, but the memories of that place stay with me every day and when Cecilia gazes desperately at her dark movie theater late at night, dreaming of nothing but being inside, I really do understand. Sometimes it’s the best escape from a world where things don’t always have a way of working out right and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO will continue to be a reminder of that. Sometimes I just need to remember that no matter how old I get, I’ll know that sometimes sitting in a movie theater by myself as the celluloid flickers away really can be…heaven.
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