The Purple Rose of Cairo is a massive turning point in Woody Allen’s career. It was the final collaboration between Allen and the master cinematographer Gordon Willis whose first film for Allen was Annie Hall. Allen has been on record saying he learned everything he knew about cinema from Willis.
The film is also Allen’s biggest love letter to the power of cinema. It takes its inspiration from Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece Sherlock Jr. The Polish film Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema only a few years later took inspiration from both Purple Rose and Sherlock Jr. Woody Allen’s then girlfriend Mia Farrow plays Cecilia who is a waitress and is in an abusive marriage to Monk (Danny Aiello) but she escapes her woes by going to the cinema.
Cecilia’s world is turned up on its head when she goes to see The Purple Rose of Cairo again and again. The film within the film is a mash-up between a Lubitsch comedy and adventure film. The character of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) eventually walks out of the film and meets and falls in love with Cecilia.
However it causes numerous problems for the characters in the film, some want to leave and the plot can’t go forward. It also causes issues for the studio who don’t want to cause a scandal so they send Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels again) who is the actor who plays Tom to try to sort this out. This all creates a love triangle between Tom, Gil, and Cecilia.
Allen notoriously never revisits his films but has cited over the years The Purple Rose of Cairo as one of the few films which is close to his original vision. Unlike most of Allen’s films it’s set with down and out characters and not middle class New Yorkers. It also doesn’t have Woody Allen in a role or a Woody stand-in character. It’s set during the mid ’30s during the Great Depression in a small Jersey town. It deals with the interplay between fantasy and reality which much of Allen’s best films do including his most recent “great” film Midnight In Paris.
Overall The Purple Rose of Cairo remains one of Allen’s richest efforts its has the right balance between sweetness and melancholy. Along with Broadway Danny Rose it’s Farrow’s best work with Woody and Jeff Daniels is always a pleasure to watch. Daniels was actually a replacement for Micheal Keaton who worked for over a week. However Woody thought he seemed too modern looking for the story so he left the film amicably. Keaton hasn’t worked with Allen since but it’s very common for Allen to replace actors well into the shoot.