Of the six films found in the Woody Allen Collection 1982-87, I retained negative memories of two, a neutral attitude toward another, and positive impressions of the remaining three. 1984’s The Purple Rose of Cairo fell into the latter category.
For quite some time, I felt that the best Woody Allen films were those in which he didn’t appear. Some recent experiences have disproved that. For example, I rather liked Broadway Danny Rose, while I can’t stand Alice. Nonetheless, I believed this theory for quite some time, and Cairo was one of the flicks that helped “prove” my concept.
Cairo follows the adventures of Cecelia (Mia Farrow) during the Depression of the Thirties. Her lout husband Monk (Danny Aiello) is out of work so Cecelia has to get a job as a waitress. Unfortunately, she’s not very good at this, partially because her head’s always in the clouds as she moons over the movie stars she adores. Cecelia runs to the local cinema every chance she gets, and who can blame her with a mate like Monk? Rather than attempt to find another job, he pitches pennies all day with other losers, and he also clearly treats Cecelia like dirt. Nonetheless, she’s too meek and weak to do anything about it, so she simply retreats to the cocoon of the movies.
Cecelia develops a particular liking for a new flick called The Purple Rose of Cairo. She sees it repeatedly until the (literally) unthinkable occurs: one of the characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), takes notice of her and hops off of the screen! From there the two spend lots of time together as Cecelia delights in Tom’s adventurer lifestyle and he takes in the sights and sounds of the real world.
Not surprisingly, this event causes quite a stir. The other participants in the film are left adrift by Tom’s departure; the story can’t continue without him, so they simply sit around and wait. The studio that produced the flick panics, especially when reports of erratic behavior by other Tom Baxters starts to arise, so they send Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrayed Tom, to round him up and get him back on screen where he belongs. All of this runs through a variety of machinations before it ends with a somewhat melancholy conclusion.
Although his work in the Seventies gained the greatest respect, Allen showed some of his greatest flights of imagination during the Eighties. Through Zelig and Cairo, he created a couple of inventive and creative flicks that both succeeded quite well. While I really like Zelig, Cairo stands as the stronger effort, largely because it includes a nice level of depth that seems less strong in the earlier film. As Cecelia, Farrow offers a sympathetic and endearing performance that helps ground the piece. With such a ludicrous concept at the center, Cairo could have become excessively silly and inane, but this doesn’t occur, largely due to Farrow’s focus. While she maintains Cecelia as a meek character, she never comes across as a sap; we want her to ditch Monk and move on to a happier life, but it’s hard to dislike her for her lack of initiative. Between an abusive husband and the problems of the Depression, one can clearly understand why she takes refuge in the movies.
For the most part, the film’s fantasy conceit works well. At times it becomes a little unwieldy, but these occasions are rare. Daniels does a nice job in his dual role as both actor and movie personality. He brings a good level of innocence and a genuine tone to Tom, and he makes Gil somewhat oily but still endearing.
It’s that kind of balancing act that Allen manages so neatly. Cairo spans broad comedy and genuine pathos but does so in a manner that serves both areas well. To be certain, Cairo favors the lighter side, as it almost must, since it features such a fantastic premise at its heart. However, it never enters the area of farce, and it seems like a satisfying mix of emotions.
In the end, The Purple Rose of Cairo remains one of Woody Allen’s strongest works. It blends varying feelings and forms of realism in a clean package that almost always appears compelling and satisfying. Allen created a satisfying fantasy that digs below the surface to become something more than just a series of cheap gags.
The Purple Rose of Cairo appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture seemed good but unexceptional.
Sharpness usually appeared solid. The movie came across as distinct and accurate at all times, as I discerned no significant signs of soft or fuzzy images. As a whole, it seemed to be nicely crisp and well defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges displayed no concerns, and I also didn’t detect any problems related to edge enhancement.
Cairo utilized a moderately stylized palette that went for a “period” look. As such, a mildly brownish tone dominated the film, and this could seem a little heavy at times. Many colors came across as rich and vivid, but others appeared somewhat thick and muddy. Skin tones also occasionally looked a little too brown. Ultimately, the majority of the colors were natural and distinctive, but some variations occurred.
Black levels and shadow details also could be a bit erratic. Actually, the dark tones were fairly deep and dense, but the low-light situations varied. Most seemed acceptably visible, but a few provided excessive darkness; for example, the shots at the amusement park came across as too thick.
As with the other Woody Allen Collection DVDs, print flaws caused the majority if the disc’s concerns. Some light grain appeared at times, and I also discerned the usual moderate levels of grit and speckles. In addition, a hair or two marred the presentation. Ultimately, I felt that The Purple Rose of Cairo showed a mix of concerns, but it presented a reasonably attractive image given its age and stylistic considerations.
As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, The Purple Rose of Cairo offered only a monaural soundtrack. This one fit in with the others, though it sounded pretty good considering the restrictions of the format. Dialogue consistently appeared nicely warm and natural, and I discerned no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects were a very modest aspect of the movie, but they came across as fairly realistic and distinct, with no signs of distortion. Music seemed nicely bright and vivid, and the score even offered some decent bass response when appropriate. In the end, the soundtrack lacked pizzazz due to its monaural status, but it seemed satisfying nonetheless.
Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for The Purple Rose of Cairo. All we find are some fine production notes within the four-page booklet and the movie’s theatrical trailer.
The Purple Rose of Cairo stands as one of Woody Allen’s most warm and creative films. It offers a charming and witty experience that seems deep and delightful for the most part. The DVD provides good but unexceptional picture and sound but fails to include many supplements. In the end, Cairo is a fine little movie that should be welcomed by Woody Allen fans.
Note: The Purple Rose of Cairo can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987. The latter also includes Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1982-1987 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $99.96 is about 17 percent off of the separate cost of all six movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.