“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Our Love Affair with the Movies, and What Makes a Classic?

The Spanish poster for Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985).

When I discuss this blog with those who might be unfamiliar with classic film, I am often asked “What do you mean by ‘classic’?”

It’s a valid question. What DO we mean by “classic?” Do we mean black-and-white? Not necessarily, I would argue. Do we classify it by quality? How old it is? If so, when did classic films stop being made? These are all questions that stump even the most versed classic film theorists and historians among us. Turner Classic Movies is often chided by fans for movies it chooses to program into its lineup that fans don’t consider “classic.” Once, it programmed Election (1999) into a lineup of classic films dealing with politics, and fans were in an outrage. But why? How is Meet John Doe (1941) considered an acceptable classic film to show while Election is slammed as “not a classic?” Many people cite the downfall of the production code in 1968 as the defining moment of classic film’s disappearance, but this is not exact. Most people consider Cabaret and the Godfather films to be classics, and these were made in the early to mid-1970’s, with the last Godfather movie made in 1990.

And then there’s Woody Allen. Woody Allen’s first film was What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966, a mere 2 years before the downfall of the code, and his career has rarely faltered since then. What he has contributed to film is immeasurable by any standard, and with films such as Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Love and Death, Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and more recently Match Point, Vicki/Cristina/Barcelona, and Midnight in Paris, he has left an indelible mark on comedic and dramatic writing and directing in movies. Whether or not you consider Woody Allen to be a “classic director,” it is undeniable that he is a legend in the business and his movies have contributed massively to our cultural fabric over the past 45 years.

The movie I would like to focus on today is a film that Woody Allen called one of only a handful of his films that came relatively close to what he had envisioned. The Purple Rose of Cairo is an homage to Allen’s predecessors, and above all a love poem to classic film and how we feel about the movies.

Starring Jeff Daniels and Allen’s then-girlfriend Mia Farrow, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality, that merge together to create a simple allegory about love. This is not ultimately about a love with people, but with what we see on the screen that, regardless of what we may be facing, takes us away from reality and, for 2 hours, makes our problems disappear. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a dowdy waitress in 1930’s New Jersey, trapped in an abusive relationship and a meaningless job. Her only love is going to the movies, where she sits and watches The Purple Rose of Cairo, the movie playing at the local movie house, time and time again. One day while she is watching the movie, one of the characters (Tom, played by Jeff Daniels) begins to break the 4th wall and speak to her, telling her how he’s noticed her sitting there at every show. Then, much to the horror of the other patrons (and the other characters in the movie, who have also begun to break the 4th wall), he steps out of the film to talk to her.

Tom steps out of the movie.

Cecilia and Tom leave the theater together, and Cecilia proceeds to show him what life is like in the real world. Tom tries to take her out to dinner, but the only money he has is fake money from the world of the movies. She takes him to church, but the only gods he knows of are the people who created his character, the writers of the movie. When Cecilia’s jealous husband finds them together, Tom begins to fight with him, because “courage is written into my character.” Cecilia refuses to leave Tom to go with her husband, and the two develop a relationship.

Meanwhile, the producers back in Hollywood have heard of how a character has stepped out of the movie and are desperately trying to take measures to get him back. They send Gil, the actor who plays Tom, out to New Jersey to try to restore some order, but instead it just confuses Cecilia as to whom she loves. Tom invites her into the movie world, allowing her to step inside the screen just as he stepped out. Eventually though, she chooses to stay in the real world with Gil while Tom stays in the movie. She goes home and packs to leave her husband to go back to Hollywood with Gil. When she gets to the movie theater to meet him, she finds that since Tom is back in the movie and Gil’s career is no longer in jeopardy, Gil has left without her and the run of The Purple Rose of Cairo has expired its run in the movie theater. Both Gil and Tom are gone, and the theater has moved on to a new movie–Top Hat. The movie ends as Cecilia is sits in the theater watching Top Hat, and as the camera fades out, we see a tiny smile come across her face–in the end, the only love that endures is her love of the movies.

A sad ending, but a very poignant and relevant comment on the place that movies have in our lives. Movies endure when other parts of our lives go to pieces, and are always there if we need comfort or a sense of continuity. By creating a world in which characters pop out of the screen and interact with the audience, Woody Allen makes us think about the reality of the unchanging nature of movies and what it means to us.

The opening credits, shown in the typical Woody Allen style of white letters on a black screen, features the song “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat, which begins with the lyrics “Heaven…I’m in heaven…” which could be read as a symbol for what the audience feels while sitting in a darkened movie house waiting for all their problems to wash away. A beautiful, relevant choice for a piece that speaks directly to our hearts, irreversibly stolen by the movies.

The Purple Rose of Cairo was made in 1985, many years after what many people would consider the cutoff point for a movie to be considered a classic. But this movie, to me, is a prime example of how time should not necessarily be entered into the equation. For me, this is the definition of a classic film. A movie that reflects pensively and intelligently back on itself, beautifully made with thoughtful examination, and very high quality.

I would like to close by posing this question to my readers: What does classic film mean to you? When you use the term “classic film,” what do you mean? Are there any movies that were made in more modern times that you consider “classic?” I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks for reading, and I leave you with the trailer to The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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7 responses to ““The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Our Love Affair with the Movies, and What Makes a Classic?

  1. I love this movie – it’s so clever. Your lovely tribute brought it all back – even though I haven’t seen it for years!

  2. This is absolutely a classic! And how nice that you posted this on Buster Keaton’s birthday. What makes this film so wonderful for film lovers is that Woody references all of our favorite things while creating a lovely story of his own. A tribute to Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.” and the inclusion of the Astaire-Rogers film is just perfection. Woody’s true love of film is always evident (my favorite movie scene of all time is when he sees the Marx Brothers in “Hannah and Her Sisters”). So – if it advances the love of film – if it is another thread in the glorious quilt, then it’s a classic (even if it is made tomorrow). Great post!!

  3. the Marx Bros. revelation about life in Hannah is my favorite thing Allen has ever done. it’s so perfect.

  4. I think for me there is a difference between what is a “classic” as defined “a work of art of recognized and established value” and a film made during the “classical era” of Hollywood (and abroad). I think that era definitely ends with the fall of the code in 1967. but I think what most people who complain about TCM’s choices sometimes is they can’t distinguish between “a classic” and something from that era, or they think that both are synonymous.

  5. Right, Turner Classic Movies doesn’t define “classic movies,” nor should they. It makes it far more interesting to have a broad view of what is a classic, and as for the fall of the code, I think it gets a little sketchy. If the classic era of Hollywood ends when the code ends, when does it start? I agree though, that it was definitely the end of something when the code fell. I think the code, for all its problems, formed the spine of American filmmaking as the medium grew, and everything since then has been a branch off of what was developed under it.

  6. How the Academy overlooked Daniels for this role mystifies me.

    Generally speaking I think the test of time is the true test of a classic. Personally, it is something that touches me. I don’t think we’ll ever get a consensus from movie fans. I call “noir” a style, others think of it as a genre. Bottom line is our affection for the movies.

  7. How this movie was almost completely overlooked at the Oscars in general is a mystery to me–only nominated for Best Screenplay? Come on!

    To me, the test of time definitely has a say, but it’s difficult for me to establish a set timeline. I would definitely call noir a style–in fact I might say it’s both a style and a genre. Unlike horror or drama, there is a set LOOK to noir films that defines them automatically. If you froze a frame of a drama film without listening to the sound, you wouldn’t be able to tell what genre it was. However, if you froze a frame of a noir film, you would be able to tell immediately from the costumes, the set and the surroundings. 100% agree with you there.

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