Compulsive moviegoers spend so much time sitting alone in the dark, gazing with reverence at the impossibly beautiful, eternally interesting people who inhabit the screen, that we can’t help but wish, perhaps unconsciously, for a moment of genuine connection. Our devotion really ought to be recognized, appreciated—perhaps even reciprocated. Those of us with multiple loose screws may feel the need to prove ourselves worthy in some horrific real-world way: stalk the actor, shoot the president. For most, though, it’s just an idle fantasy, one Hollywood does everything in its power to feed and encourage, but only rarely addresses as a subject.
For some reason, I find it odd that Woody Allen concocted the most primal, stirring realization of this largely unacknowledged desire. It is, after all, an essentially romantic notion, and Woody isn’t much of a romantic, except when it comes to New York. (Manhattan’s opening montage is without question the most sensual sequence in his entire oeuvre.) And yeah, I know, The Purple Rose Of Cairo winds up repudiating its central reverie, returning its put-upon heroine to her drab, abusive existence, with only Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as unattainable consolation. Still, the scene in which Tom Baxter—poet, adventurer, explorer, of the Chicago Baxters—can’t help but abandon his narrative for the sake of one sad, lonely woman in the audience remains one of the most electrifying moments in cinema, precisely and paradoxically because it encapsulates the one thing cinema can’t actually do, however fervently we wish it could.
One of the many inspired aspects of this sequence is the way everybody takes what happens in relative stride. Nobody understands how Tom was able to cross the barrier from the picture into the world; at the same time, nobody questions the impossible notion that movie characters “exist” as more than a series of still photographs, exhibiting free will within their “current” set so long as the projector keeps running. One woman does faint when Tom first steps down, but the manager and usher are less flabbergasted by a miracle than concerned about how to get the movie rolling again, as if a bulb blew or the film broke. And Allen repeatedly cuts to other members of the audience contentedly munching their popcorn, accepting this bizarre development as just another form of entertainment. As in nearly all the best tales of the uncanny, nothing is explained—we simply accept the conceit as presented, then move on.
And that first instant when Tom breaks character and looks down at Cecilia (in a near-perfect duplication of a shot we’ve seen previously) never fails to wallop me. Part of it, I think, is just the eyeline, believe it or not. Movie characters have been breaking the fourth wall practically since the medium was invented, but when they do, they almost always look directly into the camera lens, at everybody watching. Allen, on the other hand, makes a point of showing us where Cecilia is sitting, and he shoots the key moment from well back in the theater, with her and other patrons visible in the foreground. Tom does not look at the camera. He looks at her. (I actually wonder how much time was spent working out precisely where Jeff Daniels needed to look to make it work.) And that’s somehow far more arresting than your standard wall-break. Presumably because it plays into our hope that we’d be singled out, not just part of the masses.
It’s hard to believe that Michael Keaton was Allen’s original choice for Tom Baxter, and easy to understand why Keaton got canned. Allen has always maintained that it was his own fault, and there’s no reason to doubt him. Like a lot of people, I’d maim orphans to see the Keaton footage, but there’s little doubt that he’d come off as far too ’80s-contemporary in the role—there weren’t a lot of hopped-up, devil-browed wise guys playing romantic leads in the 1930s. Daniels, in his breakout performance, couldn’t be more perfectly period, hitting exactly the right note of ardent optimism and gee-whiz gullibility. “My God, you must really love this picture,” he says, and there’s a yearning undertone to the words that I just can’t imagine Keaton pulling off. If anything, Daniels seems insufficiently ruthless later in the film as Gil Shepherd, the insincere, opportunistic actor who played Tom Baxter in the movie’s world.
Allen’s choice to set The Purple Rose Of Cairo during the Depression makes perfect sense, both because it’s closer to his own formative years (though he was born in 1935, which means his early moviegoing would have been in the ’40s and ’50s), and because that period represented the all-time high point for America’s obsession with onscreen glamour. It also allowed him to craft a neat parody of the era’s more forgettable exotic romances, complete with hand-removed title cards, sprightly music (by Dick Hyman), and hilariously expository dialogue. (“Ah, back from Egypt! From the Bedouins to Broadway.”) Unfortunately, it also gave him a good excuse to include a sassy African-American maid, which is wholly accurate—you can’t watch a lot of early Hollywood movies without wincing—but would seem less troubling if Allen’s contemporary movies (especially at that time) weren’t just as likely to relegate anybody of color to kitchens, cabs, and other service industries. I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this, because it’s a minor aspect of a wonderful movie. But I do wish, given how little of the fictional Purple Rose we see (just a handful of scenes), that he’d taken a pass on that particular detail.
Thankfully, once Tom departs, we mostly get the remaining cast squabbling about whose story The Purple Rose Of Cairo truly is, in keeping with the notion that each of us is the protagonist of our own life, even as we serve supporting roles for everyone around us. Meanwhile, Tom hustles Cecilia down the alley behind the theater, in a superb shot that finds them stopping at the street, where he insists that he’s now free of his obligation to the movie’s romantic interest (“Kitty Haynes the nightclub singer is bony?!”) as various passersby, representing the general public he’s just pulled her out of, periodically traverse the foreground. (Note that we see period cars pass as well, even though they’re only visible in the drugstore window’s reflection. That’s the kind of detail I never consciously notice, except when writing this column.) Tom then rejects that avenue of escape, pulling Cecilia back the way they came, away from the street and other people. “I’m never going back,” he tells her, “now that I’ve met you.” And we swoon.