The International Writers Magazine: Film in Depth - Woody Allen
Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo
When you choose reality, you get hurt, it's as simple
Robert Cottingham on Woody
frequently complimentary, the critical reception tends to suggest
that Allen had stepped back from the philosophical questions considering
the operation and creation of myth and identity. Brode describes
Broadway Danny Rose as ''low key in its approach'' suggesting
it ''may be viewed as one of Allen's minor works, a mere trifle
Further, in considering
Purple Rose of Cairo he cites Molly Haskell's review in Vogue
describing the film as 'slight but charming. (244) ' As Brode extends
his analysis; he comes to realise that these two films are deceptive
in their apparent simplicity. Both films comment upon the deceptive
nature of cinema, which in its escapist qualities effaces the nature
of the medium's manipulative nature. The obvious impact of these ideas
upon the presumed autobiographical nature of Allen's films is clear.
By showing that films are works of fiction intersecting with reality,
and sometimes, cultural events themselves.
To those who make it their task to equate Allen to characters within
his films, Cecilia and Danny Rose would be the most prominent targets
offered by these films. These characters offer, however, significantly
differently representations of the little man persona, to those we have
seen in Annie Hall. Danny Rose and Celia are essentially victims who
suffer betrayals from those closest to them. Both are victims of cruel
economic worlds; Cecilias environment is the bleak, earthy hues
of the depression era where work is scarce and men have little to do
but gamble and drink. Danny inhabits possibly the least romantic surroundings
of New York Allen has given us, a fact made clear in comparison with
the tremendously evocative imagery of Manhattan (1979).
As indicated by Pogel, Allen indicates something of the barbed nature
of these two films in their titular references to roses. Roses are flowers
which are at once achingly beautiful but are also covered with painfully
It is surely no accident that Allen's two works most preoccupied with
myth and reality should carry references to both in their titles. Both
of the films encourage the audience to think specifically about the
fact that they are watching fiction whilst, ironically drawing the audience
to the same temptation as Cecilia; the same comforting feeling of escapism.
Broadway Danny Rose is in many ways Allen's affectionate tribute
to his days as a stand-up comedian. Like Manhattan, it is a valentine
to a New York that probably never existed, except in Allen's febrile
Vincent Canby calls Broadway ''a love letter not only to American stars
and to all of those pushy hopefuls who never quite made it to the top
in showbiz, but also to the kind of comedy that nourished the particular
genius of Woody Allen.'' Essentially, Canby refers to the small clubs
and side rooms where struggling singers and hopeful comics once plied
their trade, places like the hungry i in San Francisco where Allen got
his grounding in comedy.
In starting the film with a table full of comic veterans reminiscing
about the good old days and those people who came within reach of New
York but never quite managed to take Manhattan, Allen allows viewers
to feel nostalgic for the past that is not far removed from the present.
Allen drew on a real life incident to make the film, when Charles Joffe
was dropped by Harry Belafonte when the latter found fame and fortune.
The films framing device has the effect of legitimizing the story
that we are about to hear. It unfolds through a documentary realist
style, whilst at the same time hinting that the very realism the style
produces is an artificial construct. Initially the camera passes through
the window of the deli revealing the artificiality of the scenario.
Yet, in contrast, as the scene unfolds the camera assumes a documentary
position so that passers by obscure the audience's view of the comics.
Writing about the early Allen personae, Diane Jacobs wrote that 'they
have perfect comic faith in the efficacy of their most ludicrous illusions,
which take them out of the realm of despair and into crime, revolution
and a bit more successfully, romantic love.''
Replace revolution with show business and keep everything else she mentions
and you have an apt description of B.D.R, which is the kind of film
the aliens in Stardust Memories wanted Sandy to make. The film
is a perfect compromise between the black and white art films Allen
loves to make and the warm, touching and funny films that the public
want him to make.
If the film has a link with the other films of Allen's period, it is
in their characters need to satiate their desires with food, art or
love. Throughout B.DR, there are connections made between food with
camaraderie, conviviality and love. At the party where Danny and Tina
meet, we se guests gorging themselves in the background. Then, we see
them bond in a deli. Finally, the film concludes with a sequence in
which Danny and his lovable losers share a Thanksgiving meal of frozen
Danny Rose's greatest accolade is not down to any professional or personal
achievement but that at the Carnegie Deli they named a sandwich after
him. Perhaps this is the closest any Allen character has got toward
theme of food as a metaphor for life is taken further in A Purple
Rose Of Cairo. Firstly, Cynthia is a wan, down at heel waitress
in a dingy diner where only her daydreams about movies keep her
her plight; serving dinner to very real customers in the restaurant
whilst daydreaming about eating in the Copacabana. Her relationship
with her husband is defined not by physical affection or marital duty
but through food: 'Is there any meatloaf left?' is all he really cares
about. The highest compliment he can pay her is in terms of food - 'that
stuff you made yesterday was delicious.''
When Cecilia packs her bags to leave him, he's less concerned about
losing her sexually (he's already sleeping with someone else) than his
stomach: 'I want my supper' is all he can say to her as she desperately
walks out the door.
Monk exists in stark contrast to Tom. Yet when Tom steps out of the
screen, the first thing he thinks of is his hunger. Naturally she gives
him popcorn - appropriate food for someone obsessed with the movies.
Significantly, Cecilia desire to feed others underscores the fact that
she never gets to eat herself.
Her starvation is not just figurative but literal. Mostly, she is starved
because of her abysmal marriage, a variation on the typical Allen theme
of marital dissatisfaction. Her drudgery and violence that she endures
is in stark counterpoint to the star marriages she enthuses about with
her sister in the cafe, squealing with delight at the forthcoming marriage
between Lew Ayres and Ginger Rogers, explaining why his previous union
Even in the film within the film, the characters express their dissatisfaction
with marriage 'I'm tired of getting married to you every night' Van
Johnson says to Zoë Caldwell. 'We never get to the bedroom.'
As in earlier Allen films, the institution of marriage, intended by
religion and law to provide sexual release, actually ends up causing
tension rather than dissipating it; Allen's attitude to marriage does
not appear to have softened over the years.
The film's premise is fascinating. It looks at the disruption caused
when a minor (yet important) character decides that he no longer wants
to be trapped inside a film and decides to spend time with a civilian.
Secondly, it examines the vicarious relationship that exists between
the film and the viewer. We already know, from the way we hear Cecilia
talking with her sister in the cafe, that she considers the cinema to
be a better, more pleasant reality than her humdrum existence. So we
are not surprised when she responds to Tom Baxter as though he were
a real person rather than a character in the film. In turn, Tom acts
as if he were still in the film. He knows nothing of the real world.
He's never worked, never seen a pregnant woman, knows nothing of prostitutes
or brothels, is baffled by the concept of God, whom he can only envisage
as a cosmic screenwriter. When they kiss, he can't understand why there
isn't a fade out before' things get heavy.' Similarly, when he takes
her to dinner, he finds that his money is not accepted because it isn't
real. Conversely, when Cecilia joins Tom on the screen she is surprised
when her night out flashes by in a series of montage and dissolves that
suggests the passing of time. 'My whole life I've wanted to know what
it was like on this side of the screen,' she says. But the movies like
life are subject to rules and conventions; in the film Tom is supposed
to get married to Kitty Holmes. After Tom defies the story's internal
logic, other characters decide that they can act as they please. The
maitre d, realizing that all bets are off, throws down his menus, orders
the orchestra to hit it and launches into a spirited tap routine. The
champagne that they drink turns out to be ginger ale. Cecilia's arrival
in the film disrupts the story - Just as Baxter caused consternation
for the characters in the film.
As soon as word gets out in Hollywood the film's writers demand that
the film be taken off screen. Shephard's agent invokes the Fatty Arbuckle
scandal, a reminder that the illusion of the flashy film star is often
just a carefully controlled publicity construction. This is why the
situation becomes further compromised when the actor playing Baxter
comes to New Jersey in an attempt to reclaim his creation, and Cecilia
cannot differentiate between character and actor. Woody's message is
simple, we shouldn't confuse the two. While Tom Baxter is a true innocent,
having never been to a brothel, Gil Shephard can only act innocent.
Which is why at the end of the film, Gil goes back to Hollywood, satisfied
that his character is back in the film. Tom would never have left Cecilia
in such a final way. For Baxter is an ingénue, at once charmingly
innocent and disarmingly poignant. When he expresses delight at eating
popcorn after 'watching people eat it for all those performances,''
we are amused as we would be by a child. When he reminisces about his
father however, the film takes on amore serious tone, for Tom can only
ever know what is written inside his character.
Tom's emergence and interaction with the film's real world shows how
he has only been created to experience and respond to certain situations.
Ironically, this is true for all of the film's characters, thus Allen
reveals the false nature of cinema, and in a sense highlights the difficulties
involved in presenting a person in film intrinsic to the notion that
his work is autobiographical. The scene is further underscored by its
fairground location. The amusements are all closed for the winter, their
escapist function stopped, just as ''The Purple Rose of Cairo'' is whilst
Tom is absent. Inevitably, however, the season will change, the attractions
will operate again, and Cecilia and Tom will have to return to their
Allen's earlier examination and use of the carnivalesque in Broadway
Danny Rose is perhaps more explicit than that seen in The Purple
Rose of Cairo, whilst nonetheless reaching similar conclusions.
Watching Broadway Danny Rose we are literally presented with a modern
day commercial carnival on several pivotal occasions. Allen's use of
carnival is more pervasive, however, extending to the overall narrative
and particularly its spirit is present in Allen's pastiche of The Godfather
throughout the film. Allen appropriates the familial structure of Coppola's
film to generate a sense both of comedy and tension, as Danny Rose attempts
to draw Tina Vitale away from a garden party for her Mafioso former
lover. Both visual and verbal humour follows as the family attempt to
revenge her ditched lover Tommy Rispoli, placing their wrath on the
man they suspect of stealing her heart - Danny Rose. Allen's jokes range
from Danny's talk of cement with another guest to their escape using
'Shandar's' rope escape trick.
The carnival atmosphere, then, operates as it does in The Purple
Rose of Cairo, as both subversion of normal reality and to illustrate
the role of myth, fantasy and play in ''real'' life. A conventional
shootout is robbed of all its suspense through its setting in a warehouse
storing helium inflated parade floats. The comedy of the scene works
on several levels, visually, the actors are made to appear ridiculous
next to the giant inflatables, and the bullet punctured floats spill
out helium making all of the usual talk of such a scene farcically high
This scene like those based on The Godfather at the Rosotti's
country estate, is a sophisticated merger of filmic reference and Allen's
own fantasy, reflecting Barthes view of the text as a ''tissue of quotations,''
discussed in chapter one. We laugh because in both locations we recognise
the original reference, thus it is the combination of fantasy and reality
in parody that amuses us. Allen does not, however, use carnival merely
for comic effect. Danny's earlier escape from the henchmen by naming
Barney Dunn as Tina's lover has cruel repercussions. Dunn is a stuttering
ventriloquist so bad that even Danny won't handle him. Danny understands
that Barney will be on a cruise ship and therefore safe from harm. In
a cruel Carnivalesque twist the cruise is cancelled and he is beaten
to a pulp.
It is testament to Allen's understanding of magic that we never for
a moment doubt the credibility of the story. The concept of the actor
leaving his film is no more far-fetched than the remarkable transformations
that occurred in Zelig or the strange apparitions that emanated
from Andrew's spirit ball in a Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.
We may say that Allen plays God in the film, indeed, the story resembles
something like Orpheus in the Underworld in the way that it shows
the romantic confusion and tragedy that entails when one of the God's
(Tom Baxter) becomes involved with a mere mortal (Cecilia).
Allen's idea of heaven is illustrated in the scene where Tom takes Cecilia
with him on the 'madcap Manhattan weekend' that takes place in a minute
of screen time, and sees them go from El Morocco to the Copacabana in
whirl of popping champagne corks
That we are watching two characters in a film within in a film scenario
shows just how deceptively simple the film is. Earlier films would have
required a voiceover or some of Allen's sarcastic to camera asides to
keep things together. But Allen does away with these methods and manages
to interweave several different stories at once. Thus, while Cecilia
is being harassed by her husband, Tom sleeps in a disused fairground,
and the actor playing him is on a plane to reclaim him. For once, the
focus is ubiquitous rather than subjective. It isn't just Cecilia's
story, but Allen's also. Like a puppet master operating from beyond
our range, Allen pulls the strings, orchestrating the story and the
characters in it.
God in the film is considered by Baxter to be the screenwriters - the
men who gave him life. He can't imagine a higher order, because that
would bring his very existence into question.
Alone in the cinema at the end of the film Cecilia realises that perfection
is only achievable in art, but needing perfection, she resumes her movie
going. What we are left with is the realisation that perfection only
exists in films like the fictional Purple Rose of Cairo or Top
Elsewhere in the film, Allen's admiration for prostitutes is in evidence.
A significant scene involving Tom Baxter is set in a brothel
Essentially, Cecilia symbolises the American public of the 1930s, for
whom the movies, providing a much-needed release from the hardships
of life, were so important. The very period, in fact, that young Heyward
Allen first started going to the movies himself, and found it hard to
reconcile the world he saw on screen and the real world of Brooklyn
in the thirties. In the movies, everyone wore expensive clothes, drank
martinis and lived in opulent homes with marmoreal white telephones.
Life was so drab, that people were happy to suspend disbelief because
their own lives were so gloomy.
Purple Rose of Cairo is unique in all Allen's films for its down at
heel atmosphere. The cafe where Cecilia works has none of the panache
of those in The Sting or Bullets Over Broadway - its as unappetizing
as the food it serves. The house where she lives is cramped and badly
decorated. And the brothel, which would seem to offer a frisson of eroticism
and glamour in Dianne Wiest's sparkling eyes, is just a shabby room
in a rundown apartment.
The freedom of the carnival is tempered in Broadway Danny Rose,
as it is in Purple Rose, with the reality of the difficult cultural
and economic environments in which the little man attempts to survive.
Allen turns Bakhtin's examinations of the meanings culture creates to
show how his contemporary urban society affects it people, frequently
pushing them towards violence and betrayal. More positively, however,
Allen reinstates guilt as a virtue when Danny Rose visits Barney in
hospital and insists on paying his bills. Most positively of all is
the transformation undergone by Tina, a character who states her philosophy
as being its over quick so have a good time. You see what
you want go for it. Don't pay any attention to anybody else. And do
it to the other guy first, cause if you don't he'll do it to you.''
Watching a Thanksgiving parade brings about a carnivalesque inversion,
altering her perception of her ill treatment of Danny. She had been
instrumental in Lou Canova leaving Rose at the first sign of success;
despite all of the support Rose had given him. When Tina arrives at
Danny's party, she quotes his uncle, who said that the three most important
things in life were 'forgiveness, acceptance and love.' Tina had integrity
all along, but Danny was the one who brought it out of her.
The bittersweet conclusion of Danny Rose provides an acute contrast
to Purple Rose's downbeat ending. With the arrival of Gil Shephard,
the actor who plays Tom Baxter, Cecilia is forced to choose between
the idealistic character and the real man, with all his flaws and imperfections.
Ultimately, as we know we must choose reality in the end, and this is
the dominant discourse that the film's ending supports. Thus Allen leaves
the audience with the final image of a ''yearning, sad'' dejected Cecilia,
returning to the cinema again, the need for escapism never greater:
Some people have suggested that perhaps if they had married in the end
Cecilia and the movie star, the film would have had a much bigger audience,
there was such a feeling of unhappiness when he left her at the end.
But that was the whole reason for doing the film. (Bjorkman ED. 81)
These two films illustrate that Allen is aware of the difficulties,
and complexities of representation in film, indeed, they form a dialogue
which when applied to his work as a whole forestalls the claim that
autobiography is his principal aim, Through privileging discussions
of cinema itself within his films, Allen engages the earlier problems
generated by the disjunction between myth and reality, notably developing
the argument in the adoption of the carnivalesque. Allen reveals in
these films how characters and events are formed and manipulated within
narratives. Characters are shown to be both functionally slight and
falsely portrayed. Further, placing these distinctions within the context
of the cranivalesque alerts us to a wider manipulation of events and
distintegration of normal filmic practices, allowing the fantastical
to become possible, as it does in Purple Rose. These two films reveal,
in a sense, the complex nature of representation that hampers the filmmaker
attempting to present their own life definitively in film. AS an alternative
goal these films posit the value of discussing and illuminating the
difficult nature of self-representation as a new strategy for the personally
expressive filmmaker; revealing both the deceptive nature of film and,
once again, narrative perspective.
It is worth noting, however that the critical debates that Allen develops
and those that inform his films are never allowed to overshadow the
narrative cohesion of the films as a whole. As we have seen Broadway
Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo stimulate thought
regarding reflexivity, the carnivalesque and myth in the most unexpected,
diverse and entertaining ways. They are films of far greater depth than
they appear, perhaps revealing far more about Allen than any conventional
exploration of a life's events, for these are the concerns that compel
him to make films.
© Robert Cottingham May 2005
See also Melinda and Melinda
Robert is a Creative Arts/Film graduate of Portsmouth University
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