It was awhile ago when we watched this one, which came via the lovely Netflix Instant feature streaming via Nintendo Wii. (Somewhere Jack Donaghy is drooling over the synergy.) So, the screenshots here will undoubtedly be inferior to the norm. Needing a little refresher, enlisted the assistance of Arnold W. Preussner, whose helpful article “Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and the Genres of Comedy” sufficiently brought the film back to mind and productively expanded on it. His thesis revolves around Allen’s use of (what Preussner identifies as) “three of the four primary types of comedy identified by Northrop Frye” in some essay Frye once wrote. The discussion of comedy becomes more interesting when Preussner gets into its concrete manifestations in and ramifications upon the film’s diegesis. The bottom line is that Woody Allen utilizes different and contradictory comedic modes that undermine viewer expectations while simultaneously engaging the viewer with Mia Farrow’s character Cecilia.
One mode is evident in Cecilia’s ability to extract the character of Tom (Jeff Daniels) from the screen in the theater into her own “real” world. This is “Arostophanic Old Comedy.” the second type is “Roman New Comedy,” seen when Gil (also played by Jeff Daniels), the actor who had played Tom in the film within, intercedes in order to confront Tom and persuade him to return to the screen. Finally, Preussner observes “Shakespearean ‘green world’ comedy” always on display on the screen within the film, filled with confused and quarreling thespians upset that one of their own has defied unwritten conventions by departing the celluloid. Preussner points out that the film presents a certain contradiction setting the viewer up for disappointment even while acknowledging the silliness of giving into the gag. The film is largely about a pathetic woman’s escapist existence, fleeing into the unreal world of Hollywood artificiality to negotiate her sad life as an inept waitress and unappreciated housewife. The viewer pities Cecilia, even while letting the different types of comedy overtake the rationality that such pity should reflect. So instead of taking a logical view of the film, the viewer sympathizing with Cecilia who also takes part in the film’s comedy is shocked by a relatively tragic ending. Instead of getting a traditional Hollywood conclusion, the film confirms its consistent critique if Cecilia’s pitiful embrace of artificial stories by avoiding such a shallow finale.
What the film calls into question, then, is the notion of viewer engagement. Films can’t succeed on a popular level without it, a fact that’s been true since the earliest days of film. Allen acknowledges this by planting the setting of Purple Rose in Depression-era New Jersey, a sad time and place if there ever was one. Cinema is escapist by its nature, and Cecilia gives into its temptations head-first. Allen relies on viewer engagement as much as Astaire and Rogers did (which he acknowledges at the film’s finale when Cecilia escapes back into the theater and Fred and Ginger are on screen). Still, Allen chooses to punish the protagonist for this essential truth about the movies. So while Allen subverts the nature of cinema, the nature of comedy, and the guilty pleasure that cinema arouses in its real participants (versus non-real figures on the screen), the narrative is wholly consistent with itself by not resorting to a melodramatic Hollywood ending.