Today is the anniversary of the Hollywood premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 melodrama masterpiece A Woman of Paris.
A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first film for United Artists, the studio he’d founded with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith back in 1919. The film would dazzle the critics and the industry but disappoint millions of fans as well as his partners at the studio, who had been counting on a hit.
Ever determined not only to grow but also shock and amaze, Chaplin made A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate, a 100% serious melodrama in which he did not even appear (except in a very small cameo role). The film stars Edna Purviance as Marie St. Claire, a country lass who runs away from home and becomes a kept woman in Paris, leaving her artist beau (Carl Miller) behind. The two meet again years later and consider marrying, but his mother’s objections prevent him, and so he shoots himself instead.
Releasing a mirthless melodrama sounds self-destructive, but Chaplin had several real reasons for wanting to go this route. For one thing, it seems to have been a kind of test, to see if his skills as a director could make the grade without the candy-colored fog of his star power. With this film he sought the respect of the critics and of the industry, and he got it. A Woman of Paris remains much admired for setting a new standard for naturalistic, understated acting, and for devising subtle ways of conveying crucial plot information (the most frequently praised detail was Adolphe Menjou’s reaching into Purviance’s dresser for a collar, an immediate indication that she is his kept woman.) Secondly, Chaplin (rather generously) sought to launch Edna Purviance on her own solo career as an actress. The feeling was that, at age 28, she was becoming too matronly to be Chaplin’s leading lady any more. This sounds harsh, as does his insistence on hiring teenagers to play that role for him even as he himself passed deeper and deeper into middle age. But a quick screening of The Pilgrim does reveal that Purviance was waxing stout by 1923, not much, but apparently just enough to make a difference to Chaplin. Having been the man who brought her into a business she never even sought to be in, he felt a responsibility to ensure her continued happiness. He couldn’t in all conscience, as Henry Higgins seems prepared to do in act four of Pygmalion, drop his Eliza Doolittle and leave her to fend for herself as though nothing had happened. So he created this role for her.
The serious theme of the film is not the anomaly it superficially seems. Purviance had been Chaplin’s leading lady since 1915. Most of his movies could be thought of not just as Chaplin pictures but as Charlie-and-Edna pictures. He had spent a lot of his time and energy creating situations wherein the audience would see Edna from the Little Fellow’s (and Chaplin’s) adoring point of view. In A Woman of Paris, he has simply taken a step back to let us see his romantic interest entirely from his own perspective without intruding himself upon the picture. Unfortunately, Edna didn’t have the goods, at least sufficiently to make a hit picture. The second Mabel Normand she was not. Purviance was always pleasant to look at, but somewhat reserved upon the screen. The film’s “Woman of Paris” really ought to have been a Black Swan; Edna was most definitely a White One. Indeed, the story had been suggested to Chaplin by one of the Jazz Age’s most notorious sexpots (and Chaplin’s former lover) Peggy Hopkins Joyce. If someone of her vivaciousness had played the role, the picture might have clicked. Instead the biggest star to emerge from the film ended up being Adolphe Menjou, who was already every bit the Adolphe Menjou we know from the talkies. Chaplin might have done himself a favor and added himself to the cast. He could easily even written a Max Linder type for himself (his “rich” character from The Idle Class shows us what that may have looked like.) Or he could even have played his own version of Menjou’s rué. He had essayed a similar villain in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, after all. But then he wouldn’t have learned what he wanted to know.
Another unfortunate by-product of seeing Chaplin’s mind at work without the firewall of comedy is that it shines a light on his intellectual limitations. When all is said and done, Chaplin’s was a rather conventional sensibility. When he is working in comedy, we are happy to accept many of his broad character and narrative strokes as “type”, grist for the mill in comedy. In drama we are apt to be more demanding. We want nuance and shading and three-dimensionality. Chaplin is justly praised for giving us that as far as the acting goes in A Woman of Paris. But it’s hard not to regard the story itself as a somewhat kitschy amalgam of warmed over clichés, a version of Camille in which it is the beau and not the courtesan who must die to satisfy the public’s demand for “compensating moral values”. As he would show us again in Monsieur Verdoux, (and despite the fact that he even spent some time in the French capital), Chaplin’s idea of Paris is that of a vaudevillian: he can’t help seeing it as a place where beret- bedecked painters pursue glamorous courtesans only to be thwarted in following their passions by scheming bourgeoisie in silk top hats who formulate their insidious designs in cabarets over champagne and rich sauces. On the other hand, no one (including Chaplin) ever went broke in Hollywood by pursuing visions of reality roughly that shallow, though the successful movies that have resulted generally boast more electricity on the screen. At any rate, audiences were uninterested in seeing a Chaplin picture without Chaplin. The public’s rejection of the film saddened him. Following its initial 1923 run, A Woman of Paris was placed in a vault and not seen again publicly until 1976, when Chaplin re-released it with a brand new original score. Its influence immediately made itself felt on younger film-makers. Martin Scorsese, for example, has spoken on TCM about the impact the film made on him. I also can’t help noting that two years after A Woman of Paris re-emerged, America’s then reigning comedy director Woody Allen, whose debt to Chaplin in earlier pictures had often been acknowledged, released Interiors, a straight drama in which he, for the first time, did not star. Compared with his previous comedy features, it fared poorly at the box office. But time has been very kind to it. Highly recommended viewing!
To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.