Today is the birthday of Charlie Chaplin’s only true leading lady, Edna Purviance (1895-1958). Chaplin would discover the comely twenty year old in 1915 in a San Francisco café when he was working at Essanay’s nearby Niles facility. At the time he needed some eye candy for his second Essanay film A Night Out.
She would remain with him for eight years of astonishing growth, encompassing the intermediate period at Essanay, the comedy masterpieces at Mutual, the more ambitious First National films, and his first feature The Kid (1922), through 1923’s A Woman of Paris, a melodrama Chaplin had devised for her especially to star in. When this film bombed at the box office (despite being a critical success), she appeared in A Woman of the Sea (1926) directed by Josef Von Sternberg and produced by Chaplin. It was reportedly so bad that Chaplin suppressed the footage and later burned it. Thenceforth Purviance would be kept on the payroll and used as an occasional extra, but a star no more.
But during those crucial eight years, she was integral to the magic of the Chaplin universe, both his inspiration and an important ingredient in the formula of his films. Without the goal of attaining Edna, there’d have been no serious element — and that serious element, even a small amount of it, is what pushes the films over into greatness.
For more on silent and slapstick please check out my 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 find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.