This film is most famous for Chaplin’s cross-dressing, something that must have been quite brave and scandalous 97 years ago. For a twenty-first century audience it isn’t particularly shocking or even funny so you have to imagine a late Edwardian audience’s reaction in order to understand its significance.
This wasn’t the first time that Chaplin cross dressed on film but it was the last. He had previously performed as a woman in The Masquerader and A Busy Day while at Keystone. While the act of cross dressing was frowned upon by many at the time, the practice was quite popular in early silent films. Perhaps the creepiest part of the whole episode is how feminine Chaplin looks in close up once he has shaved off his moustache. He makes a handsome woman. Another surprisingly bold part of this film is a scene in which a cross dressed Chaplin tricks two grown men into kissing each other. I was very surprised to see that.
In terms of the comedy, this is quite a weak effort. I only laughed twice during the entire twenty-eight minute run time which is very low compared to other Essanay films I’ve seen. Rather than full on slapstick, Chaplin tends to go to great lengths to set up gags here including one example where he spends a couple of minutes deciding where to kick Inslee into the lake. He uses his cane as a measuring stick to assess the depth of the water and the whole scene is much more measured than earlier films where he would more than likely just kick the man in and then probably do it again once he got back out.
Something else of note here is the reaction of passers by when Chaplin escapes from the house without trousers. Men run away and women faint even though he still has long johns on, covering his legs. It’s funny to see how reactions have changed in the last century. Modern women tend to be disappointed if the leading man is covered up whereas their great grandmothers fainted at the sight of a mostly clothed man.
Overall A Woman is an unremarkable film save for the cross dressing. The story is quite clever and bold but there are very few laughs for a modern audience.