Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 film A Woman of Paris is a film full of firsts. It was his first films released by United Artists, the company he had co-founded four years earlier. It was his first dramatic film, featuring no slapstick comedy at all and it was his first film in which he did not star. It was also a film of lasts. After a fruitful eight year relationship, this was Chaplin’s final film to feature Edna Purviance and it was also his last purely dramatic picture. The movie was warmly received by critics who praised its bold themes, underplayed acting and assured direction but for the public it was a different matter. It’s difficult to quantify Chaplin’s appeal and fame for modern audiences but up to that point no person in the movies was paid more. Upon his first return to London after his American success, literally hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome him home. It is arguable that no entertainer has ever been as famous as Charlie Chaplin was in the first half of the twentieth century.
So, when audiences eagerly flocked to their cinemas in 1923 for the latest Chaplin feature only to find that the man himself wasn’t on screen, it’s easy to understand their disappointment. Imagine paying for another Pirates of the Caribbean film only to discover that there was no Johnny Depp and no pirates. Now image that the Pirate of the Caribbean films were actually good and you get some understanding of the disappointment audiences must have felt. To his credit, Chaplin did attempt to get word out that this was going to be an atypical film with flyers handed out to the long cinema queues and the film actually opens with a disclaimer stating that “I do not appear in this picture” and that it is intended as a “serious drama”. Had the audience been aware of this before the film opened, their reaction might have been very different but instead it was a commercial failure and wasn’t seen again for over fifty years when Chaplin reissued it with a new, self composed score in what was to be the final piece of work before his death in 1977.
The movie is based partly on the stories of a woman with whom Chaplin was friendly. Peggy Hopkins Joyce was a serial seductress who was married six times and had relationships with several other high profile men including Chaplin himself. Peggy was known for snaring rich men before divorcing them and claiming part of their wealth and her stories from her time in Paris particularly fascinated Chaplin. Edna Purviance was given a starring role by her long time collaborator in an effort to help launch her into more dramatic roles. She plays a relatively poor French girl, growing up in a small, rural village. Her father objects to a relationship with a burgeoning painter played by Carl Miller and the two plan to run away to Paris to wed but on their night of departure, her lover’s father dies and without knowledge of this, Marie St. Clair (Purviance) leaves for the bright lights alone. In Paris she becomes a courtesan, living in luxury in an apartment paid for by her rich lover Pierre (Adolphe Menjou).
As regular readers will be aware, Charlie Chaplin is pretty much my favourite film maker and I love his films as much for their technical proficiency, direction and performances as for their comedy. Unlike the contemporary audiences I’m able to appreciate this film for its dramatic tendencies rather than rue the loss of the star in front of the camera. The story is very strong and features depth of character rare for the period. Their lusts and desires are worn on their sleeves despite their emotions being hidden beneath a façade. Chaplin once said that real people tend to hide their true emotions and that is something which he distilled in his actors. Unlike some (not all) of the movies from the time, Chaplin’s actors underplay the drama and while melodramatic in its construction, the actors remain within the realms of realism. Indeed scenes set in Edna’s apartment featuring her and her friends feel as though they could be taken from documentary footage.
The plot is fairly simple and a little on the formulaic side but it travels in some nice directions before reaching a sensitive conclusion. The film portrays the conservatism of the older generation and plays it off against the gayety of the early 1920s in spectacular fashion. It is the older characters who are the villains and who cause the early upset. This plays against convention for a Hollywood which did and still does revere the older generations. The love story at the centre is sweet and well handled which should be no surprise considering the writer’s previous work was The Kid, a film which features one of the all time great non-romantic love stories. He would also go on to make City Lights nearly a decade later and that film still ranks as one of the best romantic comedies of all time. This film however fails to match either of those. As well as treading firmly on traditional romantic territory and subverting stereotypes, from a historical point of view Chaplin’s politics shine through. The hero of the piece is the hardworking, artistic underdog (sound familiar?) while those with power tend to be more morally shady. The ending in which the lead gives up the high life and the glamour that comes with it in favour on helping others is also torn right out of Chaplin’s political manifesto.
In terms of direction the film is very strong. Early scenes highlight snippets of expressionism with the use of heavy shadows and wonky sets and there is also a clever use of props and lighting to create the illusion of a train when in fact none is there. It is during this scene that Chaplin has his blink and you’ll miss it, unbilled cameo as a porter. The cameo was missed by many of the theatre goers in 1923 as Chaplin was on screen for just a second or two and was heavily disguised under unfamiliar makeup and a hunch. Edna Purviance never went on to have the career that Chaplin so wanted for her. Here though she is above average. She doesn’t command the screen as many actors do but isn’t an embarrassment. It must have been difficult to step forward from the bowler hat shaped shadow in which she’d found herself for nearly a decade but overall she makes the most of her opportunity. Carl Miller is very good and has some wonderfully drab expressions but the stand out for me is Adolphe Menjou. A future McCarthyist, his career was given a bump by the movie and he is excellent in it.
Overall then I lie somewhere between the 1923 audience and critics. For what is it, A Woman of Paris is a well crafted dramatic film but I got a little bored around the middle. The performances are on the whole very good and I liked the toned down acting style. The story flows with good pace and has a well written beginning and end but Chaplin made many better films both before and after this one.
- The only other Chaplin directed film in which he wasn't in a starring role was his final movie, A Countess of Hong Kong.
- Michael Powell credited this movie with inspiring many of the themes of his own.
- The re-issue wasn't completed in time for Chaplin to see and he died before it's completion. It was hailed as a masterpiece in 1977, just as it had been 54 years earlier.