After completing The Pilgrim, Charlie Chaplin was finally free of his First National contract. He could now concentrate on making features for United Artists – the company he created with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.
But Chaplin had a problem: Edna Purviance. She’d been his leading lady for eight of his nine years in the movies, and he wanted younger, thinner ingenues. But he didn’t want to just drop his former lover.
So he decided to turn Purviance into a dramatic star in her own right, by making a film that would show off her acting talent. It didn’t work.
I watched Chaplin’s second feature by streaming it on FilmStruck.
In A Woman of Paris, Chaplin created a lurid melodrama built around an actress who couldn’t quite do the job. The film depends too much on intertitles. People do stupid things just to keep the story going.
Purviance plays a young woman who runs into some very bad luck on the night she was to elope with her fiancé. A year later, she’s the mistress of a wealthy Paris playboy. Then the fiancé appears. Obviously, the story involves both tragedy and redemption.
And yet the film has some surprisingly subtle touches and performances. A woman, being told of the sudden death of her son, doesn’t cry or chew the scenery. She stands there in shock. Unfortunately, these touches are often drowned out by Chaplin’s musical score, composed and recorded decades after the film’s original release. (Chaplin’s estate won’t allow these films to be screened with alternative scores.)
You can see why Chaplin failed to make Purviance a star in her own right. She’s adequate in the part; but to be a star, she had to be exceptional. If Louise Brooks had starred in the film, it would be a masterpiece.
Chaplin failed to launch Purviance’s career, but he sure helped Adolphe Menjou’s. As the rich playboy who keeps Purviance in unwed luxury, Menjou steals the movie. He’s dashing, suave, and devil-may-care. He’s the antagonist; the closest thing this film has to a villain, but he’s the only person worth looking at.
It’s tempting to suggest that Menjou’s Pierre Revel (an interesting name) may reflect the real Charlie Chaplin. Like Chaplin, he’s filthy rich, enjoys his wealth, and picks up and drops women easily. He’s certainly more fun than Carl Miller’s dull and joyless fiancée.
On the other hand, Purviance’s Marie St. Clair seems to be, like her character in The Kid, another version of Chaplin’s mother, whose first child was born out of wedlock and likely turned tricks to feed her sons.
Chaplin shows occasional signs of cinematic genius in A Woman of Paris. A breast pocket handkerchief in Marie’s dresser tells us much about her relationship with Revel. And even the dull fiancée understands the celluloid collar that drops from the same dresser. A wild party sequence gives a real sense of out-of-control merriment.
Chaplin warns his audience, within the opening credits, that this is not a comedy and that he himself would not appear on screen. Of course, one hopes that the audience was warned about this before they bought their tickets. Anyway, that warning isn’t quite correct. He’s on screen for a few seconds, playing a porter at the train station. He’s neither recognizable nor funny. Another member of Chaplin’s repertory company, Henry Bergman, plays a head waiter.
A Woman of Paris did not do well at the box office. It didn’t deserve to.
I give it a C+.