03 September 2008

A Woman of Paris (1923)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 78 mins.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I wish to announce that I do not appear in this picture. It is the first serious drama written and directed by myself.

So says the first title card of Chaplin's A Woman of Paris, for better or for worse. Conceived as a film to showcase the talents and appeal of his frequent leading lady Edna Purviance, A Woman of Paris is a unique entry in Chaplin's catalogue of films. By 1923 he had made many wonderful comedies (with his best still to come) and even films that dabbled in the dramatic and sentimental, but nothing fully realized as a drama. The result is a film without much resounding emotion and one of Chaplin's weaker productions.

Purviance's relationship with Chaplin began in 1915, and the two appeared on-screen together in thirty-three of his productions, including all but one of his films with Essanay Studios and all of his films with Mutual Studios and First National. Chaplin undeniably saw something in her (the two were romantically linked for a couple of years), but as an actress I've always found her performances relatively flat. Perhaps it's because she's continually cast as the straight-woman against his slapstick shenanigans and she never had much of an opportunity to stand out. Her best role was in Chaplin's The Kid (1921), but even then she doesn't steal anything away from Chaplin (arguably Jackie Coogan was the one who did that). In A Woman of Paris she plays Marie, a girl from a small French town who loves an artist named Jean (Carl Miller). Their engagement is ill-fated (he has an unhealthy attachment to his parents) and she ends up as a mistress to a wealthy man in Paris. When Marie and Jean cross paths again, their romance is rekindled but obstacles still stand in their way.

A Woman of Paris was Chaplin's first film for United Artists, which Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and he founded together. He was a true renaissance man, and as with all of his films, he directed it, wrote it, produced it, and composed its score. (And contrary to the title card, although he does not star, he does appear on-screen in a cameo at a train station.)

It's said audiences expected a traditional Chaplin comedy and their poor reaction to this drama disappointed him. I sympathize, yet must admit the film is a disappointment not for its lack of comedy (Chaplin was capable of great drama; for example: Limelight) but for its lack of core emotion. There are touches of Chaplin's regular satire on the bourgeois class, but none of the emotions or sentiments go very far – most problematically, you never really believe Marie and Jean love each other as much as the film would like you to believe they do.

Although the idea behind the film was to launch a career for Purviance independent of Chaplin's, she starred in only two more films after A Woman of ParisA Woman of the Sea, an unreleased and now-considered-lost film directed by Josef von Sternberg and produced by Chaplin; and Education de Prince, a French film totally unaffiliated with Chaplin. She retired from acting in 1928 but remained on Chaplin's payroll until her death in 1958, and Chaplin would not venture into straight drama again for decades.


Sam Juliano,  04 September, 2008  

Indeed, this is one of the very few full features by the master that was tedious and forgettable. You only got a trace of what we were to get in the later masterpieces or even films that came close like THE CIRCUS and THE KID. I've always had a problem with this one. I think it's great you are examining Chaplin, and look forward to more, if that's what you're planning. Beautifully written piece and terrific website!

T.S. 05 September, 2008  

Sam - Thank you so much for the tremendous feedback on all the Chaplin reviews! I'm so glad people have been enjoying them, and it's also great to hear from another mega-fan. I must admit I'm envious of your ability to comment so prolifically! :)

The great thing about wading through Chaplin chronologically is knowing there are so many great movies remaining for me to review. This is kind of a silly question (but what is film criticism if not occasionally full of silly questions?): do you have a favorite among The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times? Personally I'm not sure I could identify an absolute favorite, but I can't wait to hear from readers next week and the week after when the reviews are posted.

Sam Juliano,  05 September, 2008  

T.S., I do have a favorite of the three and it is CITY LIGHTS, which may well be my favorite film of all-time. The finall scene, where the flower-girll poignantly holds the Tramp's hand and tearfully says "you?" may well be the most emotional segment in the entire history of the cinema. It always makes me cry, especially since Chaplin's own elegiac score yields the most profound wedding of image and music one could ever hope to expience in the cinema.

I deeply love MODERN TIMES as well, and that would also be in my Top 10 films ever made, while there are few films as funny as THE GOLD RUSH.

Thanks for the kind words.

Dean Treadway 06 September, 2008  

I love your website as a whole. You bring a great comtemproary style to your examination of the classics. Bravo. I'll be adding Screen Savour to my own blogroll at filmicability with Dean Treadway (I tend to cover movies from 1960 to the present, though I do have a Vampyr and Duel in the Sun review in there.) I plan to add more truly classic, pre-60s titles in there, too. Anyway, I'd be honored if you could add my to your blogroll, if you like my style (or even if you don't!).

Thanks again for your dedicated work. I'm a fan.

Dean Treadway

T.S. 06 September, 2008  

Dean - Hey, thanks for such high praise! I'm flattered, and I'd be happy to add you to the blogroll. It's great to continue to come across new blogs full of wonderful writing and fine taste. :)

Thanks for the encouragement on reviewing the classics. I guess you could say my film tastes are directed more into the past than the present, although this November I'm looking forward to reviewing the 20-or-so best films I've seen since 2000. I wish I could do both, the very old classics and the very new contemporary, but financially I'm skewed toward the DVD collection at the university library instead of a matinee or two each weekend. Hopefully we'll be able to compare notes on the '60s and '70s when I start publishing more reviews from those decades this December!

Farzan 06 September, 2008  

Another great classic film review.

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