A Woman of Paris (1923 USA 93 mins)

Prod, Dir, Scr: Charles Chaplin Phot: Roland Totheroh Ed: Monta Bell Art Dir: Arthur Stibolt

Cast: Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller, Lydia Knott, Charles French, Clarence Geldert, Betty Morrissey, Malvina Polo, Henry Bergman, Harry Northrup, Nelly Blye Baker, Charles Chaplin

By 1923, Charles Chaplin was the biggest star in films, part owner of his own production company, and thus able to take creative chances. A Woman of Paris may appear to be different from anything else Chaplin had done up to that time, but it was, in fact, a culmination of several ideas and inspirations.

Chaplin, a veteran of the English music halls, entered films via Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in 1914. Once he learned to refine his stage-trained comic gestures for the new medium, he wanted to do more than a series of knockabout gags. Chaplin believed comedy should stem naturally from his character, backed by a more serious narrative. And while the budget-minded Sennett would allow little time for experimentation, Chaplin’s Keystone production The New Janitor (1914) is an early example of his investigating these possibilities.

Chaplin continued to explore comedy through drama during his 16-film stint at the Essanay studios, with such breakthrough films as The Tramp (1915) and The Bank (1916). When he produced his 12 brilliant short films for the Mutual Corporation he used this same formula, most effectively in The Vagabond (1916), one of his finest efforts from this period. By the time Chaplin made his first feature-length film he had perfected the drama-through-comedy approach to the point where The Kid (1921) is still hailed in some quarters as his masterpiece.

The success of The Kid led to A Woman of Paris, which Chaplin began filming in late November 1922. During the interim between these features, Chaplin joined Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to form United Artists, allowing him a level of control heretofore unprecedented in the infant film industry (particularly for a director).

A Woman of Paris was partly created as a vehicle for Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s friend, sometime lover, and frequent co-star since the Essanay period. Having a deft ability for responding to his comedy, Chaplin felt Ms. Purviance was becoming a bit too mature to be convincing in comic films. It was believed that her starring performance in A Woman of Paris would ignite a subsequent career in motion picture dramas.

A Woman of Paris is said to also have been inspired by Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a barber’s daughter from the southern states who had garnered some level of infamy for marrying and divorcing rich men. Chaplin listened attentively to her stories about crashing society despite her lower class background, and of the young man who committed suicide over his love for her. Through this dalliance, Chaplin gained insight into his characters.

While at first glance it may seem like a rather ordinary melodrama, A Woman of Paris is actually a milestone in its presentation of characters and the performances of its actors. Screen drama during the early 1920s was filled with selfless mother figures, clearly defined heroes, and stereotypical villains. Chaplin presents the hero in A Woman of Paris as a mother-dominated weakling. The villain is witty and charming. The rigidity of the parents is the cause for the story’s eventual tragic outcome.

With his direction of the actors, Chaplin effectively replaces the broad gestures by which so much of screen drama had been represented. Chaplin believed that human beings would naturally hide their emotions. This penchant for realism, and the understated performances of his actors, redefined acting in dramatic cinema just as his short films had brought screen comedy to another level.

Chaplin’s working technique has been well documented, and A Woman of Paris is no exception to the exacting way he expected his actors to perform. The level of restraint he insisted upon was a challenge for the older actors, who were accustomed to displaying broader gestures. For example, Chaplin was known to do as many as 90 takes on a short sequence just to get a certain gesture exactly as he had envisioned. The weariness of the actors resulted in the understated performances that made the film revolutionary at the time of its initial release, and so effective nearly 85 years later. The ending, which eschews the sentimental wrap-up by which Chaplin is too often unfairly defined, is one of the most remarkable moments in the entire feature.

Upon its release in October of 1923, A Woman of Paris received rave reviews from all levels of the press throughout the world. The restraint of its actors, and the effectiveness of their performances, was noticed and passionately embraced. It was hailed as a masterpiece.

But the public disagreed.

A Woman of Paris lost money after a four-week run in Hollywood, and barely covered its guarantee in New York and London. While the critics had embraced the drama as great art, audiences did not care for their comedians to aspire to such a lofty level. They loved Chaplin because he was funny. Not only was his latest film not funny, he did not appear as its star (he did make an amusing cameo that is only seconds long, but of course this did not suffice – most viewers did not even realise it was him). Never had a Chaplin film performed so poorly at the box office.

In 1975, at the age of 86, Chaplin revisited A Woman of Paris, which had remained a rather painful memory, and his enthusiasm was reignited. He decided to re-release it with a newly composed musical score. However preparing a new score for a feature film was a bit too taxing for Chaplin by this time in his life. Along with the new material he composed, Chaplin chose to use some melodies from earlier scores as supplementation. It was to be his last time in the studio.

Even if A Woman of Paris had been a misfire, the fact that it represents a filmmaker with the significance of Chaplin attempting a feature-length dramatic narrative would make it worthy of some discussion. But its place in history is further solidified by its daring to challenge cinematic convention and usher in a new wave of performing for the camera. While audiences of 1923 may have found it too offbeat to accept, today it clearly illustrates yet another example of Chaplin’s genius as a filmmaker.

About The Author

James L. Neibaur is a film historian who has published over 20 books and hundreds of articles including over 40 essays in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. His books include Chaplin at Essanay, Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts (with Terri Niemi), The Jerry Lewis Films (with Ted Okuda), The Clint Eastwood Westerns, The W.C. Fields Films, The Essential Jack Nicholson, and The Monster Movies of Universal Studios.