A Woman of Paris (1923, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Adolphe Menju, Lydia Knott
This is not the sort of film you expect to see in a series on Charlie Chaplin. The main reason being Chaplin only makes an uncredited cameo, face away from the camera as a bellhop. The second reason being this is a very straight drama, with a few moments of humor woven into it. A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first production with United Artists, an independent film production company founded by he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Because there was no studio pressuring Chaplin to make a slapstick comedy, he decided to write, direct and produce a film for his longtime romantic interest, Edna Purviance.
The film follows Marie St. Clair, a young French girl living in a rural village, about to leave with Jean, her fiancee and move to Paris. Both youths’ parents disapprove, and Jean’s father drops dead the night he planned to leave with Marie. Marie is left at the train station by herself, believing Jean has become scared, so she leaves on her own. Cut to a couple years later, and Marie is the mistress of Parisian businessman Pierre Revel. Marie is invited to a party in an unfamiliar quarter of the city and ends up knocking on the wrong door. It ends up being Jean’s apartment with his mother. Jean is now a painter and Marie, hoping to rekindle something they once had before commissions him to paint her portrait. Marie becomes caught up in the comfort provided by Pierre and her lost love for Jean.
The interesting part for me was how the two rivals for Marie are meant to be portrayed one way, but come across the exact opposite. Jean is supposed to be the passionate, compelling artist and Pierre the philanderous cad. However, Pierre is always much more fun to see on screen, even though he treats Marie as a passing fancy. Jean is just too brow beaten by his mother to be sympathetic or likable at all.
The film was a commercial disaster for Chaplin and Purviance both. The public had so solidified Chaplin in their mind as the Little Tramp, so when a film advertising it as his next venture was seen, the audience expected a comedy. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is a unique piece of cinema in his filmography. Chaplin has anticipated the public reaction and on the night of the premiere, and even in the opening credits, there are notices that he does not appear in the picture.
What A Woman in Paris represents in a larger context is Chaplin’s personal declaration of independence. He has fought against the constraints of studios since he took the screen, and now with his own company and crew he could make any film he wanted. The failure of this picture would cause him to return to more familiar territory for his next few ventures, but he would experiment again with the audience’s expectations.