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A Woman of Paris
Charlie Chaplin's Forgotten Masterpiece
by Garen Ewing © 1997 & 2005

Marie and Jean
Jean (Carl Miller ) and Marie (Edna Purviance). Publicity still.
When you mention Charlie Chaplin to anyone, an image forms of a little fellow wearing a bowler hat and carrying a cane, waddling along with an oversized jacket, baggy trousers and with splayed feet occupying worn out shoes; always at the ready to plant a kick firmly into the butt of a mustachioed heavy, win the heart of a local belle, then carry on into the sunset and another adventure.If you went to see a Charlie Chaplin film, those are some the things you might expect. What you'd get would include, not only these popular elements of Charlie's tramp character, but quite often a well worked out and original plot, always some completely unexpected piece of business resulting in surprise and laughter and, cliché though it may be, a tear and a smile within the space of a few minutes.

A Woman of Paris, on the surface, might disappoint you in that case. This Charlie Chaplin film has no little fellow causing chaos and romance, and a glance over the plot outline would probably reveal that all your fears about the outdated form of the silent film were true. It certainly does seem the kind of story that would provide actors with plenty of opportunity for throwing their arms up in the air, rolling their widened eyes, swooning periodically and pointing in various meaningful directions dramatically.

Actually seeing A Woman of Paris would instantly dismiss most of these fears at once. It puts the case for the silent film genre forward with its best foot, and is a film that was instrumental in placing naturalistic acting firmly onto the cinema screen, as well as including several scenes that have their own place in film history. Though difficult to imagine today, it also broke the mould for various stock Hollywood character types. Why then, isn't it up there alongside Citizen Kane, The Seven Samurai or Singin' In The Rain? First and foremost, it is a silent film, and they haven't been in favour for seventy-five years or so, and truthfully it isn't the best of the silents - many better ones came after, and some would successfully argue that a few came before. Despite its innovation, it did not do at all well at the box office and Chaplin quickly buried the film in his vaults, resurfacing it only in 1977 to write a new musical score.

United Artists
Fairbanks, Chaplin, Griffith and
Pickford - the United Artists.
The critics were ecstatic about it in 1923 and called it a work of art, but mass audiences wanted popular entertainment, not art films, and didn't like the idea of a Charlie Chaplin film with few laughs and in which he didn't, apparently, even make an appearance. Some cities banned A Woman of Paris after its star, Edna Purviance, was present at a non-fatal shooting in which Mabel Normand's chauffeur shot oil magnate Courtland Dines. Other cities exercised their puritanical censorship laws on the film, disguising any hint of immoral behaviour in the picture with cut scenes or new title cards, and in Kansas all scenes which showed people smoking were censored resulting in what must have played as a bewildering mess. Chaplin, however, though distressed at the box office failure of the film, was very proud of it, and Paris was one of his favourites after The Gold Rush.
Peggy Hopkins Joyce
Peggy Hopkins Joyce in The Skyrocket (1926)

He had just been released from his contract with First National after making his final film, The Pilgrim, for them and, much to the relief of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W Griffith, was at last able to make a film for United Artists and a financial contribution to the company he had helped found. He had long wanted to make a dramatic feature and was also able to use it as a star vehicle for Edna Purviance, his leading lady since 1915, now that he felt she was no longer quite the right person for his comedies. The core idea for the film came almost entirely from one source - Chaplin's meeting with an ex-Ziegfeld girl called Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the original 'gold digger'. Peggy managed to have several millionaire husbands, as well as a relationship with the Parisian publisher Henri Letillier, and was somewhat proud of the fact that one of her admirers had actually committed suicide over her. She also confided to him that all she really wanted was a home and babies. Chaplin took this raw material and turned it into a story during the second half of 1922. Originally the title for the picture was Destiny, while later names included Melody of Life, Human Nature and The Stars Incline.

Chaplin had constantly made fun of melodrama in his comedies. One of his stock routines, always very funny, was to react to something using the typical over-dramatic gestures of stage and screen tragedy, and then to completely undermine it with a wonderful physical understatement. He was perfectly aware that a camera captured subtlety very well and that the stage acting of the day was too much for cinema. In A Woman of Paris he used this philosophy to its full, giving the characters on screen a naturalness that was rarely, if at all, seen in films before then. The male lead in the film, the charismatic Adolphe Menjou, was very impressed with Chaplin's direction in this respect and thought of his words, 'remember, they're peeking at you!', as useful advice for the rest of his movie career.

Chaplin didn't use a script for shooting - he had the story in his head, and filmed the entire picture in sequence. The opening scene takes place in the country village where Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) and Jean Millet (Carl Miller) are planning to elope, their relationship being against the wishes of their respective fathers. It was Carl Miller who played the artist and father of Edna's child in The Kid - another angle to the Paris plot? The Kid also featured a destitute Edna whose fortunes later change enabling her to care for poor children, and one wonders about the fantasy aspect of this in regards to Charlie's own mother and childhood.

Marie in her room
An oppressive father.
A simple scene as Marie is packing to leave home is pure silent cinema, realising the language of the moving visual image beautifully in its simplicity and skill. She turns from the window into the hallway to fetch a candle from the wall. While at the top of the stairs she gives an apprehensive glance over the banister before returning to her room, which is fairly plain, a crucifix hanging from the wall. Her father ascends the stairs. At first only his oppressive shadow is visible (later, when we see Jean's father, he too first appears as a shadow on the stairs). Marie hears him and looks to the door warily. Her father pauses outside, then locks the door, taking the key with him, a stern and resigned look upon his face. This scene doesn't necessarily stand out, but is just one example of the poetry of silent film. Exposition in the sound era can be all too easy with vocal explanation, sometimes leading to bad storytelling and superfluous characters. Silent cinema conveys information through purely visual means, stretching the creativity of the director and actors, and involving the viewer on a subjective level which no talkie could quite do again. With A Woman of Paris, Chaplin excelled in this art in some wonderfully memorable scenes.

One such clip, which Edna played to perfection, is marvellously constructed. Marie's two friends have seen an announcement in the morning paper declaring the upcoming marriage of Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), Marie's playboy lover, and another woman. Marie knows nothing of it. They show her the paper. After a second glancing at it she laughs it off, puts it down and nonchalantly lights a cigarette, sits back, gives another little dismissive laugh and picks it up for another brief look (her eyes linger on the other girl's picture before moving down to the text) before declaring, 'well, such is life!'. Within all this are the tiny giveaways of suppressed shock, hidden feelings and keeping face. The subtlety tells all, it is pure character and emotion.

Keeping up appearances
"Well, such is life."
Another scene is just as clever, but is used to convey facts rather than feelings. Chaplin wanted to show that Pierre was not just a casual visitor to Marie's apartment, but that he was more at home there than might be expected of a single girl living on her own. A piece of business was devised in which Pierre comes by to pick up Marie for an evening out. First of all, Pierre helps himself to a glass of wine, then he searches his pocket for a handkerchief. Finding none, he walks into Marie's bedroom whilst she is still getting ready - she doesn't even look up - and from the top drawer of a chiffonier takes out a gentleman's handkerchief, before walking back out. In an instant this establishes the intimacy of their relationship clearly. Like the famous scene where the flower girl mistakes the tramp for a rich man in City Lights, it tells so much with so little, the zenith of visual storytelling.

Two more sequences are memorable for entirely different reasons. Earlier in the picture Marie is waiting for the train which is to take her to Paris. When it arrives, all we see are the lights of the windows as they pass across the platform. This was dictated by economy and the trouble of recreating a French train for filming, but is actually extremely effective. All it required was for Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin's dedicated cameraman, to draw a ten foot piece of board, with window shapes cut in it, across a spotlight, casting the moving light on Edna's face. Incidentally, it is just before this that Chaplin makes his uncredited three-second appearance in the film, heavily disguised as a railway porter, but exuding the comedy in motion he's so good at, and usually resulting in a chuckle from the audience.

Portrait of the past
"Why bring up the past?."
The influence of A Woman of Paris on later films might be seen quite evidently in, for instance, Carol Reed's The Third Man from 1949. In the film Anna Schmidt indicates the closeness of her relationship with Harry Lime by going straight to his bedside table and taking some dice from a box. Later, when Holly and Anna are at Vienna station, a train moves away - seen only by the reflecting lights from its windows, almost exactly as in Paris, and surely using the same technique.

The other sequence sees Marie asking Jean to paint her portrait, having discovered him living as an artist in the city with his mother. She has pointedly chosen a rich looking silver dress, entirely representative of her new life, to be painted in, though Jean tells her she can't see the portrait until it is finished. Disobeying him, she pulls the cover away - it is Marie as Jean knew her in the simpler days of their life together in the village and it moves the plot forward with an emotional charge.

If there is to be any great criticism of the film, then it might be found in the ending, where Jean's mother and Marie return to country life to help raise orphans. It is a bit schmaltzy and would be a let down if the final scenes were to be of the two surrounded by lots of cute little children, whilst they repented their sins of the world. Thankfully this isn't the case and the very end shows Pierre Revel passing Marie on a dusty country road without realising, as his secretary asks him 'whatever became of Marie St. Clair?' to which he shrugs indifference. They travel one way in their fine car, whilst Marie, blissfully unaware too of the passing, travels the other on the back of an old cart.

One final thing I personally enjoy about the film is comparing it in some ways to F.W Murnau's wonderful Sunrise. The two films have similar themes - love, tragedy, a country to city and back experience, yet also fascinating differences. They make an excellent double bill.

Going down...... their different paths.
"By the way, whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?."

A Woman of Paris (US and UK) / L'Opinion Publique (France)
United Artists

In Production: 27th November 1922 to 29th September 1923. The film cost $351,853, and consisted of 3,862 takes covering 130,115 feet of film, edited down to a final 7,557 feet.
Premiere: 26 September 1923 at the Criterion Theatre in Hollywood and 1 October 1923 at the Lyric Theatre in New York. Reissued in 1978 with a new score composed by Chaplin.
(A Woman of Paris became available on DVD in the UK with the Chaplin boxed set from MK2 Editions 22 September 2003 - see the Chaplin UK DVD and Video Guide.)

A revelation in the art of photo dramatics!

Advertisement in the January 1924 Sacramento Bee. Courtesy the Linda Wada collection - ednapurviance.org

Edna Purviance
Marie St. Clair
1895-1958. Chaplin's leading lady from 1915-1923
Adolphe Menjou
Pierre Revel
1890-1963. Also in The Three Musketeers and The Sheik. Later roles included Paths of Glory (Kubrick) and Pollyanna
Carl Miller
Jean Millet
1893-1979. Also in The Kid, other films include Cinderella of the Hills and The Redeeming Sin
Lydia Knott
Jean's Mother
1866-1955. Adept at playing sweet old ladies, busy character player in the 1920-30's, mother of writer/director Lambert Hillyer
Charles French
Jean's Father
1860-1952. Other films include A True Indian's Heart and The Coward and Destry Rides Again
Clarence Geldert
Marie's Step-Father
1867-1935. Other films include In Love with Life and The Thirteenth Chair
Betty Morrissey
1908-1944. Also appeared in The Gold Rush and The Circus
Malvina Polo
1903-2000. Daughter of actor Eddie Polo. She also appeared in Captain Kidd and Stroheim's Foolish Wives
Henry Bergman
Head Waiter
1868-1946. A mainstay of the Chaplin company since The Pawnshop in 1916, his last film being Modern Times
Nellie Bly Baker
1893-1984. Charlie Chaplin's Studio secretary. Also appeared in The Kid and Josef Von Sternberg's The Salvation Hunters, played many maids, and a masseuese again in That Model from Paris
Bess Flowers
1898-1984. Small roles in many films including It Happened One Night, The Shadow and Rear Window
Charles Chaplin
1889-1977. Writer and director, actor and composer
Also: Frank Coghlan Jr, Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, Jean de Limur, Karl Gutman, Harry Northrup, Philip Sleeman and Eddie Sutherland
Visit ednapurviance.org

All photographs and the Little Tramp image are © Roy Export Company Establishment 2004. CHARLES CHAPLIN, CHAPLIN, the LITTLE TRAMP, the film stills, and the names of Mr. Chaplin's films are all trademarks and/or service marks of Bubble Inc. S.A. Article © Garen Ewing 1997 & 2004, not to be reproduced without permission. The Woman of Paris newspaper advertisement is used with the permission of Linda Wada. Other images from the author's own collection. This is not an official site.

All content © Garen Ewing 2009 (unless otherwise stated). Please do not use anything from this website without contacting me first, thanks.