Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's A Woman of Paris Movie Review

In 1923 Charlie Chaplin released his second feature film, A Woman of Paris. Although this film is all but forgotten because Chaplin is remembered for his classic comedies, there is a lot of value in this rare drama from one of the greatest clowns of the silent era. Chaplin had wanted to create a serious drama for his long time leading lady Edna Purviance, who had starred alongside him in a great number of comedies. As she got older and more mature, he felt she was no longer suited to comedic roles.

But A Woman of Paris reveals that Chaplin could be equally impressive writing and directing drama. Before watching this film and certainly before I knew anything about it, I was asking myself if any film maker of that time was making contemporary human dramas. Just about everything that has survived from the period is either comedy, period epic (Ben Hur and The Birth of a Nation) or adventure (the films of Douglas Fairbanks). As it turns out, A Woman of Paris was actually one of the first of its kind. King Vidor’s great film The Crowd is another such example, but that was five years later. I learned by from Chaplin historian David Robinson that Chaplin’s film defied conventions in several ways by having the film’s heroine be a courtesan, the hero is weak and the presumed villain is debonair and amusing. Apparently also at a time when Hollywood held parents in high regard, here was a film that depicted mothers and fathers as the basic cause of the characters’ tragic fate.

Purviance’s title character is Marie, a young woman who lives in a small village outside Paris. She is held captive by a domineering father who then refuses to allow her back inside after she sneaks out to meet her boyfriend, Jean (Carl Miller). They make plans to run off to Paris together, but Jean’s father objects and won’t give entry to Marie. The father then dies suddenly on the night the young lovers are supposed to leave. Marie feels jilted and goes on her own. The film jumps ahead one year and Marie basically has a sugar daddy who keeps her housed, clothed and fed in lavish style. This wealthy man is Pierre (Adolphe Menjou) and he is soon to be married to another wealthy socialite, but he doesn’t see why that means his relationship with Marie has to change. Marie sees families on the street and dreams of a ‘normal’ life. When Jean reenters her life, she decides to leave Pierre, but then she overhears Jean telling his mother that he would never marry Marie.

The plot is very melodramatic. To read a description might give the impression that the film is all big gestures and grandstanding. I was surprised by the realness of the acting especially from Menjou (no surprise he went on to a successful career in talking films). The style of acting is an incredible departure from what we see in Chaplin’s comedy which demands big expressions and wild gesticulation to convey the emotion without spoken dialogue. We see similar acting styles in the adventure and epic films of the period. But Chaplin showed he could direct dramatic acting and make it look convincing in a whole new way.

To watch the film without the credits, you’d never know that it was written and directed by Chaplin. Aside from a walk on cameo in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock (although this predates Hitchcock’s practice by four years), Chaplin doesn’t appear in the film. Anyone looking to explore the Chaplin we generally know and love could easily skip A Woman in Paris as it has little bearing on his comedy work. But if you’re interested in the full experience and want to see how his profound sadness in life could be transmuted into a moving film, this is a good place to start. After all, his best work in comedy blended laughs with big emotions. Think about The Kid with its heart-wrenching scene of the child being stripped away from The Tramp’s clutches or City Lights and its poignant ending when the once-blind girl recognizes The Tramp as her benefactor. The dramatic moments that make his comedies so memorable come from the same place that created this undervalued film.

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