Release Date: 26 September 1923
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 82 minutes
With: Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller, Clarence Geldart, Lydia Knott, Charles K. French
Story: Marie St. Clair, a young rural French woman, moves to Paris becoming the ‘mistress’ of a wealthy Frenchman. Her boyfriend, a young artist, follows her and tries to rekindle their relationship leading to a tragic outcome…
Production: Subtitled ‘A Drama of Fate’, 1923’s A Woman of Paris was 34-year-old Charlie Chaplin’s first proper feature length film (the 1914 Keystone feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance was always more a vehicle for Marie Dressler in which Chaplin—then flavour of the month—guest-starred, although it is counted as a Chaplin flick, as are several Arbuckle and Normand shorts of the same period). It is a film directed by Chaplin—as had been all his shorts and semi-feature length films since his mid-Keystone days—but he doesn’t appear in it, beyond a brief non-Tramp related cameo. It was also a huge failure with the Chaplin-loving public of the 1920s.
The inspiration for A Woman of Paris came from one-time Ziegfeld girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an apparently much-married ‘gold digger’ (the term was coined for her by a newspaper reporter) with whom he had a brief two-week affair in the midst of making The Pilgrim. Mary Pickford’s favourite director, Marshall Neilan introduced them during the summer of 1922—Chaplin biographer David Robinson implies Neilan was looking to get her off his hands! During their limited time together, Joyce regaled Chaplin with tales of her raucous adventures in early-1920s Paris, so laying the groundwork for his ‘drama of fate’. Realising that Chaplin would not be an easy conquest as her prospective sixth millionaire husband, Peggy Hopkins Joyce quickly moved on to romance future MGM ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg, then working at Universal with Erich von Stroheim on Foolish Wives (1922). After his dalliance with Joyce, Chaplin moved on to rekindle his relationship with Pola Negri, who was now in Hollywood set to pursue a screen career of her own.
In 1922 Chaplin had finally got around to building himself a permanent home, located at 1085 Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, close to the Pickfair Estate of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The six-acre site was filled with a self-designed two-storey mansion that included a screening room and a pool shaped like the Tramp’s bowler hat. Known locally as the ‘breakaway house’, Chaplin had used studio carpenters to build parts of it. Used to constructing temporary film sets, their structures were less-than-permanent, so bits had a tendency to fall off. Despite that, the property—where Chaplin stayed for the rest of his period in Hollywood— still stands today, although it was extensively remodelled in 1970. Some lucky purchaser picked it up for a mere $3 million in 1997, according to property records, with the property value having soared to almost $15 million by 2019.
Pola Negri would help Chaplin decorate his new home, and as 1923 dawned the pair were an item in real life and in the pages of the Los Angeles gossip columns. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, with them each accusing the other (with good reason) of repeated infidelity. Their on-and-off engagement served to confuse the press as well as the two participants. By the summer, it was all over with Negri claiming to have walked out on Chaplin. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner she was quoted as declaring: ‘He is too temperamental, as changing as the wind. He dramatizes everything, he experiments in love!’
Four years on from the incorporation of United Artists, Charlie Chaplin was at last free to begin making movies for the upstart talent-focused studio. Pickford and Fairbanks had already been hard at work producing films for the new venture, and they now expected Chaplin to contribute what would no doubt prove to be a highly successful moneymaking comedy (D. W. Griffith, the fourth founder, would drop out of the company the following year, 1924). The independent distributor had been running at a financial loss during its first three years, so a moneymaking Chaplin feature comedy would be very welcome to United Artists’ principals. Instead, always willing to confound expectations, Chaplin declared his intention to make a non-comedic romantic melodrama in which he would not star, much to the horror of his long-suffering partners.
Chaplin had tired of the Tramp and was determined to move on to pastures new—there had to be more to him and his filmmaking than the comic little character he had created almost by accident getting on for a decade ago… Surely his audience would go with him in whatever new direction he decided to take—they would see that there was more to Charlie Chaplin than the Tramp, wouldn’t they? Chaplin’s Destiny (as the film was first titled) would feature a young woman who travels to Paris and becomes the mistress of a rich gentleman (modelled after the stories Peggy Hopkins Joyce had told Chaplin). Her artist former boyfriend follows her, but upon discovering he has lost her love, he shoots himself (this was yet another personal story from Joyce). As Chaplin refined and focused the emerging story in order to tell it in distinctly visual terms, it became more his own creation and less reliant on the tattle tales of Joyce. It was the baldest of melodramas, but Chaplin hoped through his filmic technique to turn the story into something special. As his leading actor Adolphe Menjou noted: ‘Chaplin’s genius transformed the very ordinary story.’
As Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out, Chaplin had been making moves in this more ‘serious’ direction for a while, most notably in The Kid and the incomplete Essanay film Life. As Robinson states, as far back as 1917 Chaplin had attempted to buy the rights to the play The Prodigal Son by Caine Hall, intending to put himself in the ‘straight’ (i.e. non-comedic) title role. Nothing came of that, but the urge to produce something worthy, of a different quality to his knockabout comedies, had clearly driven Chaplin’s direction of creative travel through Mutual and First National.
For the leading role of Marie St. Clair, Chaplin reached out to his own ex, 28-year-old Edna Purviance. Her screen career as a comedienne had suffered a wobble, and she’d turned to drink. Chaplin hoped to help her out by offering her the chance to switch to playing straight drama roles, toying at one time of featuring her as Josephine opposite his own Napoleon (a long held ambition he was not to fulfil, something Chaplin had in common with Stanley Kubrick). Adolphe Menjou was cast as the Parisian gentleman Pierre Revel (pretty much setting the path for the rest of his screen career; ironically, it was a role Chaplin had considered playing himself), while Carl Miller played St. Clair’s spurned suitor Jean Millet, with Lydia Knott and Charles K. French as his parents. Chaplin’s oft-favoured co-star Henry Bergman appeared without credit as a waiter, while Chaplin himself made a cameo appearance (out of his Tramp outfit) as a clumsy porter (oddly, a cameo he more or less repeated in his final film A Countess From Hong Kong, 1977).
Chaplin had his staff production designer Arthur Stibolt create elaborate plans for locations that were in the evolving story outline, many of which ultimately failed to appear in the finished film, including a race track, a jewellery retailer, and an art gallery. According to Robinson’s account, plans were drawn up to rent space at Universal Studios for some more elaborate locations that couldn’t be managed at Chaplin’s own studio, including a church and a hotel. A proposed ending set in Canada called for Stibolt to provide a ‘Canadian street’, among other Northern locations. There was even a suggestion that Chaplin might want to shoot some scenes on location in Paris, for verisimilitude. Chaplin also firmly linked the locations of the movie to the characters that would inhabit them, making sure that the environment reflected their social and economic status as well as giving clues to their emotional states. The contrasts between the Paris apartments of the rich Marie and the impoverished Jean illuminate their individual characters through mise-en-scene. The costumes serve a similar function, as does Jean’s portrait of Marie. He paints her in the plain clothes he better recognises rather than the fancy dress she wears when posing for him. Environments and clothes help build the character contrasts.
Among those helping Chaplin realise his ambitions with A Woman of Paris was Edward Sutherland, a failed actor (he’d been a Keystone Cop in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, 1914) who was later briefly married to Louise Brooks (they hooked up in 1926, but divorced in 1928) and who would go on to become a director in his own right, working with Stan Laurel and W. C. Fields (he and Brooks met on It’s the Old Army Game, 1926). As well as serving as Chaplin’s de facto assistant, Sutherland appeared in A Woman of Paris as an uncredited extra. Chaplin also employed two Frenchmen to ensure accuracy: Comte Jean de Limur, an aspiring actor who’d appeared in Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), and Argentinian-born Henri d’Abbadie d’Arrast—both would go on to become film directors in their own right, with d’Arrast working with Adolphe Menjou.
A Woman of Paris shot for seven months from the end of November 1922, with Chaplin employing his usual method of working without a script, a situation that confused Menjou. Everything was in Chaplin’s head, and the success of the picture would depend upon him communicating this to his actors. It also depended upon careful notation being taken for continuity purposes between scenes and shots so that the final film would adequately cut together. Where Chaplin has several notions, he would shoot variations upon the scene, allowing him ultimately to pick that which best served his purposes during editing. Only a trio of scenes were shot that did not end up in the final film, although many takes were needed of certain scenes before Chaplin was satisfied that he’d achieved the desired effect. Chaplin also filmed A Woman of Paris in strict story order, a technique that has long fallen by the wayside due to expense and the fact that efficiency can be gained by shooting all the scenes required on one particular set (no matter where they occur in the story) before striking that set and moving on, as films are largely made today (there are, of course, exceptions).
In the scene in which Chaplin appears as the careless porter, the effect of an arriving train was famously faked by Chaplin’s cinematographer Rollie Totheroh by having cut out train windows in plywood drawn across a powerful light shining on Edna Purviance’s face. This was further evidence, alongside his innovations on Pay Day, that Totheroh was becoming more ambitious in photographing Chaplin’s films. Chaplin’s uncredited scene, however, drew such laughter from audiences that he shortened it even further to lessen the undesired disruption to the atmosphere of the drama that his comic interlude seemed to be creating (Chaplin was instantly recognised by audiences despite being in partial disguise and the opening text claim that he did not appear in the picture).
A Woman of Paris was without a definitive ending right through to the summer of 1923. That June Chaplin was still juggling various options, including a happy marriage between the Purviance and Menjou characters, emigration for Marie to America or Canada, or her leaving Menjou to devote herself to charitable works, possibly working at a leper colony! Chaplin was moody at the best of times (Robinson’s account has his staff being able to tell his mood in advance depending upon what colour of suit he was wearing—his green suit was said to be a particularly bad omen). Towards the end of filming on A Woman of Paris, he became particularly put out, picking fights with—among others—both Sutherland and Totheroh. He would often apologise later, but it made for a fraught working atmosphere at the Chaplin studio.
With A Woman of Paris, Charlie Chaplin proved to be something of an unsung pioneer in the field of screen acting and directing. He worked closely with the actors, instilling in them a ‘less is more’ approach to screen acting, a counter to the more emotive style (derived from the theatre) that had, up until them, pervaded silent film, especially melodrama. Chaplin had learned through his years of filmmaking, from the broad comic strokes of his Keystone days through to the more subtle work at First National, that the slightest emotion came over well on giant theatre screens. There was no need for extreme hand wringing, swooning, and dramatic gestures to get across the emotions of the characters; the slightest indication of a thought crossing a face would be enough in a close-up to convey the inner anguish the character was feeling. In this way, Chaplin began to lay the foundations of all modern screen acting.
For Chaplin, the direction he offered his actors on A Woman of Paris was instinctual. Although he had years of experience behind him, and repeated viewing of his own work had taught him much in terms of screen technique, this was his first proper ‘straight’ drama. He knew what he didn’t like, but he had no conscious rationale for what he wanted to achieve. He said he just knew that it ‘felt’ right. Adolphe Menjou, once he’d surpassed his own confusion about what Chaplin wanted, came to regard his director as a genius of the screen. ‘The word “genius” is used very carelessly in Hollywood,’ the actor said after his experience on A Woman of Paris, ‘but when it is said of Chaplin, it is always with a special note of sincerity. If Hollywood has ever produced a genius, Chaplin is certainly first choice.’
Chaplin had exhorted Menjou to not ‘sell’ his acting but to be subtle about it. He also worked closely with Purviance on the same approach, often resulting in many takes of a scene until he felt the actors had reached the right level of naturalism in their depiction of the characters. He wanted then to simply ‘be’ rather than to ‘act’. Other directors took notice, with Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell in particular pointing to Chaplin’s example on A Woman of Paris as opening up a new style of screen acting, one they were keen to follow in their own work. Powell said, ‘Suddenly, there was a grown-up film with people behaving as they do in real life’.
By the end of June, Chaplin had locked down the conclusion of his film, capturing the moment that Menjou and a friend obliviously drive by Purviance while musing on her fate (and making it clear that Menjou’s Revel was not all that interested). It had been over a year since Chaplin had begun drafting the scenario for the film but it was finally finished, at the cost of 130,000 feet of film (edited down to just 7,500 feet for 82 minutes) and $351,000. Chaplin’s final act was to settle upon a title, working his way through the likes of The Melody of Life, Social Customs, Public Opinion, Time and Destiny, Human Nature, and Love, Ladies, and Life (his motto, perhaps), before settling upon the more descriptive A Woman of Paris.
A Woman of Paris was not what audiences expected from Charlie Chaplin. Where was the Little Tramp? Where were the laughs? What was with the depressing melodrama? Additionally, audiences were not ready for the new approach to acting that Chaplin was pioneering, and many rejected it on that basis. Chaplin’s popularity as a beloved comic, in the character of the Tramp, counted against him in this attempt to break out of that narrow definition and broaden his filmmaking horizons. Although Chaplin had gone to great lengths to prepare the public for the fact that A Woman of Paris would be a different kind of Chaplin film, his efforts appear to have been wasted. At the premiere, he had distributed flyers highlighting how the film diverged from his normal work, but that he hoped audiences would find it enjoyable nonetheless. Largely, they didn’t. An opening on screen declaration that Chaplin would not be featured in the film that followed probably served to put many off before the drama even began to unspool.
Many critics, however, saw what Chaplin was trying to do and rated the film highly. Even Mary Pickford, who had wanted another Tramp comedy from Chaplin as his first film for United Artists was won over by A Woman of Paris. ‘[Chaplin’s film] allows us to think for ourselves and does not constantly underestimate our intelligence,’ she said. ‘It is a gripping human story throughout and the director allows the situations to play themselves [out]. The actors simply react the emotions of the audience. Charlie Chaplin is the greatest director of the screen. He’s a pioneer. How he knows women! Oh, how he knows women! I do not cry easily when seeing a picture, but after seeing Charlie’s A Woman of Paris I was all choked up—I wanted to go out in the garden and have it out by myself.’
While the public did not take to Chaplin’s ‘serious drama’, the critics loved it. In The New York Herald Robert Sherwood wrote ‘There is more real genius in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris than in any picture I have ever seen … Chaplin has proved many times that he understand humanity, he has leavened his hilariously broad comedy with elements of poignant tragedy. He has caught and conveyed the contrast between joy and sorrow which makes existence on this terrestrial ball as interesting as it is.’ Exceptional Photoplays noted of A Woman of Paris that it ‘has the one quality almost every motion picture that has been made to date lacks—restraint. The acting is moving without ever being fierce, the story is simple and realistic without ever being inane, the settings are pleasing without ever being colossally stupid. The result is a picture of dignity and intelligence and the effect is startling because it is so unusual.’
Chaplin was, however, downhearted by the wider reception given to A Woman of Paris. Rather than offer Edna Purviance a new career direction, it was the beginning of the end for her on the screen; she would make only two more films before withdrawing from acting altogether. Chaplin withdrew the film shortly after its release, making it unavailable in any form for many decades. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, he would re-edit the movie (cutting it down to 78 minutes, five minutes shorter than the 1923 release), adding a new musical score of his own composition. It is oddly fitting that this film should be the last he worked on for it’s 1976 re-release, just a year before Chaplin died. Just one week after the original 1923 release and disappointing audience reaction to A Woman of Paris, Chaplin declared that ‘unless my feelings undergo a marked change, I am going right back to comedy!’ His next film would be one of his greatest comedies, The Gold Rush (1925).
Trivia: Unthinkable today, but back in the 1920s films would be subject to the whims of local censorship boards or even just easily offended projectionists. While A Woman of Paris passed the New York Board of censors unscathed, the film was not so lucky in Ohio and Maryland. Vernon Rigel, head censor in Ohio admitted the artistic merit of the movie, but insisted upon editing it to make the central characters conduct themselves ‘as a lady and gentleman should conduct themselves towards one another’, by—among other changes—adding a title card to explain that Marie St. Clair inherited her money from a wealthy aunt. Similarly, in Maryland Marie’s opulent lifestyle was not due to her ‘kept woman’ status but instead because of her high earnings as an acclaimed actress! Such changes to a filmmaker’s work today would be unthinkable without the filmmaker’s consent.
Charlie Says: ‘I have been thinking the public wants a little more realism in pictures, whereby a story is pursued to the logical ending. In my first serious drama, A Woman of Paris, I’ve striven for realism, true to life… the beauty, the sadness, the gaiety, all of which are necessary to make life interesting. The story is simple, intimate, and human, presenting a problem as old as the ages, showing it with as much proof as I am allowed to put into it, giving it a treatment as near to realism as I have been able to devise.’—Charlie Chaplin, extract from a Programme Note presented at the New York premiere of A Woman of Paris on 1 October 1923.
‘As I have noticed life in its dramatic climaxes, men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them. And that is the method I have pursued in an endeavour to become as realistic as possible [in filmmaking].’—Charlie Chaplin, in an interview with a New York newspaper.
Verdict: It may not look as ground-breaking now, almost 100 years later, but there can be no doubt that Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris was a significant step forward in the art of naturalistic filmmaking. It’s often overlooked as a footnote in Chaplin’s filmography (along with A Countess From Hong Kong) as it doesn’t feature Chaplin nor the Tramp, but it was just the latest attempt by Chaplin to forge his own path in Hollywood (and, later, beyond) and has to be engaged with on its own terms.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: The Gold Rush (1925)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
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