Released: 12 July 1915, Essanay
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Duration: approx. 26 mins.
With: Charles Insley, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Billy Armstrong, Leo White, Margie Reiger
Story: The Tramp meets Edna and her parents in a park and later (for reasons too complicated to summarise) has to dress as a woman to fool her father!
Production: A Woman—the last of a trio of Charlie Chaplin comedies in which he cross-dresses—was clearly the most successful. His previous comedic turns in a dress included both A Busy Day and The Masquerader, but it is only in this film that he seriously attempts to convince the viewer as a bonafide female impersonator.
According to critic Walter Kerr, one of Chaplin’s key attributes was that of impersonation: ‘The secret of Chaplin as a character is that he can be anyone. … the man who can with the flick of a finger or the blink of an eyelash, instantly transform himself into absolutely anyone is a man who, in his heart, must remain no one. Infinitely adaptable, Chaplin now has no one identity to embrace. [He has] no limitations.’
Perhaps his turns in both A Busy Day and The Masquerader had shown Chaplin he did have some limitations in at least one department. Admittedly, in A Busy Day he was barely trying to convince anyone he was really a female character: it was just Charlie/the Tramp in a dress, essentially. It was slightly different with the set-up of The Masquerader, where the Tramp does set out to convince the motion picture director he is actually a completely different person, to mixed effect. It is only in A Woman, however, that Chaplin final goes all out to try and actually play a female character in order to genuinely fool someone else.
Taking on the role for Chaplin was—according to biographer David Robinson—a ‘tempting exercise. Female attire suited him disturbingly well. The role gave [him] scope for a whole new range of character mime. … The female impersonation is remarkable.’ Indeed, female impersonation, long a staple of theatrical types, had been given a new sense of acceptability by Julian Eltinge. Born in 1881, Eltinge had been performing female roles on the stage from the age of 10. He would later appear in films finding success from 1917, when he starred in The Countess Charming, and then co-starred with Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe (of the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal infamy) in 1918’s The Isle of Love, which also featured Chaplin co-star Leo White. The Great Depression and the end of vaudeville (where he performed as a woman, only revealing at the end of his turn that he was, in fact, male) put paid to Eltinge’s career and he died in 1941 aged just 59. Despite the growing acceptance of female impersonations (something Laurel and Hardy would make a great play of in their later films), such was the concern in 1915 about Chaplin’s taboo busting in A Woman, the film was banned in Scandinavia until the 1930s. In Britain, the country’s censor the BBFC initially rejected the film for release when first submitted for approval in March 1915. Shortly thereafter, the British censor relented and A Woman was approved for British distribution under the title Charlie, the Perfect Lady.
Variety founding editor Sime Silverman wrote of Chaplin’s material that ‘the Censor Board is passing matter in the Chaplin films that could not possibly get by in other pictures.’ Across America at this time, individual films were subject to the censorship of local censorship boards or other civic ‘worthies’ who set themselves up as such. The Chicago Tribune complained that Chaplin’s new film was simply his ‘latest and most deplorable break into the realm of suggestive slapstick’. Local Chicago censor Major Metillus L. C. Funkhouser (yes, really) of the Chicago police was responsible for the cutting of various elements from A Woman, including (according to a list published contemporaneously in the Chicago Tribune): ‘Woman kicking man; Woman picking man’s pocket in park; All scenes of man minus trousers; All scenes of man in bedroom showing him dressing up as a woman; All scenes showing extraction of hatpin from man’s anatomy; Man pulling skirt off woman and subsequent vulgar sections; Picture with father giving couple blessings.’ All of which is pretty funny stuff looked at from today’s perspective, especially when it is considered that Major Funkhouser’s apparent hobby was to host private screenings of all the material censored from films cut for public consumption. Aware of his private predilections, a critic for the Tribune is said to have stated: ‘Major Funkhouser should be soundly spanked and sat in a corner until he behaves.’
Contemporary critic Fred Goodwins wrote of the attacks on Chaplin provoked by both his drag turn in A Woman and his gag with the naked statue in his previous short, Work: ‘His fame was at its zenith here in America when suddenly the critics made a dead set at him. … They roasted his work wholesale, called it crude, ungentlemanly, risqué, and even indecent.’ These attacks supposedly caused Chaplin to shift gears and, with his next film, The Bank, produce something he called ‘clean, clever, dramatic … with a big laugh at the end.’ The response suggests that Chaplin was sensitive to and responsive to criticism. It was, however, inevitable given the incredible Chaplin-mania of the first few months of 1915 that there would be an (albeit short-lived) critical backlash against the Tramp and his creator.
A Woman was the first film Chaplin made from his new Essanay base in LA, the Majestic Studios located at 651 Fairview Avenue in Boyle Heights, then regarded as a ‘Jewish neighbourhood’ in Los Angeles (the area was the original location of the famous Cantor’s Deli). This meant Chaplin relocating a few miles East of the Bradbury Mansion where he’d shot Work. Most of A Woman, though, was actually filmed in and around Eastlake Park (known as Lincoln Park after 1917), befitting this variation on the old Keystone park comedy. Eastlake Park had previously been home to William Selig’s zoo and Selig Polyscope Company movie studio from 1911.
Chaplin’s cross-dressing in A Woman is in service of a proto-feminist message. The film opens with the Tramp coming to the aid of a woman in a local park who is being disturbed by a pair of lechers. Despite this, the Tramp himself goes on to pick up a different woman (Edna Purviance), who introduces him to her mother and invites him home to dinner. When Edna’s father and his friend arrive home, the Tramp realises that they are the lechers from the park whom he had tackled earlier. He escapes them, and while upstairs at the house makes himself over: gone is the moustache, and with the help of some of Edna’s accoutrements, the Tramp reappears, this time as a woman. It is his way of testing Edna’s father, of revealing the man’s true nature to his daughter and his wife. In the words of Chaplin biographer Kenneth S. Lynn, ‘His lovely, pincushion-enhanced embonpoint and fluttery gestures drive the lechers wild.’
Despite this potential social and political angle, A Woman is something of a slight step backwards following the progress made in the previous two shorts, The Tramp and Work. The first half is essentially a glorified ‘park’ comedy of the type we’re overly familiar with from the Keystone days, and which by now Chaplin was way beyond in terms of character and cinematic technique, at least in potential if not actual deliverance. If it had not been for the convincing female impersonation in the second half, it is doubtful that A Woman would be regarded as particularly notable at all.
In terms of cinematic technique, Chaplin developed the use of the close-up in A Woman, something he’d sparingly but notably dabbled with before. Ironically, the significant close-up here is reserved not for Chaplin in his Tramp guise, but when he has discarded his male persona and adopted female clothing. It as if he was challenging his viewers to look at him afresh, without his distinctive and trademark moustache, but yet not as himself as he appeared off-screen (when he was largely unrecognisable to most as the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ from the films). The point being, perhaps, that there was more to this little fellow than a knockabout clown, as he would go on to prove in his future filmmaking endeavours.
Trivia: Upon moving into the Majestic Studios, which was to be his new LA base, Chaplin had all the locks changed and a new security system installed, so paranoid was he about his competitors stealing his ‘secrets’. Biographer Peter Ackroyd even claims that Essanay went so far as to build an embankment around the studio to deter curious interlopers.
The Contemporary View: ‘Chaplin needs a scenario writer, and if he doesn’t Essanay does. In comedy pictures as much fun may be secured through a situation, with the humour starting at the suggestion of that situation, as by the actual comedy work involved in it. This is what is missing in the Essanay Chaplin film, the situation. Chaplin needs a scenario writer very, very badly. Too much money could not be paid the man who could fit Charlie Chaplin in his present brand of comedy as he should be fitted.’—Sime Silverman, Variety, reviewing A Woman.
Slapstick: Apart from the usual knockabout stuff in the park (with the usual suspects taking an involuntary dip in the lake), it is in the domestic setting that Chaplin rolls out a few new(ish) routines. His table manners are somewhat lacking for ‘society’ as he gargles his tea and uses a long knife to retrieve donuts (which slide down the shaft and off the handle onto the plates). Meeting Edna’s father once again results in an altercation and a strangulation, before the Tramp loses his trousers and has his long johns soaked thanks to Edna’s ticklish trigger finger on a soda syphon. Trying to escape to the outside, the Tramp’s trouser-less appearance puts the wind up a group of old women, resulting in him returning to the house. Hiding upstairs, a mannequin gives him the idea of adopting an unusual disguise, but first the mannequin has to be undressed with the upmost respect for its modesty. A pin cushion is pressed into service as a makeshift bosom, but the moustache is almost disturbingly forgotten until it is pointed out by Edna, who doesn’t seem to mind having a transvestite boyfriend (ahead of her time was Edna). The cheeky close-up (and glance to camera) confirms the Tramp’s new identity and challenges the viewer to raise an objection. Introduced as Edna’s ‘college chum’, the new Tramp has a knockout effect on her father and his friend (who is distracted from seemingly romancing Edna’s mother). A final fracas sees friend and Tramp forcibly ejected from the once happy home.
Verdict: Yes, Chaplin makes for a convincing woman, but that’s all there is to this slight outing, 2/5
Next: The Bank (9 August 1915)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.