A Woman of Paris
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A Woman of Paris (1923) was Charlie Chaplin's dramatic film debut, an attempt to prove he could do more than comedy and didn't need to star in a film to appeal to his audience. The sophisticated melodrama stars Chaplin's onetime lover, Edna Purviance, as Marie St. Clair.
The film opens with Marie planning to escape suffocating parents and her provincial village for Paris with her betrothed, Jean Millet (Carl Miller). But the sudden death of Jean's father keeps him from meeting Marie at the train station. The deeply wounded Marie boards the train for Paris alone. By the next scene, a year later, Marie has become the mistress of the city's wealthiest bachelor - and most notorious rake Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou) who lavishes Marie with material things, but is promised in marriage to an heiress.
When Jean reenters Marie's life, the second chance at happiness he offers is soon dashed by his mother's fears that he would be marrying the "wrong" kind of girl in the compromised Marie. A love sick Jean kills himself, and in a dramatically unexpected conclusion -- that Chaplin labored endlessly over -- Marie atones by running a rural orphanage with Jean's mother.
Chaplin's idea for A Woman of Paris's shocking love triangle came from Chaplin's "bizarre but brief" affair with Peggy Hopkins Joyce in 1922. Joyce was an international party girl and former Ziegfeld Follies dancer who was married to more than several millionaires in her lifetime and regaled Chaplin with tales of her romantic adventures while living in Paris. Some have claimed that it was Joyce's often financially rewarding romantic exploits which inspired the term "gold digger."
Though Joyce provided the story's inspiration, some have said the two romantic rivals Pierre and Jean in A Woman of Paris represented the dual aspects of Chaplin's personality, rake and romantic. By the same token the character of Marie St. Clair echoed certain aspects of Edna Purviance's own circumstance as a woman scorned by the womanizing Chaplin. Ironically, though Chaplin gave Purviance the role in A Woman of Paris as a last kindness after their failed relationship, it turned out to do little for her career, instead virtually ending it.
If the performances in A Woman of Paris are any indication, then the rake side of Chaplin must have won out. For while Carl Miller is less than memorable and rarely sympathetic as the mother-dominated, ill-fated artist Jean, Menjou is superb as the polished, seductive Pierre, based on Joyce's lover and prominent Parisian publisher Henri Letellier.
Menjou attributed his acting success to Chaplin. "Within a few days I realized that I was going to learn more about acting from Chaplin than I had ever learned from any director." Chaplin emphasized restraint over the theater and silent cinema's showy gesticulations, reminding his actors to "think the scene" rather than conveying feelings through gesture. Ernst Lubitsch who arrived in America the year of A Woman of Paris's release, claimed the film as a direct influence on the sophisticated treatment of romantic imbroglios in his own films.
New York Herald critic Robert Sherwood (future author of novels such as The Petrified Forest, 1934) said of A Woman of Paris "there is more real genius in Charles Chaplin's A Woman of Paris than in any picture I have ever seen." Other critics were no less effusive, comparing its director to Hardy, de Maupassant and Ibsen. Such praise seems surprising now, but at the time the understated performances and the novelty of the characters -- a morally divided heroine, a likable rake and a weak romantic hero -- felt radical to reviewers like one at Britain's Manchester Guardian who called the film "the greatest modern story that the screen has yet seen."
But despite the critical accolades, the film was a box office failure. Chaplin's fans wanted to see the actor performing his usual comic role (though he does appear briefly as a clumsy porter in the scene where Marie waits for the train to Paris), and not stepping behind the camera to direct an uncharacteristic drama.
Producer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh, Jack Wilson
Production Design: Arthur Stibolt
Music: Charles Chaplin, Louis F. Gottschalk
Cast: Edna Purviance (Marie St. Clair), Clarence Geldart (Marie's Father), Carl Miller (Jean Millet), Lydia Knott (Jean's Mother), Charles K. French (Jean's Father), Adolphe Menjou (Pierre Revel), Betty Morrissey (Fifi), Malvina Polo (Paulette).
by Felicia Feaster