A Woman of Paris Review


In a small French vilage, Marie St Clair (Edna Purviance) plans to leave with her fiancé Jean (Carl Miller), but the sudden death of his father prevents him meeting Marie at the station, so she leaves alone. In time, Marie becomes a figure on the social scene and soon attracts the attention of rich playboy Pierre (Adolphe Menjou). Then Jean finally reaches Paris...

They say a clown often wants to play Hamlet, and sometimes he or she gets the chance. A Woman of Paris was Chaplin's change of pace, and while it was critically well-received the public stayed away. If it had been more successful, would we now be talking, as we did with Woody Allen six decades later, of Chaplin's "early, funny ones"? He returned to comedy for the rest of his career, but increasingly based his comedy on things which in themselves aren't funny at all: real-life tragedy in his next feature, The Gold Rush, the rise of Nazism in The Great Dictator, not forgetting the very black comedy of Monsieur Verdoux . Even the warmly nostalgic Limelight has a story which is kicked into motion by a suicide attempt. A Woman of Paris remains his only non-comic feature, but if it seems like a diversion in his career it was clearly a necessary one for him.

Chaplin had wanted to make a dramatic film for a while. Along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, he had set up United Artists and A Woman of Paris was his first film for the new company. In an effort to manage the audience's expectations, the film begins after the title card with a disclaimer signed by Chaplin that he does not appear in the film and that it is not a comedy. In fact, Chaplin does give himself an uncredited walk-on near the start, barely recognisable as a railway porter. However, the film was intended as a vehicle for the acting talents of Chaplin's frequent leading lady – and former lover – Edna Purviance.

Olga Edna Purviance was born in Nevada in 1895, six years younger than Chaplin. (Her surname, by the way, is pronounced "pur-vye-ance", with the stress on the middle syllable, not "pervy-ants".) She first costarred with Chaplin when he was making films for Essanay, beginning with A Night Out in Chaplin. She costarred in over thirty of Chaplin's films and they had become lovers. While their offscreen relationship was over by the turn of the decade, she continued to act for him.

If his relationship with Purviance had ended, the inspiration for the film came as well from Chaplin's relationship with two other women. He had met Peggy Hopkins Joyce and some of her romantic adventures in Europe became those of Marie St Clair. He also had a tempestuous affair with the Polish-born actress Pola Negri, the beginning and end of which coincided with the beginning and end of the production of the film.

Purviance's reputation – like that of Chaplin's longstanding cinematographer Roland (Rollie) Totheroh, whose work is well in evidence here – is no doubt coloured by the fact that she worked almost exclusively for Chaplin. He was clearly keen to demonstrate that she could do more than clowning: she plays what is effectively a dramatic role in a comic film, in The Kid. With Chaplin himself absent, Purviance is centre stage throughout A Woman of Paris and holds the screen admirably, in what is mainly due to her a moving story. Unfortunately the film's commercial failure derailed her career. She played the lead in A Woman of the Sea in 1926, produced by Chaplin but written and directed by Josef von Sternberg. That film was never released and is now lost, apparently destroyed as a tax writeoff. Other than that, Purviance retired from acting, by then thirty-one. Chaplin kept her on his payroll and there are rumours, unconfirmed either way, that she appeared as an extra in both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. She died in 1958 of cancer, aged sixty-two.

Chaplin was very proud of A Woman of Paris and was hurt by its failure, withdrawing it from circulation for nearly fifty years. Some US states banned the film for "immorality". The term "Pre-Code" strictly speaking refers to the years between Will Hays's original draft of his Code in 1930 and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, so A Woman of Paris is Pre-Pre-Code. Given its depictions of the hedonism and decadence of Parisian life, you can imagine the Breen Office having problems with this film if Chaplin had tried to have it back in circulation in the 30s and 40s. Chaplin would later have run-ins with Breen, particularly over Monsieur Verdoux in 1947.

In the last two decades of his life, Chaplin made just one new film (A Countess from Hong Kong). Meanwhile, he revisited his back catalogue, reissuing the silents with newly-composed scores, and sometimes making edits to them. A Woman of Paris was the final one to emerge, in 1976, when Chaplin was eighty-seven and a year before his death. The reissue of this film was his last work for the cinema.

The Disc

A Woman of Paris is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye. The former was the edition received for review.

As with the other Chaplins, this film was originally released on DVD in the UK in 2003 as part of one of two box sets released by Warner Home Video. In that case, A Woman of Paris was a single disc released with another film on a single disc, A King in New York. Then as now, the transfer and extras are licensed from MK2. As before, many of the extras are carried forward to this Blu-ray, but not all. This time, we don't get footage of Chaplin co-signing the contract creating United Artists, footage of Paris in the 1920s and an amateur short film, Camille (1926), which Chaplin appeared in, a trailer for the 1976 reissue, and a stills and poster gallery. We do get, however, two short films which appeared on the Warners DVD of The Chaplin Revue.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. As this is the reissue version, it runs at the sound speed of twenty-four frames per second, a little faster than the original speed, which was most likely twenty fps, but that meets that Chaplin's score remains in synch. The results a little soft, and lacking such a wide greyscale as later black and white films would have, but grain is certainly present. Compared to the 2003 DVD transfer, it doesn't seem overly bright as some of the Blu-ray transfers in this series have been. Screengrabs follow, the DVD first.



The soundtrack is the original mono, with Chaplin's score and occasional sound effects. Nothing untoward here: it's clear and well-balanced.

The extras begin, as usual, with an introduction by David Robinson (5:11) and a Chaplin Today featurette (26:29). The latter is more jokey than usual, with extracts from co-star Adolphe Menjou's memoirs being read in a French accent, although Menjou was American born and bred. There are also actors voicing accounts from Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Rollie Totheroh, the latter telling us how he achieved the effect of a passing train's lights on Marie's face with a considerable economy of means. That is Michael Powell's actual voice, however, talking about how seeing the film inspired him to work in the cinema. The guest filmmaker this time is Liv Ullmann. The only woman to appear in that capacity in these featurettes, she talks about how Chaplin depicts women in this film, often before and since seeing them with a distinctly male (heterosexual) gaze, but explores how he sees his lead actress in this film in a more feminine way.

When Chaplin reissued the film in 1976, he made some edits, partly to tighten it, partly to tone down what he saw as a sentimentality no longer in favour half a century later. As with the deleted material from A King in New York, this is presented with the scene in question as shown in the final version followed by its counterpart from 1923, running 6:08 in total.

Two short films which Chaplin made for First National are next. These are Sunnyside (30:01) from 1919 and Pay Day (22:12) from 1922. The latter was his last two-reeler and his last but one short film, followed by The Pilgrim (which forms part of The Chaplin Revue), which completed his contract with First National. In Sunnyside, Charlie is a farm hand and Edna the village belle, with members of Chaplin's repertory, such as Henry Bergman and Loyal Underwood also appearing. Tom Terriss plays a city slicker, Charlie's rival for Edna's love. This isn't often regarded as one of Chaplin's best, and the New York Times at the time thought it had too much slapstick. It certainly has its moments though. In Pay Day, Charlie is a labourer who keeps back just enough of his wages from his wife to be able to go out drinking. Mack Swain plays his foreman and Edna Purviance the foreman's daughter. This was by all accounts Chaplin's favourite amongst his short films. Both short films are presented in 1080p, unlike most of the extras on this disc, which are upscaled SD. That includes a deleted scene (8:21) from Sunnyside, presented mute and involving a barber's shop, clearly an attempt at the gag he finally got to use in The Great Dictator. Finally, there is the same compilation of extracts from films in the Chaplin Collection (10:44) which appears on all of Curzon Artificial Eye's Chaplin releases.

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