Reading Theodore Huff's monograph on Charlie Chaplin, the existence of which evidently depended greatly on Chaplin's approval of Huff's generous assessment of his work, you come across paragraphs like this one:
"A Woman of Paris is the straight dramatic picture which Chaplin directed but did not star in, is a milestone in the history of the screen and appears on almost every list of ten best pictures of all time. It did not matter to Chaplin that it was not a financial success. It fulfilled an old ambition and brought him further prestige. A Woman of Paris initiated a new school of film art — sophisticated, intimate drama — and exerted a great influence on motion-picture style in general."
Such a statement would almost make sense if it had been written in 1931, when "film art" was still a rather nebulous concept. But it was written in 1951. Huff later declares Chaplin's biggest misstep The Great Dictator a total success, and even quotes Chaplin's defense of the film (which he certainly regretted later on): "I had to do it. They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it? Now I wanted them to listen. . . . I did this picture for the Jews of the world. . . . I wanted to see the return of decency and kindness. I'm no communist . . . just a human being who wants to see this country a real democracy and freedom from this infernal regimentation which is crawling over the rest of the world."
What the hell is he talking about? And why is he so dismissive of his own work - City Lights, The Circus, The Gold Rush, The Kid with "They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it?" Chaplin later admitted that, if he had known about the Death Camps, he would never have made The Great Dictator.(1) But it was the most profitable film he ever made.
As early as 1915, when Chaplin started making a "serious film 'Life,' which he had never completed because if the demand for comedies," Chaplin first expressed his desire to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Remember that 1915 was the year The Birth of a Nation was introduced to an incredulous world, a moment in film history when the medium took a giant leap toward artistic legitimacy. Chaplin, who had quickly become a master of the medium, clearly wanted to do something more with his mastery than elicit laughs. "It was his ambition," Huff states, "to do at least one big dramatic feature to show the world that he could be something else besides a clown." But Chaplin wasn't just a clown - he was the greatest film clown. Edmund Kean's famous last words were, "Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult." Chaplin's desire to make "one big dramatic feature" makes about as much sense as if we discovered that Sophocles had wanted to write a comedy.
Saying that this meticulously-made film has dated horrendously is stating only a part of the problem. Its subject must've seemed dated even in 1923 - by perhaps a century. The same can be said of D. W. Griffith's films. Although he was a true master of the film medium, a modern technology, Griffith's stories were all derived from the mentality of 19th-century theater. A Woman of Paris is much more literary, more like a novel than a play. But it is an early - and not very good - 19th century novel, and an American early 19th century novel at that, on about the same level as Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Within weeks of his appearance in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies, Chaplin became the master of his medium. He was given the freedom to direct his own films and he quickly learned the intricacies of film language - like the quite basic spatial idea of an object being thrown in one direction out of the frame and, in a cut to the next frame, entering from the same direction and smashing into something. As rudimentary as this may sound, it was an incredibly important discovery in early filmmaking. A Woman of Paris shows the extent to which Chaplin, as a director, was as much a master as Murnau or Lubitsch.
The problem is the same as it was with Griffith: while his technique was superb, Chaplin's ideas were as old hat as the Tramp's ubiquitous derby. For one thing, why is it A Woman of Paris? Why didn't Chaplin locate the story in a more familiar place, like London or New York? Obviously because the place name Paris is streaked with far more romanticism. London and New York are too prosaic, too down to earth, too workaday and mundane - too real for Chaplin's purposes.
CA Lejeune, in her 1925 review of A Woman of Paris, wrote that "He [Chaplin] selected the oldest and most hackneyed theme in the kinema, and determined to give it, for the first, and only time, life. (Whether it is worth vivifying is beside the point. Chaplin at least thought that it was.) A stock formula has arisen for treating the story of the country lovers, parted by misunderstanding, the lure of the city, the seductive villain with a flat at any lady’s disposal, the reappearance of the country lover, and his forgiveness of the girl’s indiscretion."(2)
Look at Chaplin's tramp. When he first appeared, the character was a somewhat devilish mischief-maker, always a few steps ahead of the police. Chaplin made the character more complex a year later by injecting "pathos," or sadness, to his stories, in the films The Tramp (1915) and The Vagabond (1916).(3) This more deeply emotional dimension of Chaplin's character was nearly always due to the appearance of a "love interest," invariably played by Edna Purviance, from her first appearance in 1915 in A Night Out until her last appearance with the Tramp in 1923 in The Pilgrim, Chaplin's last two-reeler. In all, she made 34 films with Chaplin, although she was never under contract.
With their personal relationship over and their professional relationship about to end, Chaplin wanted to give Edna something lasting, to create her post-Chaplin career: a star vehicle. But the film's failure at launching her as a star was complete. Chaplin based his story on the early life of American socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Born Margaret Upton in a town now a part of Norfolk, Virginia 1893, Hopkins-Joyce was, by the age of 30, one of the first people in America to become famous for being infamous, marrying three millionaires and having numerous well-publicized affairs. Her name appears in song lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In Theodore Huff's book on Chaplin, he makes the surprising disclosure that after Hopkins-Joyce paid a surprise visit at his studio,
"Chaplin was fascinated by this woman of the world, a type so removed from his previous loves. For two weeks, which included a trip to Catalina Island, they were inseparable. Then she departed for a New York stage engagement, Peggy with pleasant memories and Chaplin, in addition, with the idea for his next picture."
Chaplin's working titles for the film were Destiny and Public Opinion (its European title). Its original release title was A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate. But not even fate would've been as obvious as Chaplin's plot. Coincidences are presented, I suppose, as ironies. It worked for Thomas Hardy, but not for Chaplin. Chaplin handles the narrative with a remarkably light touch, making each cliché (and there are a great many) seem newly devised. The film is burdened with an atmosphere that, by now, is overwhelmingly heavy. We know to what extent Chaplin's tramp was a creature of the silent film. But his genius as a performer transcended his medium. A Woman of Paris makes demands on the viewer, and the rewards are genuine. But few moviegoers have the faculties necessary to fully appreciate Chaplin's vision.
As everyone who ever worked with Chaplin discovered, including such accomplished actors as Henry Daniell, Marlon Brando, and Sophia Loren, his approach to directing was to simply demonstrate to his actors how to move, how to look, and how to deliver their lines; he would just act out the scene himself, all the way down to the subtlest gesture and voice inflection. The professional actors he worked with always chafed at his directing style. The reason why he directed like this is because he wanted to play all the parts himself, including the female parts.(4) Edna Purviance's performance was probably coached intensely by Chaplin, especially since she's the center of the film. But therein lies the problem. Purviance, without the onscreen support of Chaplin, is something of a cipher. She ultimately lacked the commanding screen presence that the role required.
After the film's financial failure, Chaplin wisely returned to comedies. The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) each jockey for a place on nearly everyone's Greatest Films lists.
Interestingly, scoring the film for re-release in 1976 turned out to be the last creative project that Chaplin undertook. Purviance, who died in 1958, gave up screen acting after Chaplin's last attempt to make her a star, Josef von Sternberg's The Woman of the Sea (1926), was so clearly muddled that Chaplin, who financed the film, never released it. She spent the rest of her life under salary from Chaplin. Theirs was one of the most rewarding relationships in Chaplin's life, both personally and professionally. Since A Woman of Paris was never successful or widely understood, he needn't have bothered about reissuing it. That he devoted the time to carefully prepare it for new generations to discover shows how much Purviance meant to him and how proud he was of the last fruit of their partnership. Seen in this light, it is one of the most moving love letters a great artist has ever written.
(1) "Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis." Chaplin, My Autobiography.
(2) "Charlie Chaplin's A Woman of Paris reviewed," The Guardian, 1 March 1925.
(3) Looking at these two films, separated by just a year, the development of Chaplin's subtlety is striking. The Tramp seems unbelievably crude by Chaplin's later standards. He hadn't quite shaken off Sennett's knockabout style.
(4) "No other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job. If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and ... sewn every costume." (David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, 1985.