A Woman of Paris (1923)
A Woman of Paris (1923)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 18 min.

Release Date: November 4th, 1923 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Edna Purviance, Clarence Geldert, Carl Miller, Lydia Knott, Charles French, Adolphe Menjou, Betty Morrissey, Malvina Polo

 


 

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ritten, directed, produced, and scored by Charlie Chaplin, this first serious drama of his doesn’t actually have him appear in the cast. It was only his third feature, preceded by “The Kid” (itself a comedy with a very dramatic subject) and is often forgotten amongst his more popular projects of the ‘30s. “A Woman of Paris” is given the nominal additive “A Drama of Fate” for extra measure, to ensure audiences that this wouldn’t be in line with his usual slapstick escapades. Sadly, the absence of humor (and the iconic little tramp) is largely attributable to the film’s poor receiving by the public, though critically, it has fared much better.

The victim of an unhappy home, in a small village somewhere in France, Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) plots to run away with her fiancé, Jean Millet (Carl Miller), to Paris. Her stern stepfather (Clarence Geldert) locks her out of the house when he spies the couple sneaking away to discuss their future, forcing Marie to return with Jean to his house. But Jean’s father (Charles French) and frail mother (Lydia Knott) are equally disapproving, and Marie, understandably consternated, thinks it best to leave. The two head to the train station but Jean returns home to pack a bag. While there, his father, though still against his son’s marriage intentions, offers up some money, then suddenly passes out in the living room. Before Jean has a chance to explain over the phone, Marie assumes he’s changed his mind – and leaves on the train alone.

A year later in Paris, the incomparably wealthy ladies’ man Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou) has Marie – now a fashionable, lazy, kept woman – under his arm. She has a glorious apartment, brimming with maids and fancy things, and is visited by her young, vivacious friends Fifi (Betty Morrissey) and Paulette (Malvina Polo), who party constantly. Mirroring Marie’s idleness, Pierre lounges at his business office in his pajamas under a blanket as he fingers ticker tape and spies a magazine announcing his engagement to another rich socialite, Louise Trudaine. Although Marie finds out about the betrothal, it strikes her as rather expected. Nonetheless, she becomes depressed. When she decides to go to her friend’s nearby soiree, she accidentally knocks on the door of Jean’s studio, where he now lives as an artist with his mother. Confused about her feelings toward Jean, especially when she discovers that his father died the night she left, she hires him to paint her portrait.

At times it seems as if the film will teeter into the familiarly comical territory of Chaplin’s short subjects, notably during a champagne-truffle-concocting sequence, an alcohol-infused celebration, or when, in a tantrum, Marie tosses her pearls out of a window into the path of a vagrant. But instead, it resists, remaining distinctly separate from his collection of humorous works. There’s also an uncommon sexuality to the picture, with a striptease scene that definitely doesn’t match Chaplin’s other projects.

Even with a stirring love story in which a woman weighs romance against luxury, resulting in murderous intentions and dark tragedy, there’s a discernible lack of pathos. Perhaps Marie’s fickleness is to fault, as she’s not as trapped as she believes; and while Revel is certainly no white knight, he doesn’t pretend to be something other than a playboy. It’s actually her friend Paulette who is more detestable, swooping in at an opportune minute to snare the millionaire for herself (and yet, can she be blamed?) – while her other companion is an angling gossiper. It’s never revealed exactly why Jean’s parents  or her stepfather despise Marie so much, placing her in a contrived position of pity, though his mother likely wants to retain her son as a caretaker (later, it’s apparent that serving as Revel’s mistress discredits her morals). However, like most of Chaplin’s films, the ending is simply superb, revealing a sense of the titular fate taking a turn for welcome satisfaction, boasting a most entertaining gimmick with a dialogue intertitle (a wonderful misdirection that would be, in spirit, utilized for the climax of 2011’s “The Artist”).

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10