★ ★ ★ 1/2
Continuing our review series through the feature films of Charlie Chaplin we come to what, I would say at least, is probably his least well-known feature, 1923’s A Woman in Paris. Outside of not being as well known, this film holds another distinction: it was a serious drama. Not only that, but Chaplin only took the writer/director/producer positions and only appeared, very briefly, as a porter with no lines.
Chaplin was famous for helping boost the careers of his various love interests through the years, as evidence will show in the films to come. However, of all his romances, he probably gave Edna Purviance the best role, because this film had her as the leading actress without being a supporting character to Chaplin. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the film didn’t propel Purviance to the level of stardom originally hoped, though it did end up helping Adolphe Menjou’s career to a degree.
The film is a melodrama that focuses on Purviance’s character of Marie St. Clair. Her and her young boyfriend, aspiring artist Jean (Carl Miller), are planning to elope. The night before their plans to move to Paris for marriage, Marie climbs down from her window to meet Jean in the courtyard. When Marie’s father sees this through the window, he disowns her and kicks her from the house insisting that, “Maybe he will give you a room for the night!” Marie follows Jean to his house, but finds that his parents aren’t happy about the arrangement either. With nowhere to go, she decides to head for Paris early, Jean promising to follow her the next day. However, when he gets back inside his home, he finds his father has died. Because of this, he doesn’t make it to Paris as scheduled. Time goes by and Marie becomes a mistress to the wealthy Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou). One night, by chance occurrence after a party, Marie wanders into the wrong room and finds Jean, who now lives in Paris with his mother. Marie asks Jean to paint her portrait in his studio. During their meetings for the portrait, Marie finds out about Jean’s father’s death and they begin to rekindle their romance. Without spoiling the ending, I will leave it at, just as things look good for the young couple, more effects of fate set in.
Compared to Chaplin’s comedies, this film was not nearly as well-received as most of his other work from the same era. Like many comedy directors, it is sometimes hard for an audience to accept them with drama. However, if you look at the melodramas being produced by other directors of the same time, this film actually works quite well and is better than many of its competitors. Woody Allen is a similar artist who seems to fall into this paradox. For years he has tried to make dramatic films interspersed with his comedies and, almost always, his dramas don’t fair as well as his comedies; except, perhaps, with Match Point.
Chaplin never made another film that was solely a drama. In the 1970s, when he was in the process of recording scores for many of his silent films, he wrote and recorded a score to accompany this piece. This would also mark the last time that Chaplin worked with Purviance as a leading lady. However, his care for her continued for many years; supposedly, long after using her in any pictures, Chaplin kept her on the studio payroll to keep up her livelihood.