"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 6, 2011

"A Woman of Paris" (1923) by Chaplin (Film review)

A Woman of Paris (1923) is an a-typical Chaplin film, produced and directed by him, but without the figure of the tramp - Chaplin only plays a small cameo. It is an old-fashioned melodrama: country boy Jean (Carl Miller) and country girl Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) are in love with each other and as both parents are not very cooperative, they decide to run away to Paris. When Jean fails to meet Marie at the station she goes off alone to the City of Light, of which she has been dreaming all her life.

There she soon manages to become the mistress of a wealthy playboy, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), who keeps her in affluent circumstances (and presumably will continue to do that), but who is also set to marry another heiress. By chance Marie meets Jean again, who also has come to Paris and is trying to become a painter. She lets him do her portrait, but they are almost like strangers now. Jean explains he couldn't meet Marie at the station because his father has suddenly died. Now he lives with his mother (Lydia Knott), who strongly disapproves of Marie and her flashy call-girl life.

So they don't come much closer to each other, but Jean starts hating Marie's rich friend. He follows Marie and Pierre into a restaurant, and gets in a shuffle with Pierre before he can use the pistol he brought to kill him. Strong waiters remove him from the scene and he then kills himself outside.

Chaplin apparently made different endings of the film for the U.S. and European markets. For the U.S. he made a heavy-handed moralistic ending: Marie joins the mother of Jean in running a catholic orphanage in the countryside - Pierre passes her once by car, but they don't recognize each other. In the European version, she stays with Pierre. I saw the American version, but would prefer the lighter, European one. In America the film was a flop (viewers wanted Chaplin himself), but in Europe it was quite successful at the box-office.

I had read some reviews before seeing the film and was actually prepared for the worst. To my surprise, although rather unsubstantial, the film was entertaining and even now and then funny. It starts off a bit gloomy in the countryside, but the settings in Paris are lavish (Marie's dresses are great). It is fun to see the soap-bubble life Marie leads, and hear the banter she exchanges with two girlfriends who are of the same profession.

Once, when she quarrels with Pierre, Marie throws her pearl necklace out of the window, but when Pierre lets her know a tramp has picked it up, she runs into the street and snatches back her jewels. And when she says she dreams of children and a husband who respects her, Pierre points to a scene outside where two young parents are struggling with their fighting brats.

In fact, it is the character of Pierre, played by Adolphe Menjou,  that brings so much light to the film. He is a suave, somewhat older playboy, always with a small laugh on his face as if he is constantly experiencing something funny. And he is by far the best actor in the film - Edna Purviance is unfortunately no Greta Garbo and even no Clara Bow.

[Revised February 2015]