A WOMAN OF PARIS was the least characteristic film of Charlie Chaplin's career. An introductory title card addressed to "the public" and signed by Chaplin served as a forewarning to a world addicted to the comic misadventures of his Little Tramp: "In order to avoid any misunderstanding,
I wish to announce that I do not appear in this picture. It is the first serious drama to be written and directed by myself."
In a small French village, Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) prepares to elope to Paris with Jean Millet (Carl Miller) despite parental disapproval on both sides. When his father (Charles French) suffers a stroke, Jean is unable to meet Marie at the train station. Misunderstanding her fiance's
intentions, Marie travels to Paris alone.
A year later, Marie is the mistress of playboy Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), the richest bachelor in Paris. When Pierre becomes engaged to a society woman, Marie is disturbed by his suggestion that they continue their relationship as before.
Marie encounters Jean, who has moved to Paris with his mother (Lydia Knott) following his father's death. A struggling artist, Jean proposes once more to his old sweetheart. Although reluctant to renounce her luxurious lifestyle, Marie decides to accept but changes her mind when she overhears Jean
promising his mother not to go through with the marriage. While Marie and Pierre are dining together in a posh restaurant, Jean, torn between parental pressure and his love for Marie, commits suicide. Bent on vengeance Mme. Millet determines to kill Marie but relents when she finds the young woman
weeping over Jean's body.
Marie breaks with Pierre and disappears into the French countryside. There, along with Jean's mother, she happily devotes herself to a simple and selfless life caring for orphans. Although they unwittingly pass each other on a country road one day, Marie and Pierre now live in entirely different
A WOMAN OF PARIS's plot was suggested to Chaplin by incidents in the life of a friend, international playgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce. After seven months of in-sequence shooting and six months of editing, the film opened to extraordinarily enthusiastic notices. The Manchester Guardian called it "the
greatest modern story that the screen has yet seen" and critic-playwright Robert Sherwood said, "There is more real genius in Charles Chaplin's A WOMAN OF PARIS than in any picture I have ever seen."
The critics were, however, divided over the movie's ending, which some considered an unrealistic sop to censors and public opinion. ("Public Opinion" was one of the working titles of the film.) Chaplin indeed shot, and probably preferred, a separate denouement for European audiences in which Marie
stays with Pierre instead of leaving Paris to devote herself to the welfare of orphans (initially envisioned by Chaplin as lepers before his staff shamed him out of it). Chaplin betrayed his mixed feelings about A WOMAN OF PARIS's American ending when he acknowledged, in a program note written for
the New York premiere, that he had told his story "with as much truth as I am allowed to put in it."
Much less taken with the film than the critics were America's moviegoing public and various state censorship boards. Pennsylvania cut out Jean's suicide, Kansas deleted all shots that showed people smoking, and Ohio inserted a title attributing Marie's opulent lifestyle to a sudden inheritance.
The most acclaimed aspect of A WOMAN OF PARIS was the often subtle and sophisticated manner in which Chaplin chose to tell his story through images rather than expository dialogue. For example: the audience is discreetly apprised of Marie's status as a kept woman when Pierre, in need of a
handkerchief, goes directly to the appropriate drawer of a bureau in her apartment. Later, Jean makes the identical discovery when he sees a man's detachable collar fall out of the same drawer. Also widely noted was the first instance, apparently, of a passing train being indicated only by the
movement of light across a person standing on the platform. This kind of cinematic innovation doubtlessly contributed to the overwhelming impression the film made on Ernst Lubitsch.
The picture's effectiveness is enhanced by several comic touches--most memorably, a very brief shot in which a tired and feckless railway porter, played by Chaplin himself, shrugs off a heavy trunk he has been toting, without breaking stride or bending an inch. According to Adolphe Menjou, this
cameo was longer in earlier prints, but was abridged when audience laughter threatened to destroy the doleful mood of the scene.
Disappointed with A WOMAN OF PARIS's receipts, Chaplin locked it away for 50 years and never made another straight drama. Although the movie has not become dated either technically or emotively, evolving social mores have robbed it of much of its initial impact. It is still a fine film, however,
and only a sourpuss would object to its relatively positive ending, an ending that in its last few deft shots succeeds in being simultaneously ironic and uplifting. (Violence.)
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