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With: Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller, Lydia Knott
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 78
Date: 10/01/1923
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A Woman of Paris (1923)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Chaplin Gets Serious

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even though I've been a Charlie Chaplin fan for most of my life, I've always avoided A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin's "serious" film. Indeed, most of the moviegoing world avoided it when it first opened. Who wants to see a serious movie by a comic filmmaker? But now that A Woman of Paris is released on DVD, I checked it out and found that it's a Chaplin masterpiece and showed a layer to his work that I never knew existed.

Many comedians, and makers of so-called "light" entertainment, go through a stage where they feel they must contribute something "worthwhile" and "serious." This is the same philosophy shared by the Academy, which awards movies based on their political agendas rather than artistic merit. This yearning for notoriety led Jerry Lewis to make his ill-fated (and mercifully unreleased) The Day the Clown Cried. It was also the cause for Bill Murray's The Razor's Edge (1984), Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1998), and much of Robin Williams' work, as well as Chaplin's A Woman of Paris.

But sometimes these ventures turn out well. Though he does not appear in it (except for a small, almost unrecognizable cameo), A Woman of Paris is a remarkably accomplished film. Chaplin was never one for technical flourishes. This film doesn't have the style of something like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) or Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He was more interested in getting the emotional core of his films. As an actor, he was a incapable of rendering a false note, and as a director, it seems he had the power to draw the same from his other actors. The film was made for Chaplin's longtime leading lady, Edna Purviance. She plays a poor girl from rural France whose father forbids her to marry a local artist (Carl Miller) and locks her out of the house. A misunderstanding causes her to flee for Paris where she ends up the mistress of wealthy playboy Adolphe Menjou. An ad in the paper announces the playboy's wedding to another, wealthier woman, and the woman accidentally re-discovers her former artist flame, now poorer than ever. So she has a choice: riches and comfort but not marriage and kids, or marriage and kids in abject poverty. Her final compromise -- and the film's amazing ending -- is a heartbreaking blend of both.

I've seen many silent films, but very few seem this smooth. The actors' performances are so subtle and powerful that I often forgot I was watching a silent. The dialogue cards are natural and flow so perfectly from the gestures that they don't seem like interruptions. What could easily have been melodrama was dialed down to become an emotional reality. During one scene in which a tragedy befalls the artist, Chaplin cuts away briefly the artist's unknowing mother preparing soup. It's a simple moment that made my breath involuntarily leave my chest. It rings true and it's heartbreaking.

Sadly, A Woman of Paris tanked at the box office. This was doubly upsetting as it was Chaplin's first contribution to the United Artists, an organization made up of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. These artists were trying to gain more independence and get away from studio contracts and meddling. Chaplin was so devastated, he pulled his movie from circulation until 1976 when he composed a brand new score and re-released it once again to critical acclaim. (Andrew Sarris chose it as the best picture of 1976.) The new score is featured on the DVD, and like many of Chaplin's other scores, it's incredibly lovely.

The real reason I finally felt safe to rent A Woman of Paris is because it now comes on a DVD in a double bill with A King in New York (1957), another underrated Chaplin classic. It's much easier to gamble on a 2-in-1 shot. But anyone who rents this DVD will be a winner twice over.