He may be remembered as a clown of silent slapstick, but Charlie Chaplin could be a daring filmmaker. At least as early as "The Vagabond" (1916), he was infusing pathos into his portrayals of his signature Tramp persona; with such films as "The Kid" (1921), he pushed the blending of comedy and drama even further as he helped legitimize feature-length slapstick comedies; and having held out longer than any other Hollywood filmmaker on continuing to make silent masterpieces, "City Lights" (1931) and "Modern Times" (1936), while in many ways the rest of filmdom took a leap backwards in the art and craft by adopting sound, when he finally made his first talkie, it was with a then-controversial condemnation of Nazi Germany and fascism, "The Great Dictator" (1940). Additionally, there's this drama he wrote, directed, but did not star in made during the peak of the Tramp's popularity, "A Woman of Paris." Unfortunately, I find it to be one of his least entertaining features, uneven and melodramatically lopsided, but, somewhat paradoxically, it's an important film in the history of screen acting and comedy, including inspiring the development of the sophisticated romantic comedy and was admitted as doing as much by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch (see, in particular, "The Marriage Circle" (1924)).
I couldn't help viewing "A Woman of Paris" and thinking how much better it could've been had it the light treatment of such later comedies--even some of the so-called "Lubitsch touch." Indeed, it has its moments, including a woman being twirled into undress during a party scene, a wonderfully-staged interchange between two women of leisure discussing their sexual exploits while the camera focuses on the restrained reactions of a masseuse, and star Edna Purviance having some fun as a Parisian flapper, the kept woman of Adolphe Menjou's man-about-town. Menjou, in particular, is excellent. Lubitsch subsequently cast him in his first sophisticated romantic comedy, "The Marriage Circle." Had there been a Best Supporting Actor Oscar or an Academy Awards back then, Menjou surely would've been a frontrunner twice over. His characters, especially the one here, are a joy to watch--consistently finding amusement in his womanizing and surroundings, including an especially nice scene where he plays a saxophone as Purviance wanders about upbraiding her life and relationship with him. When she chases after a pearl necklace thrown out the window and picked up by a tramp, he laughs hysterically. Quite a bit actually has been written singling out his performances in both films as representing a new development in subtle, facially-oriented screen acting, as opposed to the pantomime of broad gestures and exaggerated mugging of the body-oriented acting adapted from the stage that had heretofore dominated film performances, and how this new style was assisted by directors like Chaplin and Lubitsch and their use of continuity editing and the increasing focus on close-ups (e.g., see "Lubitsch, Acting and the Silent Romantic Comedy" by Kristin Thompson in "Film History"). Reportedly, Menjou himself recalled in his memories how Chaplin taught him more about acting than any other director and that he repeated the direction, "Don't sell it! Remember, they're peeking at you."
Besides the acting, the film is put together quite well, too, from plotting to settings. Although, the missing fourth walls are a bit too noticeable sometimes; while a lighting effect works well in lieu of a train at the station, the lack of lighting as characters enter and exit the foreground in a room in Jean's boyhood home appears awkward--calling attention to it being obviously a studio set. That's a minor complaint, however, compared to the melodramatic narrative. "A Woman of Paris" has two dueling and disparate treatments: one set in the past of the Victorian-age drama, the kind of film Chaplin's United Artists partner D.W. Griffith may've made, and the other set in the modern Roaring Twenties, a more refined revision of the sex dramedies by Cecil B. DeMille and anticipating those by the likes of Lubitsch, or the stardom of flapper types like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore. The use of looks, including through windows, as in the aforementioned scene with Menjou and Purviance, as well as the opening sequence, seem to prefigure a similar system of looks in Lubitsch's "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925). Ultimately, however, the tone of "A Woman of Paris" topples over into melodrama and a conventional resolution favoring family and rural simplicity over the big bad city of Paris, what with its evils of sex and all. Chaplin's preachy title cards between scenes are too much, and the mostly-dramatic score that he added in the 1970s doesn't help to lighten the tone, although I do like parts of it, especially at the end.
I also like that Jean, who completes the love triangle with Purviance's Marie and Menjou's Pierre, is a painter, who paints the flapper Marie not as she is, but as he remembers her afore. It's also interesting that Chaplin partly made this film to help launch the independent career of his longtime co-star and mistress Purviance (while basing it on another woman he had an affair with), but as with the film's melodrama and Jean's painting, her career didn't have much of a future. The future was with the sophisticated, subtler brand of modern comedy and acting represented in the film's lighter moments and with Menjou, and, of course, Chaplin would go back to making his greatest masterpieces in slapstick, which also reflected the sort of multi-faceted characterizations, subtlety and deliberate pacing of the best bits of "A Woman of Paris."
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