Saturday, 3 May 2014

The music of chance... A Woman of Paris (1923)

Charlie Chaplin wrote, produced and directed this film and, by 1976, had even written the music but the one thing he didn’t do was appear in it (almost*).  A Woman of Paris was intended to be a vehicle for his comedy co-star and ex-partner, Edna Purviance and himself to show how they could do more serious work. At the time it fell a little flat and didn’t deliver the big hit his fellow United Artists had hoped for, but there’s much to admire in the film and, in the end, it doesn’t pull it’s punches even when veering close to a sentimental ending: it’s a story of passion, bad timing and those sad compromises that can get in the way of life.

Stealing away as father looks on
There are Germanic touches in the sets and lighting as well as the lightness of touch of Lubitsch: Charlie had certainly been watching the competition: the film feels more European than American but what would you expect from a boy from Kennington. But the themes and the timing – sometimes comic and otherwise tragic – are all his own.

The film opens in a French village as a young woman, Marie St Clair (Purviance – what a strange name Edna!) nervously packs her bags in her room. Her father creeps up the stairs and locks her door as Chaplin gradually reveals the scenario: an elopement is being planned and both sets of parents disagree.

Familial disapproval all round...
Marie’s lover Jean Millet (Carl Miller) helps her climb down from outside her room and they walk to his house where an equally frosty reception awaits. What has caused this parental disapproval is not made clear but it’s deep-seated. Refused entry back home, the couple head for the station to catch a train to Paris: their city of hope. Jean leaves Marie to go and collect his things but, tragedy strikes when his father has a heart attack and dies…

A fateful miss-communication then occurs as the lovers telephone each other and Marie, thinking than Jean has just got cold feet, heads of to Paris alone…

Debonair Pierre
A year later she seems to have found her feet exceptionally well, being the kept woman of Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), “the most eligible bachelor in Paris”, living in luxury and spending her time socialising or being prepared for the next occasion along with her proto-flapper buddies Fifi (Betty Morrissey) and Paulette (Malvina Polo).

Paulette and Fifi on the lookout for some action...
Everything is well except for the fact that Pierre is planning to marry the wealthiest spinster in Paris. The story is revealed in the papers but Marie doesn’t know until her helpful friends show her, she hides her disappointment well: she’s learned a great deal of city ways. Pierre tells her that it won’t change their relationship – tres Parisian n’est pas! – but she’s not convinced.

She sulks and stays in whilst her friends head off to an outrageous party in the Latin Quarter… Chaplin gives a good party and clearly enjoys showing the risqué side of life as the drunken debauch is topped off by an elegant striptease in which a young woman (Bess Flowers - sometimes dubbed the Queen of the Hollywood Extras) is gradually revealed to the on-screen audience as a white sheet is slowly unwrapped: glasses and monocles are raised even by the women and a drunken man feints in dis-belief.

Bess Flowers does her turn
Fifi tells Maria she can’t miss out and she heads over only to open the door to the wrong address, a small apartment home to a struggling artist: it’s Jean. So chance has re-united them and whilst their guards are now up, Marie invites Jean to paint her.

As Jean arrives wide-eyed at her opulent home Marie finds out with a shock the reason for his none-appearance and her sympathy shifts back but there can be no simple reconciliation especially when Marie sneaks at peek at her portrait… rather than paint her in the stunning satin gown she has chosen, Jean depicts her as she was when he left her… This can’t be healthy and it’s a very neat touch from the director.

What he sees and what he paints...
But as romance is re-kindled, parental dissatisfaction plays a part again as Jean’s mother – disapproving of Marie’s lifestyle – makes him promise not to marry her and in enduring guilt her agrees only for Marie to overhear at the door…

Spoiler hints? Not overt but… So the heartbreak begins again and Marie tries to decide between the man she loved and the lifestyle she adores provided by the man she likes. Heck, we’ve probably all been there right?

There will be no easy answers and Chaplin veers towards but ultimately manages to avoid too much pathos with his neat but a-typical ending which ends the film in suitably rounded dramatic fashion.

Miller and Menjou face off
Whilst not an absolute classic, there is much to admire in the film and whilst you can understand contemporary audiences wanting more Charlie and more comedy, this is an entertaining, human story about the nature of chance: opportunities need to be grasped and you need to trust your own judgement and make your own choices. His retrospective score mostly works well but I found it occasionally intrusive, almost running grooves into a narrative that for him was so well known: foreshadowing events in this "drama of fate".

The leads perform well with Menjou on top form as the easy-going, quick-witted charmer who is so sure of his relationships and himself. Carl Miller’s Jean is all but destroyed by his tragedy but tries to find reward through art, he’s thwarted by his mother and bad timing.

As for the star, Edna P performs well and there’s something understated in her performance that you might view as force of habit from deliberate under-response in her comedies. But she gives a nuanced, heart-breaking turn as the village girl who gets everything she wanted except, perhaps, for love.

A Woman of Paris is available as part of the massive Charlie Chaplin: Collection box set at Movie Mail or along with A King in New York via Amazon - even on Blu-Ray at the latter. It won’t make you laugh as much as the Gold Rush but it’ll get you like City Lights whether you want it to or not!

*PS Charlie reputedly turns up as a railway porter carry a massive trunk… he just couldn’t help himself.

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