October 1, 2014

A Woman of Paris (1923)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller

What it's about. Charlie Chaplin directed, produced, and wrote the title cards for A Woman of Paris. He was also the source for the original story, and more than a half century later, contributed a score. What he did not do was star in it, and in fact only has an uncredited cameo.

His first feature for the then-new United Artists, it was a commercial disappointment. Chaplin was enormously popular in 1923, but as a comedian. Few wished to watch a romantic drama set in Paris. Decades later, though, all is forgiven, and the movie is generally well regarded. It remains less popular, though, than The Gold Rush, City Lights, The Great Dictator, and Modern Times.

Chaplin's purpose was to create a starmaking role for his leading lady of the era, Edna Purviance. Instead, the classy brunette dish was outshown by a young Adolphe Menjou, who is surprisingly sympathetic in his role as a wealthy Parisian playboy.

The story begins with Edna subject to house arrest under her humorless stepfather, Clarence Geldart. Her hot-to-trot boyfriend, Carl Miller, arrives to plan an elopement. Geldart disowns Edna, and it turns out that Miller's parents are nearly as dislikable. Father Charles K. French disapproves of the match as much as Geldart, and clinging mother Lydia Knott would rather her boy stay home.

Miller perseveres, but a family tragedy leads to a misunderstanding. A devastated Purviance instead becomes the favorite kept woman of Menjou, an amiable and generous sort who loves Purviance more than he puts on. In fact, she seems more concerned about her station, since Menjou has plied her with jewelry, a fancy apartment, and servants.

Because it is a movie, Purviance accidentally encounters Miller, who now lives alone with his widowed and nearly elderly mother. Miller resumes his pursuit of this former amour, and claims the moral advantage over Menjou, who has married a dowager yet continues his affair with Purviance.

But Miller is poor, and is saddled with a nagging mother. He is also a stick in the mud. Purviance wisely chooses Menjou, but because it is a movie, yet another dramatic tragedy unfolds, which leads to an unsatisfying Production Code ending. Even though the Production Code was still a full decade away.

Also in A Woman of Paris is comely brunette Betty Morrissey, who plays Purviance's best friend. Their mutual friend is Malvino Polo, who incurs Morrissey's wrath by making a play for Menjou, ever in need of female companionship.

How others will see it. A Woman of Paris was a rare commercial misfire for Chaplin, but it did win Best Artistic Film at the 1925 Kinema Junpo Awards, the inaugural year of the long-running Tokyo festival. The film was handicapped by Purviance's unaffecting performance. When she chases the tramp for the discarded string of pearls, it is clear she prefers money to love. Diamonds are forever, you know.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a fairly modest user rating of 7.2. As one might expect, women like the movie more than do men (7.6 versus 7.1). The gender gap narrows over age 45 (7.4 versus 7.2). Given that women of 45 grade The Big Parade (1925) a remarkably high 9.6 out of 10, it is clear that the demographic prefers a virtuous female lead, and true love between her and the would-be hero. Both elements are denied here, since Chaplin (who, after all, ate his own shoe in The Gold Rush) was prone to melancholia as well as comedy.

How I felt about it. Purviance's character turn is hardly a difficult decision. It's not Sophie's Choice. Should she choose poor, dull, and mother-burdened Miller, or wealthy and fun-loving Menjou? Duh.

We like everyone in the film, really, except our two purported lovers, Miller and Purviance. One can see why Chaplin favored Purviance, whom he placed in his movies as late as Limelight. She is a handsome and reliable sort. But she lacks the charisma necessary for a lead. The less said about Miller, the better, although his screen character gives him little to work with.