Suddenly the whole medium grew up before my eyes . . . a grown-up film, with people behaving as they do in real life . . . . Nobody had ever really done any realistic films at all before, it was all make-believe, you know, and emotions were make-believe, as well as the people . . . except for European films, which were mostly big romances, or something like the German Nibelungen . . . : but in English-speaking, that is to say English-titled cinema, it was all completely fustian and make-believe, and playing, and all that sort of thing. Suddenly, here was a grown-up film, with people behaving as they do in life, and scenes treated with an enormous sophistication, like the sequence I always remembered all my life . . . where Menjou [as a sugar daddy] comes into the flat, and she’s furious with him and with life and everything, and throws her pearl necklace out of the window, and he roars with laughter! You know, I was thrilled, to think that somebody could make a film in which she throws her necklace out of the window and he just roars with laughter! And she runs downstairs, and runs after the tramp who picks it up, and then runs away, and then goes back and gives him five dollars, and then comes back again, and I remembered so clearly her coming back in, and he’s roaring with laughter on the sofa, and she just says “Idiot!” I remembered this one-word title. This has stayed with me the whole of my life – suddenly, to suddenly see such an intelligent, and yet innocent sophistication, because there were many things about the film which were really, in a way, innocent. But the film is a progenitor, obviously of Monsieur Verdoux, later on, but it’s a much more grown-up film than Verdoux. But to think that this man [Chaplin] who had all the power in the world, and who was this clown, really, could suddenly turn round and make a film that he wasn’t in, with this lovely woman, Edna Purviance, and how good she was . . . but this particular sequence, with the pearl necklace and with Menjou, the treatment of a man and a woman in a relationship like this, this sequence stayed with me always, ever since then – what was that in, 1923. I was eighteen. Eighteen years old.
The subject is A Woman of Paris and the breathless speaker is Michael Powell, here reliving a hugely significant moment in his artistic development while talking, in 1977, to another British cineaste, Kevin Brownlow. (Thanks for the quote to Mark Fuller and the Powell and Pressburger Pages.)
And from a UCLA source via the Los Angeles Times:
A Woman of Paris (1923) was out of circulation for half a century until 1977, when Chaplin allowed Burt Schneider’s BBC Films to re-release his major features. The film was the first of the radical departures that confounded Chaplin’s public throughout his tempestuous career. Eager to prove himself a serious director and committed to fulfilling his promise to Edna Purviance, his lovely leading lady in 35 early comedies, Chaplin wrote the drama – which was in the vanguard of post-World War I cinema – especially for her. He also wanted to disprove the notion that psychology could not be expressed on the silent screen, and he succeeded magnificently.
Today, thanks to Warner’s DVD release in March 2004, we can all see this formerly rather reclusive film for ourselves. We might also thank the backroom boys and girls at UCLA, Warner, indeed wherever they are, for a chance to savour one of the great contributions to cinema from the silent era and beyond.
I wrote this last sentence before checking David Thomson in Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008). It happens that we both agree Adolph Menjou, as the sugar daddy, is sophistication on stilts. Thomson, in fact, trains his own sights on the byplay between naïveté and/or sophistication throughout Chaplin’s film. Oddly enough, his cool-headed capsule review touches on the point made in Michael Powell’s much warmer and fuller response. For me, too, the innocence or otherwise of the main characters – what they know, or don’t know, about themselves and each other – is always at the centre of things.
As we just saw, for Powell the ambiguities and ambivalences of the movie are extremely “grown-up,” a term he uses three times as an adjective and once as a noun. And it’s on this point about Chaplin’s emotional maturity as an artist that Thomson parts company with Powell and with me: true enough, he says, Chaplin is “striving” for adult emotional realities, but, finally, he doesn’t quite pull it off.
As though to settle the nerves if not the argument, many in the film world will remind us that, by the way, none of this stuff is actually real. Sometimes fear of mean-minded litigation drives such blandness; sometimes it’s anxiety about copycat behaviour. Sometimes, though, it’s more personal: “Oh, I so wanted to believe in this picture and find some lasting moral vision, but, alright, that isn’t exactly a ‘grown-up’ response.”
Yet even industry figures must have the odd Holden Caulfield moment, mustn’t they? Truth to tell, I don’t believe we actually want to get over all that “universal,” “human,” “timeless’ stuff so beloved of early-20th-century cinema.
As proof, unless we’re exquisite counterfeiters, Birdman, for example, shimmers and shimmies under its modern skirts like that grand old universalising trouper, A Star Is Born. I’m not thinking of the Judy Garland/James Mason version, good as it is, but of the faster-paced, surprisingly gritty version from 1937, starring Frederic March and Janet Gaynor. Real deal or fake, Birdman’s industrial-scale hoovering job on this year’s Oscars invites us to reflect, if we will, on the nature of “our” dream factories, studying their impact not only on would-be insiders but – wait a minute, oh, goodness gracious – on “ourselves”!
Meanwhile, it makes sense that Gaynor – of short unstar-like stature – had previously played a big part in the success of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed in 1927 by the brilliant but unbearably short-lived F. W. Murnau. Thomson, of course, is his own man on these films too: very good on the unsung or lesser-sung humans on the crews of these pictures; not so happy with, for example, Gaynor: too girlish in the Murnau, too mature (at thirty) to be William Wellman’s Star.
* * *
Human as Chaplin’s popular art always was, his tilt at high art in A Woman of Paris risked the fractures and fragmentations of the all-too-human. And though it fared well in Europe, failure at the American box office led to its being effectively censored by its own maker, who pulled it with unusual haste from circulation. In full control at United Artists, Chaplin wasn’t going to meet serious opposition, even from his most art-obsessed colleagues.
But, while in terms of dark materials, we’re not talking Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange, if one squints hard enough there are hints of a crazy nihilism in A Woman of Paris that, today, might be termed “bipolar” – a set of wild reactions to universal war and the flu pandemic that quickly followed.
In fact, though, I think it’s one of the film’s chief attractions that, as so often in real life, we just can’t say whether any of the darker elements of the film – even the young hero’s suicide – are “inevitable.” From the very start, absolutely nothing feels settled or clear, in Town or Country. By the way, A Woman of Paris makes excellent use of this potent dichotomy, though we have tended to hear more about it in reference to Murnau’s aforementioned Sunrise. Now, with the Chaplin well and truly out there, I suspect some critical histories will be resetting their default.
Meanwhile, in the “real” world, women’s lib had had its wheels oiled by a huge loss of economically active men. On the other hand, if women moved too quickly into the fast lane, whatever would become of their indispensable educational and spiritual input? This “problem” looks a good distance off in the future when the conventional young lovers, with whom the film opens, meet conventional opposition from (his) paranoid provincial parents.
But the plan to elope is not foiled by convention. The painter hero is all geared up to join his girl at the railway station when his father, who has actually struggled successfully, with help from his wife, to accept the situation, suddenly dies of a heart attack. The young man is on the phone to the waiting girl at the time, intending to pass on the good news about the changed parental worldview. So when the line goes dead, she decides to catch the Paris train without him. I suppose the same people who are irritated by Thomas Hardy’s coincidences won’t like the sound of this. But in my view these opening scenes are framed and paced so beautifully we simply get caught up in their dense emotional possibilities. For example, we can decide, with justice, that the girl might have done more to find out what was happening at the other end of the phone. Or, as I did, we might feel she’s simply remembering his parents’ opposition and knows nothing at all about their last-minute change of heart. In which case, it would be far from unreasonable for her to assume that, as a loyal only child, he’s been put under more pressure than he can bear and won’t be joining her anytime soon.
Writing these things out, one can’t help but reflect how much can be encompassed – and, in storytelling terms, so quickly – by a skilled filmmaker. This applies to any film era, of course, before or after the coming of sound. On that latter point, Chaplin, more than anyone, was in such a strong position with such a huge international audience, he actually delayed moving to sound until the early 1930s. By the late ’20s, all the best directors were embracing the new technology. Nevertheless, Chaplin seems to have held his nerve and his fire. Perhaps he felt the very uneven technical results could just wreck his hard-won image as the world’s best-loved visual artist. But the competition from sound wasn’t yet as big a worry as we might assume. All those graduates of the German film industry – Murnau, Paul Leni, Ernst Lubitsch, gifted artists lured as Chaplin had been to America – couldn’t suddenly reach a wider public, if only because most theatres didn’t have the necessary new sound equipment.
In fact, as early as 1923, Chaplin was already holding the future so firmly in his hands that, for once, he allowed his artistry to roam in ways that turned out to be rather scarily futuristic – to his American public and, it seems, to himself. David Thomson, by the way, is possibly alluding to this in his capsule review when describing his sense of Chaplin seeing the future but not reaching it.
The view I’m expressing here is that Chaplin came, saw, and conquered – conquered all too well, in fact. I’m not referring to his “contentious” early private life, which, reprehensibly or not, was par for the sexual mores course. I’m looking instead at a film that was anything but par for the course and – not avoiding cliché or hyperbole – eons ahead of its time.
* * *
Edna Purviance is described by some as “Junoesque,” by which we are to understand that she’s not a five-foot-two, eyes-of-blue all-male fantasy. The epithet is misleading just the same because, in this film if in no other, we must forget all about Ancient Greek pantheons. Purviance, then, plays as “human” a female role as we’re likely to find in a month of male-dominated cinematic Sundays. But, again, not to mislead anyone, there’s no suggestion of “innate” female weaknesses – or indeed strengths. Chaplin, who so often portrayed women as damsels in distress, has allowed Edna Purviance to be his equal, certainly as a fellow artist and, quite possibly, as a person. And, like Chaplin-as-Tramp – a figure uniquely absent from this movie – as a performance artist she’s of, by, and for the People. Junoesque or not, she’s got everything she needs and she don’t look back!
One of the best pieces of evidence for this occurs in that scene so keenly remembered by Michael Powell, though he doesn’t directly allude to it. There’s been a quarrel between Marie St. Clair and Pierre Revel, and she chucks an expensive necklace out of the window. She retrieves it, as Powell says. Previous scenes have established her as an increasingly unwilling bird in a decreasingly gilded cage. That explains her frustration, but not how near or far she might be from leaving Pierre. And it certainly doesn’t tell us about any particular insecurities she might be feeling in this instant. Anything we learn about that comes almost entirely from her body language and the cutting of the scenes. What I recall is the introduction of one strolling policeman viewed from the flat window above: will he intervene as she grabs back the pearls and pays off the bewildered tramp? In fact, he doesn’t betray much interest at all – hardly enough to engage our own interest. Yet his presence – his quiescent normality – is entirely unnerving and about as far from Keystone Kop territory as one could conceive. There’s a very modern, European edge to this style of filmmaking that we’ve grown used to seeing in many later directors. But not to make this too exhaustive a critique, I think I must settle for saying that Chaplin here demonstrates, with huge assistance from Purviance and the rest of the cast, a degree of artistic subtlety with which even his strongest admirers don’t often associate him.
To conclude where the film concludes, I find very similar touches of the auteur – and of some beautifully understated acting from Purviance – in the final scenes. Briefly, Marie has made the break from Pierre, though too late to prevent the suicide of her first love, Jean. That, by the way, is presented as entirely avoidable and at the same time as a sort of public spectacle – another one bites the dust. Paris, after all, had seen such things before. Jean’s mother having come within inches of avenging her son’s death, not on Paris but on Marie, sees, not a moment too soon, that Marie is as disturbed and broken up by her son’s death as she is herself.
So the two women become a solid item, together reinventing the sort of positive future that had seemed all but lost: in fact, they’ll establish a home for orphans – the kind of project to which Chaplin, the East London urchin, would have related with no forced sentiment whatsoever. Now we’re back where we began in the countryside with Marie and Maman; it’s a sunny day and, along with a couple of singing farm labourers, they’re chilling at the side of their wagon on a narrow country road.
Yes, I know how all that sounds; but Chaplin constantly disrupts the potential for sickly idyll, cutting back and forth to an open automobile doing a fair lick on the same narrow road. In the car sits Monsieur Sophistication-On-Stilts himself, aka Pierre Revel. Insouciant as ever and tirelessly devoted to his own interests, his carefree capacity to crash into Marie and company becomes increasingly threatening. Even the slightly grudging David Thomson selects this ending as “one of the picture’s great rewards.” However, in his wording the hay cart passes the automobile, which seriously misstates the action: on any construction, and before we get too Stephen Hawking about the physics, it’s the car that swishes so uncomfortably close to the cart. But in a touch of supreme irony, which Thomson rightly underlines, neither group – in cart or car – recognise each other. The End. And indeed it was the end of Chaplin as progenitor of New Wave cinema.
What we’re left with, even so, goes a bit further than “unsmug irony” and opens up a very heady sense of radical possibilities: ex-lovers suddenly dead in a road accident, putting an end to any future whatsoever; or, fatefully rather than designedly, a life of selfless charity and comforting but simple pleasures. It’s an ending that straddles the poles of “our” existential lot – very French in its philosophy and its earthiness. And in its accent on the potential female contribution toward a less brutal world, universal, certainly. But rare – sadly, still all too rare.