With A Woman of Paris, Chaplin ventures into directing--but we moviegoers--well, we don’t. Venture, that is. He’s made more than fifty pictures, I’m sure--but it appears that isn’t enough Charlie for us.
And it’s a shame we’ve turned away. Chaplin’s melodrama is not only nicely filmed--he has given Edna Purviance quite a gift--no, she has done more for him: Her “woman of Paris” is nuanced, understated, subtle; a new standard for film acting, if I may wax critical. Again: Not only does Chaplin know how to situate the camera, but his lighting and sense of the physical spaces his characters inhabit is as understated as the performances he encourages. The series of shots that open the film leads us quietly into an anxious situation: the young lovers denied their fathers’ blessing--her father’s shadow rising as he advances to lock the door, shutting her out of his house and life. The train that she takes to Paris alone--mistaken that her fiancé has had second thoughts--arrives not as an object but a series of lights cast on Marie’s face, leading her away.
But there is more to the picture than technique. Chaplin has redeemed the melodrama. The requisite unyielding parent is multiplied--both Marie's and Jean's fathers banish them from their homes--and it is not the young people's moral weakness that is scorned, simply their desire to become like their parents: married, and with luck happy together. And when Marie is denied this simple wish, she becomes the mistress of “the richest bachelor in Paris” (an irresistibly charming Adolph Menjou), he turns out not to be a cad but simply an insouciant man of the world--amoral, perhaps, but not the villain--almost an innocent bystander: In one scene, Menjou fools with a soprano saxophone, a silly little thing that amuses him, and us. And the girl’s final ally turns out to be the boy’s mother, the two of them standing together--yes, in a tidily moral “life of service”--caring for orphans (with only the local priest as a stand-in “Father”)--but it is essentially a society of women, the two of them safe now that all the stern, passionate, and even devil-may-care men are out of their lives.
Charlie’s love of women is not only evident to the movie-land gossips but on the screen, where he is giving them more and more room to reveal themselves--and again, it’s a shame we do not reward his effort to move out of the spotlight and allow the women to speak their minds, and show us what our follies bring to their lives.