Evening at Loew's Delancy
Saw Chaplin's serious
A Woman of Paris
- Fine work. -
My special friend Netflix recently afforded me the opportunity to see A Woman of Paris, and while I was excited just to watch something that Papa saw, I think it's a fine movie on its own merits. It's also an unusual work for Chaplin because, as Papa points out, it's a "serious movie production" and, as its opening title card cautions, Chaplin doesn't appear in it.
I don't see a lot of silent films, so when I do I'm often surprised by their technical sophistication. Early talkies could be stagy and static because primitive microphones forced actors and cameras to stay in place, but it's easy to mistake those limitations as endemic to 20's films in general. In fact, silent directors were not so restricted, and Chaplin displays a masterly command of pacing, editing, composition and camera movement. Chaplin directed the films he starred in, too, but as Vincent Canby noted when A Woman of Paris was revived in 1978, Chaplin's directorial talent is "so closely bound to the performer's personality we can't easily tell where one starts and the other leaves off." If you're a movie fan, A Woman of Paris is worth checking out just to evaluate Chaplin's behind-the-camera talent without distraction.
The story concerns a young provincial woman named Marie St. Claire (Edna Purviance, a Chaplin regular) who heads off to Paris when her plans to elope with Jean, her earnest young beau (Carl Miller) go awry. Within a year she's living in high style, kept by the unapologetically lascivious playboy Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou, who really stands out). Jean resurfaces in Paris, and a moral crisis ensues for Marie.
I have to remind myself, when I see better silent films, that their broad performances and dramatic scores do not mean the films inherently lack nuance, and A Woman of Paris is a great example. Though he's a cad, Pierre is not unsympathetic, and he's far more honest with Marie than Jean, who claims to want her back but is unable to really pursue her for fear of offending his mother. Marie may be a kept woman, but Chaplin does not judge her too harshly, and resists the urge to force her into a climactic rejection of her comfortable life (as I've been conditioned to expect from major Hollywood releases). Jean is just too wishy-washy to merit such a change. While everything ends in a rush with Jean's sudden death and Marie leaving Paris to work in a provincial orphanage, the resolution is not as corny as it sounds. As Canby notes, the film is "a highly moral tale that teaches that the wages of naivete is death, while the wages of sin may well be a better understanding of the true values of living."
The film was apparently critical darling (the New York Times called Chaplin a "director par excellence...a bold, resourceful, imaginative, ingenious, careful, studious and daring artist") but disappointed the public, who didn't want to see a Chaplin movie without Chaplin. My wife, Stephanie, finds it consistent that Papa liked an ambiguous, commercially unpopular movie because I generally prefer difficult, ambiguous, or depressing movies over popular ones, as do my mother and my sister. It's not quite clear what Papa, who prided himself on being a gentleman, would have liked about a story in which gentle behavior is a dubious virtue, but maybe he just liked interesting art for its own sake. Or, perhaps, the film's final title card cemented his approval:
It was right in line with what he believed (and after the previous day's romantic roller-coaster, something he probably needed to tell himself). Perhaps he nodded quietly to himself as he read it.
According to Cinematreasures.org, The Loews Delancey Theatre was located at 140-146 Delancey street, next to Ratner's (the legendary dairy restaurant that tragically closed a few years ago). It's amazing to think that there were once at least two independent movie houses on the Lower East Side within a few blocks of each other (the Clinton and the Delancey) when so few independent theaters survive in New York today. Anyway, there's a great thread about the Delancey at Cinematreasures, so head over there if you want to learn more.
- A Woman of Paris on IMDB