Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Of Tramps and Vamps

This past weekend was the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s introduction of his Little Tramp character in the 1914 short film Kid Auto Races at Venice and there is probably no single character in cinematic history so universally recognized or instantly iconic as him.  As you can see in these stamps, from various decades and continents, the Tramp belonged to the world, and was embraced for the hope and humanity he represented.

But 1923 was an unusual year for Charlie Chaplin.  After enormous success at the Essanay and Mutual studios, he was now at First National, fresh from his first feature film, the incredibly popular and moving The Kid (1921).  He was still making shorts, but with nowhere near the same manic productivity of the previous handful of years.  He was an artist in transition, and faced with the prospect of creating an ambitious follow-up, he took an unusual turn—one unlike any in his remarkable career.

A Woman of Paris (subtitled “A Drama of Fate”) opens with the following disclaimer:

TO THE PUBLIC: In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I wish to announce that I do not appear in this picture.  It is the first serious drama written and directed by myself.  – CHARLES CHAPLIN.

No ambiguity about his intentions, Chaplin wanted to make a movie that wasn’t propped up by levity or his own comedic presence.  And the story is a familiar one: a provincial ingĂ©nue, unhappy with her home and romantic life, goes to the big city, where she becomes torn between a wealthy benefactor and her beau from her past life.

The film, quite frankly, is an impressive endeavor, but also a bit of a mess—albeit an illuminating one, because it brings into sharp relief what a master storyteller Chaplin typically was, and how his rigorous discipline in creating comic set-ups was a reflection of his insistence on having motivation and characterization contribute to a larger narrative unity.

When the film opens, we already see Marie St. Clair (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance) and Jean Millet (Carl Miller) ready to elope.  Summarily banished from her own house and rejected by his parents, she’s taken by him to the train station to purchase tickets to Paris while he quickly returns home to pack a few items before meeting back up with her.  A family tragedy delays him, but despite his efforts to explain the situation, she simply hangs up on him and, without a penny or possession, goes to Paris alone.

While we do later learn that Jean is unreliable and easily swayed by parental pressure, we haven’t seen this yet.  It is his idea to take Marie in when her step-father abandons her.  It is his idea to move forward with their plans to marry.  Why does she give up on these dreams so quickly, and without even giving him a chance to explain?  We know very little about the couple, but she is quickly characterized as one ready to appease and acquiesce; so where does this spirit of reckless abandon come from?

Then, an intertitle: “A year later in the magic city of Paris, where fortune is fickle and a woman gambles with her life.”  And now Marie is traveling in the uppermost circles of Paris society.  She has a stable of vain and fashionable friends, all well-to-do (if perhaps fellow gold-diggers).  She is the kept woman of the richest bachelor in Paris, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou).  She is cavalier enough about her opulent lifestyle that she isn’t worried about the prospect of losing her meal ticket when Revel becomes engaged (for business reasons) to another woman, but she is also still conventional enough that she objects to his remaining her sugar daddy, even though it’s an arrangement he wants to maintain because of his affection for her.

How did this traditional country girl ascend so fast to this high social tier?  How did she adapt such a sophisticated, almost cynical, attitude so quickly?  We see not a sliver of this potential in the first act of the film, so this transition feels incongruous and jarring.  And then, invited to an upper-class friend’s party, she happens on the wrong apartment by accident and discovers Jean living with his widowed mother in the same building.  How did they move to Paris so quickly, and how are they able to support this quality-of-life change on Jean’s profession as an artist?  And how likely is it that Revel would’ve never heard Marie mention Jean over the course of their affair? Again, no answers.

And this comes as quite a shock coming from Chaplin.  His films are brilliant examples of the intricate mechanism of set-up and payoff, where he establishes early a prop, a character foible, a deep-seeded intention, a simmering conflict, all so that when these elements align, a convincing foundation has been laid and the convergence of these story points harmonize to beautiful effect.
His films are filled with coincidence and unlikely incidents, but they never stink of contrivance because he has planted the necessary seeds in a way that is meticulous, visually deft, but also quite hilarious.  And here may be one important factor—because when we laugh, we as an audience are willing to forgive much that might otherwise suspend our disbelief.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  Chaplin’s obsession with multiple takes and working out the minutest of details is legendary, and this relentless perfectionsim was critical in making many of his most famous sequences work so effectively.  A Woman of Paris suggests that these comic set-ups were instrumental in driving this exacting narrative cause-and-effect, for divorced from any humorous context, the motivations in this “serious” drama are flimsy and the characterizations underdeveloped.

“A Drama of Fate” suggests a certain inevitability to Marie’s story, that her future was preordained by bad luck and the world’s cruelty.  But whereas Chaplin can mine deep emotional undercurrents from his comic set-ups (another part of his genius), there is little to invest in with Marie’s tale because she is less the victim of class or patriarchy and more her own bad, almost random, choices.  There is lots of melodrama, but little that is tragic.  Just frustrating.

This translates to the casting as well.  Purviance showed great comedic chops in his films, but also genuine emotional warmth and range; but here she seems adrift, not quite knowing where to take her character.  Marie is obviously meant to be a complex persona, but it never quite elevates beyond the contradictory.  Unquestionably the best performance is by Menjou, who controls every scene he’s in, and even though his part of the wealth, materialistic temptation is usually the heavy in these morality tales, he is not only the most charismatic person in the film, but also the most sympathetic—because he knows what he wants, refuses to be a hypocrite, but still displays real feeling, too.  Was Chaplin a better evaluator of performance when he was acting in a scene?  Did performing opposite him bring out unexpected qualities from his co-stars?  It’s tough to say, but Woman certainly raises these questions.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to admire in Woman.  Chaplin shows his gift for composition often, and brings enormous amount of energy to the various crowd scenes.  The story does have a real adult and sophisticated sensibility.  And there are still small little touches, visual grace notes, that act as emotional shorthand in individual moments.  Plus, the ending is an unexpected one, although still in compliance with reaffirming gender roles of the time.  It is only the larger arc that I find unsatisfying, these merits notwithstanding.   But it does one make one wonder how Chaplin’s directorial skills would’ve developed if he’d pursued more projects like this in his career.  As it stands, A Woman of Paris remains a one-off for him—a fascinating experiment in a legendary career.

Chaplin’s last “short”, (actually a four-reeler) was also in 1923, The Pilgrim.  After that, it would only be features, with the masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925) right on the horizon, though this exacting nature would mean his productivity would slow down while his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, with two features each in 1923, would stay at full throttle until the silent era ended.  But he would prove with each subsequent film, that the wait was well worth it.