Archive for A Woman of Paris

Meaningful Beauty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2021 by dcairns

Rounding off my WOMAN OF PARIS coverage as it seems important to get to THE GOLD RUSH for the holiday season. It’s a snowy, festive film.

I’ll tell you who’s good in AWOP — Nellie Bly Baker, the secretary at the Chaplin Studio, who plays a masseuse. Chaplin apparently knew she could mimic him well enough to do the role. He just cuts to her nearly impassive face as Edna is getting a rubdown and discussing her love life with friends. Silent condemnation from La Baker, her eyes deliberately unseeing. Marvelously understated — it’s only the regularity of the cutaways that makes her attitude very clear indeed.

So, although I don’t hugely love the movie, I’m massively impressed by the storytelling. Like the way a shirt cuff, dropped from a drawer, reveals to Carl Miller’s character the fact that Edna has a lover. A very Lubitschian conceit.

Again, against the elegance of the narration is the corniness of the story. Edna’s struggle to choose between love and luxury implies a sophistication that is belied by the third act melodrama: Miller at first seems set to murder Menjou, then shoots himself. His mother takes the gun and sets off to kill Edna. At this point, improbabilities have piled up past the point I can take them seriously. And then Edna and mom bury the hatchet and go off to do good works.

Chaplin, according to David Robinson, came to work one day all excited about his solution to the story: the two women would go work in a leper colony. This notion was greeted with revulsion by his team, and Chaplin stormed off, taking several days away from the studio. When he returned, the incident was never mentioned. So instead out heroine and her former foe are running an orphanage, still a sentimental solution but less grotesque. One wonders about entrusting Lydia Knott’s mom character with more kids, she didn’t do so well with her son.

Chaplin also planned a meeting between Menjou and Purviance’s characters, but had a happier inspiration in the end: they pass by, oblivious of one another, she hitching a ride on a cart with a band of musicians, he riding in a limo with a crony. The guys asks, apropos of nothing, “By the way, whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?” Menjou gives an indifferent shrug. And at that moment, illustrating neatly the idea of fate Chaplin hints at in the film’s sub-title, the paths cross.

But there’s more. Chaplin pays particular close attention to the musicians Edna is riding with, just as he had to Nellie Bly Baker earlier. The three distinct cutaways to the singer and accordionist carry some poetic meaning, just out of reach of the rational brain. They have nothing to do with anything that’s happening, and we don’t know what they’re singing. And I think it’s their irrelevance that makes them poetic. They’re life, and they’re going on without regard to the melodrama that has just fizzled out.

I would like to suggest that the strange, medievalesque pilgrim troupe that pass by at the end of Fellini’s IL BIDONE, and the strolling players who join paths with Masina at the end of his NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, derive directly from this moment. We know Fellini took a lot of inspiration from Chaplin.

The peculiar time-warped troupe of IL BIDONE provoked a battle between Fellini and his producer. An assistant was asked his opinion. He said they should keep them in the picture, as the scene had beauty. To his surprise, Fellini rejected this argument. No, he said. It had MEANINGFUL BEAUTY.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Wild Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2021 by dcairns

Maybe my favourite scene in A WOMAN OF PARIS is a scene none of the main characters is even in. It’s the party Edna is meaning to go to, and instead she ends up encountering her lost love. (He’s wearing a mourning armband, a narrative shorthand borrowed from THE IMMIGRANT, which was originally going to take place in the Latin Quarter also: here, the device is a little awkward because it begs the question, how long has Edna been in Paris?)

The thing about the party scene is, it’s FUNNY. In an elegantly smutty way. It shows what Chaplin could have done if he’d leaned into this kind of wit — instead, he opened a door for Lubitsch to go through. It also suggests, maybe, what he was up to with A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, the kind of thing he’d have liked it to be.

The establishing shot shows couples dancing while a pair of girls riding on men’s shoulders have a pillow fight. It’s curiously reminiscent of Joe Dante’s RECKLESS YOUTH. A girl (Bess Flowers) dressed only in a long bandage is placed on a dais, and a stout gentleman wraps one end of the gauze around his waist. Then he slowly rotates, and she rotates on her plinth, as the bandage winds round him and unwinds from her.

Chaplin packs this brief bit of business with amusing and characterful reactions: the very interested lady with the monocle; the guy rocking Fritz Rasp levels of loucheness who reacts with sudden real fury when his eyes are playfully covered at the moment of revelation. I suspect Chaplin may have heard of or witnessed such a scene during his Paris trip, but the details are all his invention.

And there’s a lovely pay-off: a chap who has slumped against a wall and fallen unconscious earlier, while Edna was being invited on the telephone, wakes up just in time to get an eyeful of the naked girl who has retreated behind a screen. So he passes out again.

It’s all deliciously naughty, but worked by indirection: we never see a naked form, but understand its impact from the responses it provokes. And that’s a very Lubitschian idea. As Billy Wilder put it, Lubitsch says “One plus one” and leaves it to the audience to provide the “equals two.” You can make the telling of the story funny purely by doing it indirectly — somehow the act of adding it up creates a sense of punchline for the audience. And we laugh partly through being pleased with ourselves.

Not that we’ve done anything clever here. Chaplin has. But he somehow flatters us by creating all the decadence through suggestion.

Just think: film history might have turned out quite differently if Edna had gone to the right address: A WOMAN OF PARIS would have been a naughty comedy about demi-mondaine hi-jinks, might have set the box office ablaze, and Chaplin might have escaped from the Tramp character before THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES.

I’m kind of glad Edna made the wrong turn — but also glad that Lubitsch was watching, ready to pounce.

Posh Lust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2021 by dcairns

The curious thing about A WOMAN OF PARIS is the clash of sophisticated comedy and naive melodrama. Maybe “comedy” is wrong, but there’s certainly wit in the way the action unfolds.

My two favourite parts are the restaurant kitchen and the decadent party, both of which have their share of humour. The straight drama stuff is Lubitschian in the sense that BROKEN LULLABY/THE MAN I KILLED is Lubitschian: the ironies and delicate reveals have the form of Lubitsch gags, jokes of indirection, but without being funny. Lubitsch finds an interesting alternative to comedy in bitterness: the QUIET PLEASE sign in the hospital where the war wounded are terrified by the sound of the gun salute celebrating the end of war, for instance. Chaplin faces the strange contradiction of subtle indirection being used to tell a story full of essentially corny contrivance. It doesn’t quite take the curse off it.

The girl on the left makes a distinctively French gesture, so that I at first assumed Chaplin had cast an authentic demoiselle, but then I realised he’s probably just acted the movement out for her to copy.

But in our first Parisian scene (no wide shot with Eiffel Tower, just lots of unmistakeable Frenchness), everything works in his favour, because the only plot in motion is the establishing of Edna’s new life as a rich man’s lover.

And the rich man is Adolphe Menjou, which is more good news. His sly ovine features, a kind of Al Hirschfield caricature brought to life (the line of his nose is clearly the work of a pen-stroke, neither genetics nor rhinoplasty could carve something so nifty), peer out across the decades, and improbable set of shapes on an improbable movie star. Lubitsch would acquire him, and much else, for THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, the film which cemented the American style of Uncle Ernst. Adolphe, that light-footed reactionary swine, reportedly acted by numbers (“I think I’ll do a forty-two followed by a seven”), and is also said to have nimbly copied Chaplin’s direction — CC would act out every role for his cast to mimic. But Menjou’s mimicry emerges as pure Menjou. He’s the only actor here who has Chaplin’s elaborate grace, magnetism, breezy arrogance.

“Don’t sell it!” Chaplin would tell Menjou. “Remember, they’re peeking at you.”

Edna is fine, but just not that interesting. It’s said that Chaplin wanted to set her up as an independent star because she was getting too old to play ingenue roles opposite him. And the plot here skips over the part where she’d have to make the transition from new-in-town virginal innocent to metropolitan sophisto. Here she is, transformed. The movie, by the way, becomes a fantastic fashion show at this point, which is one of its main pleasures. The fashions of the 1920s being SO much more sexy and elegant than the frumpery Edna started off with ten years before.

Henry Bergman!

The actor playing the gigolo is Philip Sleeman, whose subsequent roles include “dance hall Lothario,” “lounge lizard,” “night club lizard,” “masher in night court,” “zeppelin reveler” and “spectator at stoning.” Just one of those faces. It’s caricature by casting: his appearance suggests not the attractive type who would appeal to a rich older lady, but the inner corruption that would lead a man to such a career.

In the kitchen, both the film’s production designer, Arthur Stibolt, and assistant director A. Edward Sutherland (left), appear. In the night club, the two technical advisors on naughty Parisian matters appear: Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast and Jean de Limur. Both would go on to directing careers, the latter, an actual comte, directing Menjou in MON GOSSE DE PERE for Pathé-Natan in 1930 (Menjou’s only French production, I think, though he did one or two French-language versions of his early talkies). Eddie Sutherland went on to direct (and marry Louise Brooks), and another of the A.D.s, Monta Bell, also had a substantial producing-directing career.

Another Chaplin associate, Josef Von Sternberg, would hire Menjou to play basically the same role in MOROCCO.

Fiona pointed out that the business with the gamey game bird in the kitchen is “very Chaplin” — his obsession with food, particularly smelly food.

Chaplin had fairly detailed notes for this one, but still filmed in sequence so he could refine the story as he went along, and the thing did change a fair bit. The whole restaurant sequence is striking because, having established Edna’s new situation, it does nothing else. Chaplin just wants to spend time in this environment, and let the audience soak up the atmosphere. He’d just been to Paris, so he was hot on the subject, but he’d long wanted to do something around the romantic-sounding Latin quarter — THE IMMIGRANT had started out with that setting.

I should also mention — A WOMAN OF PARIS is a Late Film: Chaplin was working on the music when he died. Which may account for some strange bits in the score where the emotional tone seems way off. But it’s always preferable to have a Chaplin film with Chaplin music.

TBC