Judge Bill Treadway reveals a shocking truth about Charles Chaplin: The master filmmaker was bicoastal.
New York. Paris. Signposts of a career unlike any other.
A Woman in Paris and A King in New York are most often referred to as the Chaplin films you can most afford to skip, but I'm here to suggest otherwise. These two films are neglected masterpieces that should be required viewing for both fans and casual viewers alike.
Facts of the Case
A Woman of Paris: Marie St. Clair (Edna Purviance) wants to elope with her true love, Jean (Carl Miller), but is faced with a disapproving father who locks her out of her own home. Jean decides to leave Marie at the train station while he returns home to get more money and his parents' blessing. Marie makes an error of judgment and decides to leave on the next train. Flash forward to several years later. Marie is the mistress of the filthy rich Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou). Suddenly, Jean re-enters her life, and Marie must choose between her lost true love and the lifestyle she has become accustomed to.
A King in New York: Exiled from his monarchy, King Shadov (Chaplin) finds refuge in New York. His purpose: to gain support for plans involving the use of nuclear power for the good of mankind. While taking in the sights and sounds of his adopted city, he discovers that life in New York is full of surprises. He unwittingly becomes a darling of advertisers everywhere and befriends young Rupert Maccabee (Michael Chaplin). Rupert is the son of two Communist activists, and soon the King finds himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of being an unfriendly witness.
A Woman of Paris and A King in New York have two things in common. First, they both marked unique turning points in the career of Charles Chaplin. Second, they are among Chaplin's least admired films.
A Woman of Paris was Chaplin's debut feature for United Artists. UA was a production/distribution studio formed by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Chaplin himself earlier in 1922. The picture was Chaplin's first attempt at drama, a genre he eagerly wanted to dabble in. Eager to help longtime leading lady Edna Purviance establish a separate career away from his comedies, Chaplin cast her in the lead. For the first time in his career, Chaplin set out to make a lavish, decadent-looking film, filled with stunning visuals enhanced by silky black-and-white photography. When the film opened in 1923, however, audiences stayed away in droves. The reason: absolutely zero interest in a Chaplin film without the Little Tramp. A 1924 New Year's Eve scandal involving Purviance did not help matters, resulting in the film's being banned in a number of U.S. cities. Before his death in 1977, Chaplin prepared a new edit, tightening the film and adding a newly composed score. The new edit was released posthumously in 1978.
I shouldn't be surprised that audiences stayed away from A Woman in Paris. It is a custom for audiences to avoid a work that doesn't resemble the image they have set in their minds of an actor or director. You cannot accuse Chaplin of misleading the audience. He made mention of the fact that A Woman of Paris was a serious drama as often as he could: in ads, lobby posters, and even a credit card on the film itself. It is a shame the audiences did not give A Woman in Paris a fair chance, as it is a magnificent film sheerly in its poignancy and opulence.
Chaplin's greatest gift was his ability to touch the human heart through film. He just had the ability to tap into human emotions like no other. Never has a Chaplin movie moved me more than A Woman of Paris. By the time the bittersweet ending arrived, I was a teary mess. If there is such a thing as a three-hanky film, A Woman of Paris is it. Chaplin shows a firm grasp of melodrama without resorting to standard clichés. Everything that occurs in A Woman of Paris is completely plausible. That is another reason why it hits the tear ducts so hard: The idea that these events really could happen allow us to sympathize with the main characters.
Roland Totheroh's cinematography is gorgeous. Filmed in black-and-white, it goes to show how color would have been all wrong. Black-and-white strips down the image to the bare essentials; without distracting color, we can peer deeper into the content on screen.
The performances are exquisite. Edna Purviance shows a range that her previous comedic performances did not hint at. If it had not been for this film's failure, I am positive she could have had a fine dramatic career. Her role is a difficult one: She is our heroine, but sometimes the character does things that we do not agree with. Purviance plays all these emotions with such reality that we manage to go along with her, even as we argue. Most critics claim that A Woman of Paris launched Adolphe Menjou to international stardom. I have no idea if that is really true or not, but his fine performance certainly put him in demand. The year after Woman was released, he appeared in ten films, double his previous year's output. He also has a difficult role—the charming cad—and does wonders with it. Often left out in the accolades is Carl Miller, who plays Jean, the jilted lover of Marie. This could have been a thankless role, but Chaplin and Miller work together to create a transcendent characterization. We care deeply about Jean's plight and his still-present desire for Marie. Keep a sharp eye out for Frank "Junior" Coghlan (The Adventures of Captain Marvel) and Chaplin regular Henry Bergman in small roles.
A King in New York was made under unique circumstances. It was the first Chaplin film to be made outside of America, and it was also the first Chaplin film to be made on a tight schedule and budget. Forced to shoot in England, he rented studio space at Shepperton Studios and searched for locations that could approximate New York locations as best as possible. Taking potshots at various aspects of modern American life, the film did huge business in Europe. In America, it would remain unseen for over 28 years.
A common criticism of A King in New York is that Chaplin takes on far too many targets in the brief running time, but I think that is a virtue of the film. Asking a satire to restrain itself is almost like telling a starving man not to eat too much. I liked the no-holds-barred approach Chaplin took with his film. Chaplin had a lot of anger to vent about how his adopted country treated him, and he spares nothing in this film. His disdain for widescreen and other gimmicks provides three of the biggest laughs ever in a Chaplin film. The ultimate revenge against HUAC had me cheering in my seat, even though I was not even born when the board wrought havoc on America. Chaplin also predicts the sleaziness of the advertising world before it got out of control. He holds nothing back as he takes one shot after another. The result is a breathtaking and often hilarious masterpiece.
It is amazing how well Chaplin managed to recreate New York with London locations. My mother actually believed that it was really New York and asked me if Chaplin had dispatched a skeleton crew there to film. He could have just as easily recreated the key locations on soundstages, but it wouldn't have been the same. While it is true that the cinematography looks a bit murky and flat, there is a reason for this: Chaplin was working on borrowed time. His previous films were made with complete autonomy and at his own pace. In England, however, he had to rent what he previously owned and work with a tight budget. Often he would just shoot quickly and move on. Rather than being a debit, I think the murky visuals and frenzied production actually work for the film's benefit. Chaplin's story is not a meek one, but rather a venting of frustrations resulting from a country he loved but could no longer live in.
Many critics of the film accused it of being "anti-American." That is a false charge. Chaplin doesn't hate the country but rather doesn't like what has happened to his adopted country with the advent of modern popular culture. If there's one thing that is completely anti-American in Chaplin's film, it is HUAC. They get the biggest and harshest lashings from him, and no wonder: They were a factor in his forced departure from America. Chaplin was among the first major filmmakers to suggest that HUAC and their method of blackmail was anything but fair.
The performances are all first rate. Chaplin is in fine form as Shahdov, the thinly veiled autobiographical figure. The British cast that Chaplin assembled are actually convincing as Americans in both voice and manner. The standout of the cast is Chaplin's son Michael as the young malcontent Rupert. It is one of the most remarkable performances given by a child actor in the history of the cinema. Despite the fact that his father had a great deal of control over the performance, there is also natural talent here. The performance is so real and heartfelt that one wonders why young Michael didn't make more of a career from it.
The films featured in The Chaplin Collection were previously available in an average set of discs from Image Entertainment. For these new reissues, Warner Bros and MK2 Editions sought out elements from the Chaplin archives. With these elements in hand, they carried out a careful restoration. While the transfers will never look completely new, the new restorations breathe new life into them. I have never seen A Woman of Paris look so stunning before, not even on 35mm film. Some blemishes such as specks and flickering will never go away completely, but MK2's restoration minimizes these defects and gives the film a sheen unseen for over seventy years. A King of New York is presented in full frame. Some critics have argued that a widescreen version should have been offered, claiming that the 1977 re-release had a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. If this is true, then the re-release image was cropped, since Chaplin only made one widescreen film in his entire career—A Countess from Hong Kong. The full-frame image provided here remains faithful to Chaplin's original compositions. MK2's transfer is also the best this film has looked in years. The CBS/FOX VHS release looked murky and dark, but MK2's edition brightens the picture and cleans up a few messy splices present in earlier prints.
I do take issue with the audio, though. The decision was made to offer remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo mixes for all the titles in The Chaplin Collection, and this mix sounds too hollow and tinny for my taste. Switch between the 5.1 and the mono mixes and you'll discover a startling difference. The mono sounds stronger and punchier. The stereo mix isolates the music between several channels, resulting in a rather disorienting experience. Switch on the mono, though, and you won't have such problems. Chaplin made no secret of his disdain for stereophonic sound. With the exception of A Countess from Hong Kong, Chaplin always preferred mono, even for the re-releases. Why argue with a genius?
The Image release was a barebones affair. Warner Bros. and MK2 rectify this by giving A Woman of Paris/A King in New York a fully loaded two-disc special edition.
We begin with a pair of introductions by David Robinson, author of Charles Chaplin, Comic Genius. These are only five minutes in length, so don't expect a great deal of information, but if you have read the Robinson book, these are the perfect companion pieces. Two more installments of the British documentary series Chaplin Today are offered here. The first offers the thoughts of Jim Jarmusch on A King in New York in an installment directed by Jerome de Missolz. The second offers renowned actress-turned-director Liv Ullmann (Scenes from a Marriage, Faithless) in Mathias Ledoux's installment regarding A Woman of Paris. Both run about 26 minutes in length. I easily recommend both installments, as they give new insights into two films that reveal something new each time you see them.
Both A Woman of Paris and A King in New York were trimmed by Chaplin for their respective re-release and debut in the late 1970s. The deleted shots and scenes are shown here for the first time in many, many years. I think Chaplin did the right thing in cutting this footage, as both films benefit from the trimming. King offers 16 minutes of additional footage, and Woman has six minutes of shots. The nice thing about MK2's presentation is that it shows the scene as it played in the re-edited versions first. Then it presents the original longer versions. I wish more studios would do this on DVD releases.
Further extras are also included:
• "Mandolin Serenade"—This is rare publicity
footage featuring Chaplin conducting his orchestra during production on A
King in New York. Watching it shows another aspect of Chaplin's genius.
This double-feature disc is available separately for $29.99. If you choose to opt for the more expensive Chaplin Collection box set, in which this title is included, you will not be sorry.
How could I possibly find Charles Chaplin guilty in this courtroom? These charges are ridiculous! I move to dismiss this case pronto!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.