Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 film A Woman of Paris is a film full of firsts. It was his first films released by United Artists, the company he had co-founded four years earlier. It was his first dramatic film, featuring no slapstick comedy at all and it was his first film in which he did not star. It was also a film of lasts. After a fruitful eight year relationship, this was Chaplin’s final film to feature Edna Purviance and it was also his last purely dramatic picture. The movie was warmly received by critics who praised its bold themes, underplayed acting and assured direction but for the public it was a different matter. It’s difficult to quantify Chaplin’s appeal and fame for modern audiences but up to that point no person in the movies was paid more. Upon his first return to London after his American success, literally hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome him home. It is arguable that no entertainer has ever been as famous as Charlie Chaplin was in the first half of the twentieth century.
So, when audiences eagerly flocked to their cinemas in 1923 for the latest Chaplin feature only to find that the man himself wasn’t on screen, it’s easy to understand their disappointment. Imagine paying for another Pirates of the Caribbean film only to discover that there was no Johnny Depp and no pirates. Now image that the Pirate of the Caribbean films were actually good and you get some understanding of the disappointment audiences must have felt. To his credit, Chaplin did attempt to get word out that this was going to be an atypical film with flyers handed out to the long cinema queues and the film actually opens with a disclaimer stating that “I do not appear in this picture” and that it is intended as a “serious drama”. Had the audience been aware of this before the film opened, their reaction might have been very different but instead it was a commercial failure and wasn’t seen again for over fifty years when Chaplin reissued it with a new, self composed score in what was to be the final piece of work before his death in 1977.