Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

A Woman (1915)

July, 2015

Essanay, 1915. Direction and scenario: Charles Chaplin. Camera: Harry Ensign. Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Marta Golden, Charles Inslee, Margie Reiger, Billy Armstrong, Leo White.
            In 2014, film enthusiasts around the world joined to celebrate the centenary of one of the most important careers in film history. Charlie Chaplin burst into the movies in 1914 at the Keystone studio, achieving world celebrity in the space of a single year through his remarkable screen presence in a series of short comedies. One hundred years later, many of us took the opportunity to revisit and savor all of the surviving Chaplin-Keystone films. I featured one of them in this department, but there are plenty of others, surprisingly little known today—just considering—but ripe for rediscovery.
            Now it’s a new year, and the anniversaries continue. By 1915 Chaplin had entered a new phase of his career at the Essanay studio. Essanay had lured him away from Keystone by granting him a new degree of autonomy, and Chaplin, writing and directing his films as well as starring in them, began to emerge as a full-fledged artist. Some of the bona fide classics of the Chaplin canon, such as The Tramp, were produced during his Essanay tenure—but so too were other films, equally brilliant but less celebrated, including our present selection. One hundred years ago this month, audiences saw Charlie Chaplin in A Woman.
            Like so many early comedies, this one is based on a simple situation involving romantic dalliances in a public park. Chaplin, as the Tramp, gets into a slapstick confrontation with a stranger; then, in another part of the park, he begins to flirt outrageously with two women sitting on a bench—not knowing that they are, respectively, the wife and daughter of the man he has just pushed into the lake. Invited by the two ladies into their home, Chaplin is enjoying himself until his adversary shows up, recognizes him, and threatens mayhem. To escape the older man’s wrath, Chaplin borrows some of the daughter’s clothes and disguises himself as a woman. His ruse works so well that the older man is smitten with him, and begins an active flirtation of his own!
            Such attention as A Woman gets today is invariably focused on Chaplin’s feminine disguise—and, to be sure, it is remarkable. Most of the major comedians appeared in drag sooner or later; but it’s one thing for a male performer to appear as a broadly caricatured shrew or battleax, quite another thing to impersonate a pretty, charming girl and make it convincing. Chaplin had already done both during his year at Keystone, but here he teases out his performance, embellishing his disguise with virtuoso pantomimic touches. Charles Inslee, as the old flirt, is hopelessly taken in, and some latter-day viewers have found the masquerade slightly disturbing. Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson reports that, even in those freewheeling days, the film was banned in Scandinavia until the 1930s.
            A Woman has a special significance for me because it was one of the first silent films I ever saw. I still recall vividly the thrill of discovering, at age twelve, the vast and wonderful world of silent cinema—and the simultaneous frustration of making that discovery in the Midwest, where it was far easier to find library books about silent films than to find the films themselves. By the time our local art museum got around to presenting a program of Chaplin shorts, I had devoured the writings of Agee, Huff, and other writers, and was primed to appreciate the brilliance of Chaplin’s performance. I didn’t have to look far. Both as the Tramp and as the girl, Chaplin liberally embroiders his performance with the kind of spontaneous, delightful touches that had already won him an international following. In one early scene in Los Angeles’ Eastlake (later Lincoln) Park, Chaplin maneuvers Inslee into position next to the lake and then shoves him in; backs up into the waiting arms of a cop; quickly flips the cop over his shoulder into the same lake; drops his own hat in the water in the process and handily retrieves it with his cane; and strolls away—all with balletic precision, in a single unbroken take. This scene seems no less striking to me today than it did on first viewing, decades ago.
            And, of course, there’s plenty more. The supporting cast is deserving of mention—most notably the lovely Edna Purviance, who had already started what would be an eight-year stint as Chaplin’s leading lady—but, like other Chaplin films, this one is his show all the way. Brimming with extemporaneous comedy ideas, Chaplin is irrepressible: as the Tramp, improvising a witty routine with a plateful of donuts, or roguishly caressing a dressmaker’s dummy as he “undresses” it; then, as the “girl,” coquettishly flirting with Inslee, then giving him a playful love tap that knocks him across the room. There’s scarcely a Chaplin film of this period that doesn’t showcase the ripening of his incomparable comic skills, but we can appreciate these films more fully if we isolate them one at a time. A Woman is a great place to start.

J.B. Kaufman