With A Woman of Paris, Chaplin set out to prove that, after some 70 comedies, he could direct a "serious" drama, one displaying broader psychological range and moral complexity than motion pictures had so far. He scored on both counts. Part Victorian morality tale, part elegant comedy of manners, A Woman of Paris stars Chaplin's longtime leading lady, Edna Purviance, in a Henry James-like story of a penniless girl who leaves her provincial hometown and becomes the mistress of a cynical Parisian millionaire (Adolphe Menjou). When the destitute artist she left behind (Carl Miller) discovers that she has become a wealthy toy among the uptown playboy set, their doomed love triangle takes a spin around the melodrama block toward a tragic/sentimental finale.
Before A Woman of Paris, Chaplin had appeared in every scene of every comedy he wrote and directed, but here he gave himself only one quick cameo. The movie belongs to Purviance, an actress of greater timber than the comedy shorts had allowed her to reveal. And it made a star out of Menjou, who forever after was typed as a silky French sophisticate. During the silent era, acting relied heavily on histrionic gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. In A Woman of Paris Chaplin reined in the performances to deliver a more naturalistic realism than silent-screen audiences were accustomed to. Similarly, his directing developed techniques of screen storytelling and editing that emphasized elliptical suggestion and nuance over stagy obviousness. The result is a melodrama that still packs some emotional heft and, despite a plot that turns too much on coincidence, displays memorable grace and style. Although its innovations are now so commonplace as to be overfamiliar, its subtleties and ingenuity were striking in their time.
After its release, praise from critics and Chaplin's fellow filmmakers made A Woman of Paris one of the most lauded features of the silent era. The New York Times hailed Chaplin as "a bold, resourceful, imaginative, ingenious, careful, studious and daring artist.(...) the more directors who emulate Chaplin, the better will it be for the producing of motion pictures." Unfortunately, A Woman of Paris wasn't at all what the public thought a "Charlie Chaplin film" should be. Also, thanks to its then-daring suggestions of licentious decadence among its characters, several states banned the film on grounds of immorality. So this bold experiment was the young and applause-hungry director's first commercial flop. Its failure dealt Chaplin a personal blow as well as a professional setback. A Woman of Paris wasn't seen again publicly until 1976, when critic Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice ranked it #1 on his Top Ten list for the year.
A Woman of Paris is not as visually impressive as, say, F.W. Murnau's Aurora (1927). Its vintage melodrama does creak with age nowadays. But it remains a Chaplin masterwork that deserves rediscovery. It shows us a vanguard director capable of pushing forward the young medium to good ends, and who could coax from his actors performances that offered the emotional content and truth that he demanded from his own Tramp character.
After the public's dismissal of Chaplin's step onto a new path, he returned to the Tramp with The Gold Rush. There's no denying the brilliance displayed there and the other Tramp features that came after, but we can speculate about the positive turns Chaplin's career might have taken if A Woman of Paris had received public acclaim. Would he have kept on advancing his directorial skills as movies grew beyond their infancy? Of course, we'll never know.
Instead, Chaplin eventually let the medium overtake and surpass him, refusing to learn from its new directions and techniques. That calcification shows most clearly in his final films. In 1957 with A King in New York is a case in point.