"He was Kubrick before Kubrick," says film scholar David Thomson in a documentary about the famously work-obsessed Charlie Chaplin. Once the Little Tramp got behind the camera, generally shooting in sequence, often without a script, and taking weeks off between scenes while his studio sat idle (on his own dime), the production of a feature could last an entire year. Such details emerge on the doc, directed by Time critic Richard Schickel, which is one of 12 discs included on this archival set (out March 2, titles may also be purchased individually).
Amid the hits here (e.g., City Lights and The Kid), Chaplin's first feature as a director but not as star exemplifies his perfectionist bent: Though a success with the critics, A Woman of Paris (1923) was a flop with the public. Nobody cared that it artfully undermined melodramatic conventions and underplayed material that ordinarily would've been played as broad as the Pacific. Today, Chaplin is often tarred with the brush of pathos that seems Edwardian, or even Victorian, in its fulsomeness. But in a short featurette on the movie, director Michael Powell observes, "Suddenly here was a grown-up film, where people behave as in life."
Indeed, Woman is remarkably restrained in the tale of an innocent village lass denied her first love, who later becomes a courtesan in Paris. Abandoned, then seduced, Marie doesn't beat her breast or faint—she just gets on with her life. She's a toughened, determined survivor, like the Tramp. In a different movie, the "sin" of a fallen woman would likely lead to suicide. Here, Chaplin indicts cruel society, cruel parents, and cruel fate, while the rake (forever dapper Adolphe Menjou) is no villain, but the wittiest, most likable character in the film. There's a forward-looking dissonance at odds with the material—like D.W. Griffith rewritten by Theodore Dreiser. Chaplin's crowd pleasers tipped but didn't topple the social order. Looking forward to Chaplin's 1947 serial-killer comedy (also included in the set), director Powell says of Woman, "It's a progenitor of Monsieur Verdoux," which also scored poorly with the public.
Not much more popular today is Cold Creek Manor, also out March 2 alongside Duplex (if you just can't get enough of Ben Stiller these days) and Looney Tunes Back in Action. Rosanna Arquette's doc Searching for Debra Winger has some interest, as does the reissued 1957 Peyton Place. We'll review School of Rock next week.