Combining two of Charlie Chaplin's more inconspicuous features into one DVD package really attests to the fact that neither 1923's "A Woman of Paris" nor 1957's "A King in New York" rank with his classics, but each provides certain pleasures that only a master filmmaker of Chaplin's status could create. Neither touches upon his Little Tramp character, which actually makes his artistic achievements in each film easier to discern. For Chaplin aficionados, viewing is a must. For others, realize that these two films represent marginally lesser work from this genius when one thinks of masterpieces like "City Lights" and "The Gold Rush".
Released in the UK in 1957 but not in the US until 1972, "A King in New York" is Chaplin's seriocomic indictment of the 1950's McCarthy witch-hunts and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), topics that have come back into the limelight thanks to George Clooney's evocative take on the Murrow-McCarty feud in "Good Night and Good Luck." At that time, Chaplin himself was expelled from the US forbidden to re-enter the country for nearly two decades. The plot focuses on King Shahdov of the fictitious country of Estrovia, an exile who arrives in New York after escaping a revolution occurring in his homeland. In a manner that recalls a bit of Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (also released in 1957), a shrewd TV "specialist" makes the King a popular TV celebrity thanks in part to a hidden camera at a dinner party. This portion of the film is pretty amusing, especially when the King does commercials to help gain support for his high-minded plans to harness atomic power.
Unfortunately, the film starts to take a nosedive into polemics soon afterward, as the King strikes up a friendship with a precocious, politically aware ten-year old named Rupert, the son of labeled Communists who refuse to cooperate with the HUAC. There is still some Chaplinesque slapstick in this part of the film, but the contrived sincerity of the dialogue, along with some jokes that fall completely flat, weighs the film down considerably just when you hope it will take off into a more pointed satire. In his last starring role, a nearly 70-year old Chaplin plays the King jauntily, while Dawn Addams has a few sharp moments as the specialist, and Chaplin's son Michael plays Rupert with surprising aplomb. It's not the anti-American diatribe one would expect but rather a whimsical, sometime provocative film that progresses into heavy-handedness.
"A Woman of Paris" is far more of an anomaly in Chaplin's filmography. First, he doesn't star in this early silent film, although he does have an unrecognizable cameo as a porter. Second, it's a melodrama, not a comedy, except for a few passively amusing scenes with a masseuse. Considering that the film is over eighty years old, it looks surprisingly good with a consistently sharp focus and nice black-and-white contrasts thanks to Roland Totheroh's masterly cinematography. There are some tableaux-style shots of a Paris nightclub toward the end that are quite impressive. Chaplin re-scored the film music just before his death in the 1970's, and it provides a nice aural complement to the visuals of the often heavy-handed drama.
The story is centered on a small-town French girl, Marie St. Clair, who plans to elope to Paris with Jean, a struggling artist. Through a misunderstanding, Marie goes to Paris alone, where over the course of a year, she becomes the mistress of Pierre, a wealthy, insouciant playboy Pierre. Through a party location mix-up, Marie accidentally meets Jean in Paris, where they rekindle their love. However, Jean's clinging mother disapproves, and there are melodramatic twists which finally end when Marie finds her true calling. There is not as much exaggeration in facial expressions or physical gestures as one would expect from a silent film, and Chaplin wisely inserts title cards only when they are necessary, not every time a character speaks. At the same time, the plot twists on rather contrived dramatic turns that make the story seem more dated than it is. The long-forgotten Edna Purviance, a longtime Chaplin protégé and leading lady, can hardly convey the frailty of Marie with her Rubenesque stature, but she does manage the mercurial character changes with a certain finesse. Looking strikingly youthful, Adolphe Menjou, who was to become a dependable character actor for the next forty years, is terrifically dapper and surprisingly sympathetic as Pierre.
There are a number of extras with the DVD package that will interest mainly Chaplin aficionados. Some deleted scenes are included for both films but nothing that noteworthy. In half-hour segments, director Jim Jarmusch talks about his admiration of "A King in New York", while actress Liv Ullmann does the same for "A Woman in Paris". In various film clips, Chaplin is seen conducting his orchestra for "A King in New York" and appearing in a very old short based on Alexandre Dumas's "The Lady of the Camellias". There is also some home-movie footage of Paris in the 1920's.