A Woman of Paris

Aye, There’s The Rub

The expressions on the faces of Edna Purviance & Co. in the image that leads this post may be sour, but the massage scene in A WOMAN OF PARIS is one of the most enjoyable moments in Chaplin’s “drama of fate.” In the scene, Marie St. Clair (Purviance) is laid out for a little physical pampering in her boudoir. Her “friend” Fifi (Betty Morrisey) flounces in to share some delicious gossip, but Nelly Bly Baker’s disapproving masseuse steals the scene.

1923 COMPILATION SCORE

Over the years, A WOMAN OF PARIS had no less than four musical scores. For the Los Angeles premiere of the film in 1923, Chaplin worked with composer Louis F. Gottschalk to compile the first score. Gottschalk compiled a completely different score for the New York premiere five days later.

For the second compilation score, Chaplin and Gottschalk chose Joseph Farigoul’s Plume au Vent (1898) to add a lively musical backdrop to the scene. Farigoul (1860–1933) was the chief bandmaster to the French fleet at Brest and, not surprisingly, much of his music consists of military marches. This delightful impromptu is scored only for strings with a lyrical cello countermelody. The lilting waltz is punctuated by staccato eighth notes in the melody that pointedly underscore Fifi’s pick-a-little, talk-a-little gossiping as well as the kneading and pounding movements of the massage.

Plume Au Vent
Joseph Farigoul’s “Plume au vent” (1898)

The third version of the score was the printed version of the second compilation, with Frederick Stahlberg revising and adapting Gottschalk’s score and substituting a handful of new cues. These substitutions probably stemmed from certain titles still under copyright for print. Stahlberg wisely didn’t substitute Farigoul’s delightful piece.

1976 CHAPLIN SCORE

Chaplin pulled A WOMAN OF PARIS from distribution after its initial poor box office performance, and the film was locked up for over 40 years. Beginning in 1968, Chaplin went back to the remaining shorts and feature films he still had the copyright to and composed new scores for them. In 1976, A WOMAN OF PARIS was the final film left without a Chaplin score. But by this time, Chaplin was in ill health.

Chaplin’s ability to communicate had “regrettably deteriorated tremendously,” Eric James wrote to Rachel Ford, Chaplin’s business manager. But “knowing his style of composition as intimately as I do after so many years, I was able to suggest melodies and ideas that were agreeable to him. As a result I can truthfully say that the majority of the music stemmed from my brain.” James quickly back-pedaled his claim when he received a written slap on the wrist from Ford. But if James is correct and he was indeed responsible for the majority of music in the score, then the problems with the music—and there are many—can be laid at his feet as well.

The string of one sunny waltz after another is certainly a Chaplin trademark in his later scores and somewhat negates James’s assertions. But the use of three-quarter time is particularly jarring when it comes to the dark drama of A WOMAN OF PARIS. One notable exception is the massage scene.

The bright key of G major works beautifully to ironically underscore the gossip Fifi gleefully shares. But it succeeds more as a musical reminder of Marie’s carefree, wealthy existence.

A Woman of Paris - Massage Scene
Eric James’s piano lead sheet for Chaplin’s cue used in the 1976 score

When it comes to the massage scene, you can’t go wrong musically with either cue. I prefer the Farigoul as a piece of music and because it serves the humor of the scene so well. But it’s not Chaplin.

And there’s the rub.

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