One can never be certain how time is going to affect movies regarded as masterpieces or sensations when they were first released. Part of the pleasure of revivals derives from suspense: Will a legendary classic live up to its reputation? Will a favorite film of five or 10 or 20 years ago impart as much satisfaction as it did originally?
The results are frequently surprising. The American Filn Institute The after jas begun a treasure trove of a series devoted to German films from the silent classics through the Hitler regime. Having read so often about its "austerity," I was steeling myself for Fritz Lang's "Siegfried." It turned out to be a kick, distinguished by a variety of marvelous special effects and colorful melodramatic episodes as well as the allegedly austere, monumentally impressive scenic designs.
The famous Walter Ruttmann-Karl Freund documentary, "Berlin Symphony of a City," scheduled to be shown on Friday, was an even more pleasurable revelation. I had expected something of historic, nostalgic interest, a recollection of the city as it looked in the late "20s. I had not expected the esthetic excitement that this rhytmically designed lyric documentary can still arouse. You come out looking at your own surroundings with renewed attention, alert to patterns and harmonies you ordinarily overlook.
On the other hand, the passage of time may dim the luster of a "Last Laugh" or "Variety," whose vaunted technical ingenuity or psychological subtlety no longer appear remarkably fresh or daring. you can never tell, but it's always interesting to see how kind or cruel time has been.
I'm eager to get a belated first look at all the G.W. Pabst classics still coming up in the AFI Theater series - "The Joyless Street," "The Loves of Jeanne Ney," "Pandora's Box" (will Louise Brooks live up to her reputation as an erotic spellbinder?), "Westfront 1918," "Kameradschaft" - and find out if a mountaineering melodrama like "The White Hell of Pitz Palu" still seems as breathtaking as it did on first sight.
Charles Chaplin's "A Woman of Paris," now in a brief revival at the Avalon 1, is one of the most legendary of silent classics, and seeing it finally ended almost 20 years of curiosity and speculation. I'm afraid time has treated it a bit harshly. The banality of the story now seems to overshadow the sophisticated touches that in 1923 dazzled critics and inspired other directors, notably Ernst Lubitsch, who lightened and perfected the worldly romantic ingredients Chaplin experimented with.
"A Woman of Paris" was Chaplin's first production as one of the ocfounders of United Artists, but Chaplin did not star in the film. To avoid misunderstandings, he pointed out his absence in an introductory title. He did take a bit role as a porter, but it's evidently too brief to be detectable. He didn't repeat the experiment, since the movie was far more popular with critics and the intelligentsia than the the general public. Woody Allen appears to be trying something similar at the moment, and it will be interesting to see if American movie history repeates itself.
The leading roles are played by Edna purviance, Adolphe Menjou and Karl Miller - a romantic triangle severely weakened by the limited range and matronly bearing of Purviance, who had been Chaplin's leading lady for many years. Despite its prestigious aspects, this dramatic departure more or less ended her career. It's difficult to see why anyone would place her at the center of a tale of divided passion. Purviance is oddly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers' stoic stooge, Margaret Dumont.
The plot concerns a provincial girl who is no better than she should be. Scheduled to elope with Jean, her village sweetheart, Marie St. Clair mistakes an unavoidable delay - the untimely death of Jean's father - for rejection and leaves on the Paris train without him. A year later she has become the fashionable mistress of man-about-town Pierre Revel, a truly delightful, careermaking role for Menjou. Then who should turn up in Paris but poor, jilted Jean, living with his widowed mother and working as a struggling artist. Although she obviously belongs with Pierre, Marie feels confused. The despondent Jean helps her make up her mind by committing suicide.
The long arm of coincidence gets awfully grabby as this sorrowful chronicle unfolds. By the time the climax rolls around, you may find yourself rolling in the aisles. The movie was evidently inspired by Chaplin's brief fling with adventures Peggy Hopkins Joyce, and things might have worked out better if Chaplin had taken a consistently light, satirical view of the heroine's amorous problems. The sentimentality undercuts such amusing episodes as the sequence in which Marie huris her pearl necklace out the window, then rushes downstairs to take it away from a derelict who has picked it off the pavement.
Chaplin shot different endings for American and European audiences. In the Amdrican version Marie is so moved by remorse that she returns to her village with Jean's mother and becomes a foster-mother to a trio of orphans. In European version she returns to Pierre. Given the stately inertia of Purviance, it would be much easier to swallow the European version.