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Biography of Edna Purviance, leading lady of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin had many different leading ladies, but none who appeared with such regularity, nor with such impact on him personally, as Edna Purviance.

Edna Purviance – early years

Charlie Chaplin with Edna Purviance in The CureEdna was born in Paradise Valley, Nevada in 1895. In 1900 her parents moved to Lovelock where they ran the Singer Hotel, though they later divorced. Edna was musically inclined, and played the piano quite well. Shortly after her high school graduation, she moved to San Fransisco, took a business course and began work as a secretary.

Edna Purviance meets Charlie Chaplin

At roughly the same time, Charlie Chaplin had signed a contract with the Essanay studio, and was ready to begin making some of his greatest short films. He had just left Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, and was looking for a new leading lady to replace Mabel Normand. At this time, Chaplin was filming at Essanay’s studio in Niles, near San Fransisco. One of his actors knew of a pretty girl who frequented Tate’s Café on Hill Street, and they arranged to meet her at the St. Francis Hotel. Speaking of Edna in My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin said “She was more than pretty, she was beautiful”. He thought her sad and serious and learned later that she was recovering from a romance gone sour. Chaplin signed her to a contract, but shortly afterwards began to have second thoughts. These were dispelled when she went along with one of Chaplin’s jokes at a party the day before shooting began on her first picture. Edna pretended to be hypnotised by him, after betting Charlie that he couldn’t hypnotize her. In one moment, she rescued Charlie from embarrassing himself, demonstrated her sense of humor, and displayed her acting ability – Charlie was suitably impressed.

Edna Purviance with Charlie Chaplin in "A Dog's Life"

Edna was not a great actress, and that in fact was the secret of her success. She knew not to pretend to be more than she was, and enjoyed playing the part of the girl, the maid, the daughter — but normally playing them as herself. This led to a very natural acting style that Charlie Chaplin helped to popularize in the silent era of films. In addition, she was a very pretty girl — even today, many decades later, her eyes and natural smile seem to ‘break through’ on screen.

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Edna was a great success as Charlie’s leading lady and they soon became close off-screen as well as on. Charlie Chaplin, in My Autobiography, said “It was inevitable that the propinquity of a beautiful girl like Edna Purviance would eventually involve my heart… When we first came to work in Los Angeles [1915], Edna rented an apartment near the Athletic Club, and almost every night I would bring her there for dinner. We were serious about each other, and at the back of my mind I had an idea that some day we might marry…” Marriage was not in the cards for Edna and Charlie, however; their off-again/on-again romance seemed to die for the final time after Charlie’s eventual sudden and unhappy marriage to Mildred Harris.

Edna Purviance – attempts at dramatic acting

Edna Purviance with Menjou in "A Woman of Paris"Despite the failure of their personal romantic relationship, Edna always stayed close to Charlie Chaplin, and remained his leading lady for eight years and four film companies. At one time Chaplin had wanted her to play Josephine to his Napoleon (a role he long wanted to play on screen, but never did), and considered adapting The Trojan Women for her to star in, but eventually he conceived and wrote a dramatic film specifically for Edna, hoping to launch her into her own career. The film, A Woman of Paris, was loved by the critics of the day, but a commercial failure. People saw Chaplin’s name on the film, and expected to see the Little Tramp — when they didn’t, they stayed away in droves.

After A Woman of Paris, Edna got an offer to make a film in France to the tune of $10,000. She wasn’t sure about it, but Chaplin advised her to go for it, and if the film was a failure he’d welcome her back to his company. The film, Education du Prince, was not a success. Her career suffered another blow from a scandal that she was peripherally involved in. Edna and Mabel Normand had been guests of oil magnate Courtland Dines on New Year’s Day 1924. Mabel’s chauffeur got into an argument with Dines, produced a revolver and shot him, though not fatally. As a result a number of cities banned A Woman of Paris, and Edna withdrew from the limelight.

Still Chaplin did not give up on her, and asked the director Josef von Sternberg to direct her in The Sea Gulls (or A Woman of the Sea). Of Edna, von Sternberg said, “She was still charming, though she had not appeared in pictures for a number of years and had become unbelievably timid and unable to act in even the simplest scene without great difficulty.” He went on to say “…in the completed film she actually seemed at ease.” The film was never released, and later the only copy was destroyed.

Upon filming his first ‘dark’ comedy, Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie thought of casting Edna for a significant part, even though they hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. She arrived and Rollie Totheroh rushed up to Charlie. “She’s here”, he said, his eyes glistening, “Of course she’s not the same - but she looks great!”. Charlie recalled in My Autobiography, “I wanted no emotional reunion scene, so I assumed a matter-of-fact manner as if it had been only a few weeks since I last saw her… In the sunlight I noticed that her lip trembled as she smiled, then I plunged into the reason why I had called her, and told her enthusiastically about the film. “It sounds wonderful” she said – Edna was always an enthusiast. She read for the part and was not bad; but all the while her presence affected me with a depressing nostalgia, for she was associated with my early success – those days when everything was the future!”

After several days, Charlie Chaplin realised that Edna didn’t have the European sophistication required for the part. It was the last time they met. Robert Florey (the French born film director who assisted Chaplin on Verdoux) said “I walked across the studio yard with her. There were tears in her eyes, knowing that she would never come back.” It would have been very interesting to see Edna in a sound film, and it’s a shame it was not to be.Charlie quoted from two of her letters at the end of My Autobiography – he was a bad letter writer himself, and never replied, though his strong affection for her is obvious throughout his book.

Charlie Chaplin in My Autobiography wrote “Shortly after I received this letter she died. And so the world grows young. And youth takes over.” Edna died in 1958 from cancer at the age of 63.

Films Edna Purviance appeared in:

  • A Night Out (1915)
  • The Champion (1915)
  • In the Park (1915)
  • A Jitney Elopement (1915)
  • The Tramp (1915)
  • By the Sea (1915)
  • Work (1915)
  • A Woman (1915)
  • The Bank (1915)
  • Shanghaied (1915)
  • A Night in the Show (1915)
  • Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen (1916)
  • Police (1916)
  • The Floorwalker (1916)
  • The Fireman (1916)
  • The Vagabond (1916)
  • The Count (1916)
  • The Pawnshop (1916)
  • Behind the Screen (1916)
  • The Rink (1916)
  • Easy Street (1917)
  • The Cure (1917)
  • The Immigrant (1917)
  • The Adventurer (1917)
  • A Dog’s Life (1918)
  • The Bond (1918)
  • Shoulder Arms (1918)
  • Sunnyside (1919)
  • A Day’s Pleasure (1919)
  • The Kid (1921)
  • The Idle Class (1921)
  • Payday (1922)
  • The Pilgrim (1923)
  • A Woman of Paris (1923)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • Éducation de prince (1927)
  • Monsieur Verdoux (1947) (uncredited) …. Extra in Garden Party sequence
  • Limelight (1952) (uncredited) …. Mrs. Parker

Bibliography for Edna Purviance

My Autobiography, by Charlie Chaplin (1993)
A very interesting read – Edna Purviance is one of the few of his co-workers who receive significant mention in Chaplin’s admittedly self-centered biography
Charlie Chaplin and His Times, by Kenneth Schuyler Lynn (February 2003)
A very uneven biography, with a definite bias towards the sensational — even so, contains interesting information on Edna Purviance (rhymes with Reliance, according to Professor Lynn)
Chaplin, by David Robinson (1979)
The definitive Chaplin biography, with incidental information about Edna Purviance