Charlie Chaplin’s longest-lasting relationship wasn’t with any of his wives; it was with a co-star from his early movie career, Edna Purviance.
1915: Charles Chaplin is still perfecting his “Little Tramp” character and trying to establish himself in the growing motion picture industry. As the chilly Chicago winter carries over into the new year, he decides to relocate to California. Once in San Francisco, he begins searching for a leading lady. Stories differ on the specifics, but one way or another he hears of a blonde with expressive eyes who lives in the area.
That blonde was Edna Purviance, a nineteen-year-old who remained in San Fran after a family vacation in order to pursue a business education. She met with Mr. Chaplin, and then agreed to give this whole acting thing a shot. Even though he had signed her on, Charlie was worried she was too serious to be funny on screen. In reality, Edna’s behavior was caused by a recent bad break-up. See where this is going?
Soon, Charlie and Edna were spending most of their time together. They were churning out shorts that helped develop the Tramp character. No longer was he just a pesky rascal, he had a human side. He wanted to be loved. Most of his antics were efforts to woo Edna’s characters or to sabotage rivals for her affections. And if such a sweet, innocent presence as Edna could see past his faults and love the Tramp, couldn’t audiences?
These attitudes spilled over into real life. Charlie found himself confiding in Edna constantly, and she found herself learning to fall in love again. An unsent letter from this time has Charlie telling Edna that she was “the cause of [his] being the happiest person in the world.” Chaplin also wrote: “It was inevitable that the propinquity of a beautiful girl like Edna Purviance would eventually involve my heart.”
Not all was well in Paradise, however. Charlie Chaplin’s number one concern was, well, Charlie Chaplin. And with the Tramp’s rapidly increasing popularity, Charlie Chaplin needed to focus on his career. In 1916, he insisted on going to New York to sign with the Mutual Film Corporation without her. She then visited her family and wrote him letters expressing doubts surrounding his faithfulness. These doubts were founded and Chaplin admitted in his autobiography to having other relationships during this time.
A last-ditch effort to revive the romance on a trip to Hawaii failed, and Edna realized it was time to move on. She had seen her mother and sister’s marriages end in divorce, and she knew that even if Charlie were willing to commit, it would end terribly.
Despite their break-up, and Chaplin’s 1918 marriage to Mildred Harris, the two continued to be friends and co-stars. Chaplin even wrote and directed A Woman of Paris as a vehicle to showcase Edna’s dramatic acting abilities. Unfortunately, the film flopped and Edna would not appear in another Chaplin film until the late 1940s when she had cameo/bit part in Monsieur Verdoux. Charlie kept Edna on his payroll after her retirement from movies in 1926 until her death in 1962.
Edna Purviance left behind a legacy as Charlie Chaplin’s most frequent leading lady. And although the two never married, they were life-long pen pals and confidants. Some speculate that had the two married, Chaplin would have saved himself a lot of heart- and head-aches. Then again, perhaps a divorce would have been a nail in their friendship’s coffin. Either way, it is fun to go back and watch the films they made together knowing what was between them and what friendship lay before them.