In 1915, when Charlie Chaplin went searching for a leading lady to co-star in his film A Night Out, he reviewed all the available actresses he could find in San Francisco but couldn’t settle on one.
A colleague at Essanay Studios in nearby Niles, California, where Chaplin was filming at the time, told him about an uncommonly pretty girl he had seen in a café in the city. After tracking her down, Chaplin found that his colleague was correct. He later wrote that the woman he discovered was “more than pretty. She was beautiful.”
The woman was Edna Purviance, a 20-year-old who had recently moved to San Francisco from her native Nevada. She was working as a stenographer and had no prior acting experience. In spite of this, Chaplin chose to put her on-screen where he felt her presence would prove “decorative.”
More than simply eye-candy, Purviance proved to possess impeccable comic timing, and would become Chaplin’s leading lady on-screen and off for the next eight years. They would make a handful of films together in Niles over the next year before the pair headed to Hollywood where they made another 30 films together.
By 1923, Purviance’s relationship with Chaplin had cooled and Edna had become a steady drinker. She began gaining weight which made her look matronly, ending her status as a leading lady.
The final nail on the coffin of her film career was hammered that same year when she was involved in a Hollywood scandal involving Mabel Normand, another former Chaplin co-star. The two were attending a New Year’s Eve party in the company of a rich oilman when the millionaire’s chauffeur shot his employer with a gun. Although the women were never charged, the scandal made the two unemployable.
After her retirement from the screen, Purviance met and married Jack Squire, an airline pilot, and lived happily with him until his death in 1945.
Purviance would live for another 13 years, dying from cancer during this week in 1958 at age 62.
Chaplin and Purviance remained close throughout her life, and as a show of gratitude to his favorite leading lady, he kept her on his studio’s payroll until her death.
We will be showing the Chaplin-Purviance film The Pilgrim at ChaplinFest in Newhall on February 5, 2011.