“What’s all this about good and evil?”
With the release of The Great Dictator late in 1940, Charlie Chaplin had done it again. He had made a movie that, with all its clumsiness and cheapness – most of the film’s $1.5 million budget ended up in Charlie’s hip pocket instead of up on the screen – was a film that only Charlie Chaplin could have made. Only Chaplin would dare to make a film so explicitly topical, and only Chaplin would have dared to end a film with an eight-and-a-half minute lecture on how to solve all the world’s problems.1 Once more Charlie had defied and confounded the critics, and, not so incidentally, made millions in the process.
Life was good for Charlie, with one rather major flaw: he was fifty years old. If there is truly a graceful route into old age, Chaplin failed to find it. He raged against the dying of the light, for sure, but in doing so wrecked not a few lives, said not a few stupid things, created an immense maelstrom of publicity that crackled and rumbled around him for decades, and made three cheap, clumsy films that held very little of the genius that had made him the most celebrated film star in the world.
When a man is feeling old, the first thing he needs is a new wife, because the old one, well, she’s old! Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s current wife, pretty much,2 was definitely getting up there – thirty years old – as old as Charlie, practically! Definitely time for a fresh face!
Paulette was thinking the same thing. When she met Charlie, she had been a chorus girl. Now she was a star. Divorcing Charlie would definitely drop her from the A list to the B list, but she had confidence in her own abilities, and she surrendered gracefully, though she, or her lawyers, no doubt suggested to Charlie that her generosity was dependent on his. In any event, Charlie came through with a $500,000 settlement in only two years. No one else came close to handling Charlie so well.3
Chaplin may have been fifty, but as one of the wealthiest and most famous men in Hollywood, he had his pick from a list of thousands of beautiful young women – eager starlets, sophisticated society chicks, artists, models – you name it. He dated Carole Landis4 for a while, and then world-famous beauty Hedy Lamarr.5 These were not unreasonable choices, so naturally Chaplin got bored. He had been sensible about women long enough. With the clock not only running but running down, it was time to go wild one more time.
Joan Berry was eighteen in 1938 when she moved to Hollywood.6 Berry was related, vaguely, to MGM producer Sam Marx, to whom she sought to attach herself by a variety of tactics, including a fake attempted suicide. Sam managed to keep her at a distance, but Joan had other irons in the fire, and managed to obtain an “introduction” to J. Paul Getty, already an oil tycoon but not yet the near pre-inflation billionaire that he would become in the fifties and sixties. Joan started referring to J. Paul as her “boyfriend,” though probably not in his presence. In any event, J. Paul didn’t seem very interested in making Joan famous, so she kept on pushing, through an unsavory sea of Hollywood fixers and hustlers, until she finally managed to hustle a one-on-one to someone worth talking to – Mr. Charles Spencer Chaplin.
According to Joan, Chaplin told her “I can tell that you have a great deal of talent just by looking at you. You’re so young and alive.” In his autobiography, Chaplin wittily describes Berry as “a large, handsome woman of twenty-two, well built, with upper regional domes immensely expansive” – proving that his prose was almost as deficient as his moral sense.
Regardless of how the conversation went, there is no doubt that Chaplin started seeing Berry. He gave her money and took her on a cruise. He told her she needed voice lessons and some dental work, both of which she undertook, apparently to his satisfaction, because he started taking her to A-list parties, the ultimate test. And he started telling her that she would star in his last film, to be based, he said, on Vincent Carroll’s play Shadow and Substance, about an Irish peasant girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary.
It’s impossible to determine how serious Chaplin was about this film, but it’s quite conceivable that he could have imagined it as an homage to his mother and her suffering – though whether Joan Berry matched his image of his mother is another question. Shooting was postponed while Charlie devoted himself to the re-release of The Gold Rush, featuring his narration in a voice-over. Joan, who had undergone two abortions for Charlie’s sake (
he had told her that she wouldn’t get pregnant, but somehow she did7), was getting nervous, and started exploring her options, without success.
In the meantime, Chaplin found a simpler outlet for his energies than a new film, thanks to two momentous events, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941 and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, followed by Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. on December 8. America’s “progressives,” whose spirit had been all but shattered by the Nazi-Soviet pact that enabled Hitler’s invasion of Poland (and also enabled Stalin’s invasion of Poland), found themselves patriots at last.
It has been forgotten by Americans, if they ever knew it, but it was Stalin and the Soviet Union, and not Churchill and not Roosevelt, who defeated Hitler, and they did it the old-fashioned way, with millions of casualties given and endured, a butcher’s bill that England could not, and America would not, pay. In 1942, the Soviets were bearing the full brunt of Hitler’s war machine, with almost no assistance from her “allies.” There was a quite reasonable fear that the Soviets would go under, leaving Hitler in complete control of Europe, leading to substantial agitation for a “Second Front” – the invasion of Europe in 1942 by British and U.S. forces.
Chaplin threw himself into this agitation. It was a perfect way to irritate the suits and stuffed shirts. You want patriotism? I got patriotism! Let’s win this damn war, kids! Now! Chaplin made several long public speeches in the course of the agitation for a Second Front,8 sometimes sounding pragmatic, and sometimes aggressively pro-Soviet – “I am not a communist, but I am pro-communist” – and was obviously having a great time, to the great irritation of the many people who disliked him.9 He even went so far as to announce that “We are no longer shocked by the Russian purges.” There is nothing wrong, after all, with killing people who are “bad.” Stalin was just thinking ahead!10
In the summer of ‘42 Chaplin was sort of pushing Berry out of his life, but she kept coming back in again, and Chaplin kept letting her. In October of 1942 he took her to New York with him, apparently hoping that she would stay there, but she didn’t, although she did stop seeing him. In her absence, Charlie found better and fresher fish to fry, Oona O’Neill, the 17-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill had divorced Oona’s mother Anna when Oona was three, and she had grown up in bohemian poverty, but as a teen-ager she parlayed her name, her striking good looks, and precocious manner into a prominent place in Manhattan’s café society, hanging with Gloria Vanderbilt and other gilded tots and getting herself named “Debutante of the Year.” O’Neill naturally started to take an interest in Oona now that she was, you know, famous, and was predictably outraged at her behavior. He wanted her to go to Vassar and be a proper young lady. Well, when you’re Debutante of the Year at sixteen, the idea of spending four years sitting in a classroom learning shit – forget it, dad. Oona split for sunny Cal, where her mom was working on a screenplay with current boyfriend producer Morris Kaufman, and one way or another managed to connect with Charlie.11 By November of 1942 she had moved in with him.
On December 23 Joan returned to Charlie’s life in a big way, showing up at his house with a loaded gun, threatening suicide, presumably with the idea that Charlie would realize how much he really loved her, or failing that, killing herself and making him really sorry. Joan didn’t commit suicide, but Charlie very stupidly ended up taking her to bed. When she pulled the same stunt again a few days later, Chaplin had the police cart her off to court where a Chaplin-friendly judge sentenced her to ninety days in jail.
Unfortunately for Chaplin, moralizing columnists Hedda Hopper and Florabel Muir12 learned quite a bit about what was going on, including the two abortions that Joan had undergone at Chaplin’s insistence and the complaisant manner in which the Beverly Hills courts and police accommodated Chaplin’s needs and wishes regarding Berry. Matters escalated dramatically when Berry discovered that she was pregnant once more. It took her about two seconds to conclude that Charlie was the father, setting up what was likely to be the mother of all paternity suits.
The local DA, Fred Howser, being pushed by a series of newspaper articles picking away at the margins of Charlie’s painfully not-ready-for-primetime private life, began investigating. The fact that Charlie had been living with, and sleeping with, a 17-year-old girl, well, Charlie had seen that movie. He quickly married Oona, covering his left flank but exposing his right one even more, because poor Joanie had still been convinced that she was going to be the next Mrs. Charlie Chaplin.
Life became seriously complicated for Charlie when U.S. Attorney Charles Carr decided to enter the case.13 Crocker, not the first DA to try to make a name for himself by indicting a big shot, and not the last, eventually accused Chaplin of violating the Mann Act14 (for taking Joan to New York with him) and for bribing the Beverly Hills police department to get rid of Joan for him.
Joyce Milton ably describes the travesty of justice that followed, or, rather, continuing travesties, whose unremitting gaminess probably set a record even for Beverly Hills, at least until the OJ trial.15 Chaplin was found innocent of all criminal charges, despite in effect having the Beverly Hills police department act as his personal security team, but was held to be the father of Berry’s child (it took two trials to obtain a verdict), despite the fact that a blood test indicated that he wasn’t the father.16 Chaplin testified at the first civil trial, and, according to all accounts, the hammering he received from Joan’s attorney was easily the most significant public humiliation he ever endured. Chaplin had been battered as he had never been battered before.
U.S. attorneys must have considered Chaplin their patron saint back in the forties, because he provided them with near-unlimited employment. In addition to his endless legal hassles arising out of his involvement with Joan Barry, he was being sued by Konrad Bercovici, who had worked out the basic plot and story outline for the The Great Dictator, for which he was due 15 percent of the profits (Chaplin, of course, intended to pay him nothing) and was involved in multiple ongoing financial disputes with his fellow “artists” at United Artists, which of course had not worked out the way D. W. and Doug and Mary and Charlie had planned, way back in 1919. Despite all this, he still had time to think about making a movie, one not about a peasant girl with visions of the Virgin Mary but about a Frenchman who murders women for a living.
It was Orson Welles who came up with the idea of making a film based on the life of Henry Désiré Landru, convicted and executed for murdering eight women. Welles claimed that the idea just popped into his head, but according to Milton, Welles was being, well, Orson Welles. The real source of Welles’ idea, she says, was an article by German expressionist playwright Walter Hasenclever entitled “Napoleon and Landru: An Imaginary Dialogue,” during which Landru tells Napoleon “What is the essential difference between us? You ruined men and I ruined women. We won’t inquire into motives.”17 Welles presented the idea to Chaplin in the summer of 1941, when he was in the midst of the sturm und drang that surrounded the release of his “controversial” film debut, Citizen Kane,18 with the idea that he would direct the film with Chaplin as its star, banking, apparently, on Chaplin’s known obsession with Napoleon,19 and with women.
The connections between love and death – the fearsome yet irresistible longing to escape the burden of self-consciousness in one great explosion of desire20 – have been explored endlessly in Western culture, by everyone from Shakespeare to Anne Rice. If an orgasm is un petit mort and death the Big O – well, you get the picture.
An important strand in the great cable of liebestod is the notion that murderers make the best lovers. Any good-looking murderer, regardless of sex, can be assured of getting numerous marriage proposals, particularly if he/she is on Death Row, because what can be more romantic than being in love with a murderer who is himself/herself sentenced to death?21
At the same time, death – and murder – are played endlessly for laughs, because so much humor is based on violation of taboos, and what makes us more nervous than death?22
With all this backstory, I confess that I can’t imagine what Welles thought he was doing. Perhaps he was inspired by the smash success of Joseph Kesserling’s Arsenic and Old Lace in 1939, surely the most successful funny murder story ever.23 Perhaps, after the endless controversy that Citizen Kane had provoked, he was looking for a project big enough for his ego that would also be a guaranteed smash.24 But in any event, the idea that a film about a middle-aged man who seduces pathetic old women, dismembers their corpses, and burns them in his oven would be “funny” – well, the humor of it all eludes me.
But Chaplin did buy it, and who can argue with both Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles?25 Charlie quickly disabused Orson of the notion that Orson would direct. The thought of those two egos on the same set is more than agreeable, but the laws of nature precluded such a collision, which probably would have annihilated the entire West Coast.26
Thanks both to the endless turmoil in his personal life and his natural tendency to procrastinate, Chaplin didn’t really get production of Monsieur Verdoux underway until early 1946. What is striking about the film as we have it is the smallness of it all. Chaplin’s elegant black comedy is, for half of its running time, a tedious B-movie – third-rate actors sitting in third-rate sets, reciting third-rate expository dialogue, along with plenty of stock footage, poor continuity, and poorly focused back projection.
The film begins rather cleverly, with a shot of Verdoux’s tombstone, with Verdoux himself doing the voice-over, letting us know that this won’t be an ordinary film, and that Verdoux will pay for his crimes, one way or another. We then cut to the home of the Couvais family, wine merchants in the north of France, supposedly – Eula Morgan, Almira Sessions, Virginia Brissac, Edwin Mills, and Irving Bacon – bit players whose braying, mismatched, provincial accents instantly convince us that they are 1) not French, 2) not related, and 3) not actors.27 There is massive subtext here – Chaplin’s contempt, not for provincial France, of course, but for provincial America – with its hatred of anything large and free.28 Unfortunately, there is nothing large or free in the film we’re watching.
The Couvais expound bitterly on the disappearance of their not so beloved Thelma, running off with that awful M. Varnay, and, not so incidentally, taking her life savings with her. The film picks up a little when we finally meet the monsieur in the south of France, complete with beret, gardener’s smock and gloves, and pencil moustache, gathering his beautiful roses as inky smoke pours from his incinerator, a man too sweet and gentle to tread on a caterpillar, putting the little fellow back on the roses so that, presumably, he can gnaw away before transforming himself into a butterfly.
Chaplin plays Verdoux as a stage Frenchman straight out the English music hall, a short, fat little man who throws himself wildly at every woman he meets and, slightly more seriously, as a vain, affected old roué, who uses his fussy good manners and occasional “naughty” remarks as substitutes for departed virility.29 Verdoux has a definite flavor of Adenoid Hynkel (or Napoleon or Chaplin) in exile, a great man condemned to, and capable of, finding contentment in the simple things in life – beautiful roses, good manners, a glass of wine, and the company of friends.
There’s a flavor of Hynkel, and just as Hynkel reminded us of Chaplin, so does Verdoux. Although he was taking himself with ever-increasing seriousness, Chaplin’s innate playfulness could still come to the surface – he can’t resist puffing himself up, but he can’t resist puncturing himself as well. Chaplin’s take on Verdoux see-saws back and forth through the film, coming down at last firmly and sadly on the side of puffery.
Once the roses have been arranged to Verdoux’s satisfaction, he sits down at the piano and dashes off a light piece, for, like Hynkel and like Chaplin, Verdoux is attracted to all the arts. Nothing aesthetic is foreign to him.
Unfortunately, while Verdoux plays, the Couvais are at work. Thelma’s gone, and so is her cash, and they want the police to look into the matter. There’s damned little to go on – but Detective Morrow (Charles Evans) agrees to start an investigation.
Meanwhile, the delicious dowager Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) arrives at Verdoux’s villa, along with a real estate agent, to inquire about its availability.30 Verdoux shows the two around, filling their ears with exquisite gush about the charms of the place, his smooth patter only slightly interrupted by the rather gauche presence of a stout clothing dummy in the master bedroom.31 Once he ascertains that Marie is sans husband, he makes a comic assault on her virtue, though his intentions are honorable – honorable in form, at least. He wants to marry her so that he can murder her. Unfortunately, the agent reappears and Marie makes a resolute and sensible retreat.
Throughout the scene we see Chaplin trying, not very successfully, to figure out how to be funny in his mid-fifties in a talkie. There is a moment of outright slapstick when he takes a pratfall out a window – not all that funny – but otherwise he only hints at physical comedy, pivoting his body sharply around as he takes his guests on the house tour, his movements lacking the speed and grace to make us laugh as they did thirty years earlier in his silent two-reelers.
Once Marie departs, the scene shifts to Paris, the Paris of everyone’s dreams, full of pretty girls and outdoor cafes, where Verdoux enjoys a cup of coffee, sliding easily into the role of an aging boulevardier. The pretty girls may not smile at him, but what of that? At least he can smile at them. As he enjoys his café he encounters an old acquaintance, who fills us in on a little backstory. Verdoux was a hard-working bank clerk for thirty years, a harmless, useful drudge, turned out in the street by the merciless hand of capitalism. We then journey to Verdoux’s warehouse,32 full of objets d’art he’s inherited from his multiple wives but not yet disposed of.
A phone call from his bankers lets him know that he’ll be ruined if he doesn’t come up with 50,000 franks by tomorrow AM. The news prompts him to rush to one of his living wives, Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), whose gaunt features, and gaunter manner, straight out of “American Gothic,” proclaim the death and detestation of all desire – nothing more or less than a walking castration knife. Despite her endless suspicions, Verdoux double-talks her into withdrawing her entire fortune – 70,000 francs – from the bank. As he takes her to bed for surely the last time, the sight of the moon swells his poetic soul, but Lydia, well, she has no soul, none. Burning may not be too good for her, but it’s certainly apropos. She’s not a bad witch, really – just a boring one.
With Lydia gone, Verdoux has enough cash in hand to journey at last to his real home, where we meet his wife Mona (Mady Correll33) and son Peter (Allison Roddan). Up until this point, the film, though consistently disappointing, hasn’t really been offensive. But now, with the soaring romantic music on the soundtrack, the oleaginous portrayal of the Verdoux family gathered around the fireplace, Peter fetching papa’s slippers,34 and, most of all, the thudding fact that Mona is in a wheelchair – the film is offensive. After ridiculing the bourgeois, Chaplin hits us with bourgeois emotional manipulation of the crassest and clumsiest kind – Andy Hardy goes to France.
Things get even worse when the guests arrive for dinner – Maurice and Martha – the local pharmacist and his broad-bottom wife (Robert Lewis35 and Audrey Betz). And worst of all is Chaplin’s simpering, condescending performance throughout, which undercuts the entire premise of the scenes of the Verdoux family. It’s obvious that he’s dying of boredom. He’s only happy when he’s killing someone. Murder, that’s a job! Dinner with family and friends? Kill me now!36
After this low point, fortunately, things get better, much better, in the form of Martha Raye’s memorable performance as the grasping, guileless Annabella Bonheur, the one woman Verdoux can’t kill. I’ve always found Martha’s act hard to swallow, but it seems churlish here to deny her her one moment of glory. She complements and conquers Verdoux’s fussy elegance just as Jack Oakie’s Napaloni defeated Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator, which, of course, is just what Chaplin intended.
The scenes with Annabella contrast sharply with the earlier scenes with poor Lydia, now no more than ashes. With Lydia, Verdoux was the poet, the lover, attendant to all that is special and transcendent in life, while she was the banal Philistine, contemptuous and fearful of all pleasure. With Annabella, Verdoux is not the poet but the poseur, good for wooing – he can go on forever – but when it comes to doing – please! It’s so messy! So vulgar! So common! And yet that, of course, is how the world gets peopled.
Annabella is too shrewd to let Verdoux handle her money, but when she puts her house in his name to outwit her creditors, well, that’s just a little too shrewd. Verdoux takes her out on the town and then stops off at the chemist’s to pick up two ounces of chloroform. Unfortunately, the untimely return of Annabella’s maid forestalls her demise.
With Annabella proving indestructible, Verdoux needs to start shopping for a wife that’s easier to kill. He returns to Paris and tracks down Madame Grosnay, arranging a casual encounter. Unfortunately, the lady’s unimpressed by his rather compulsive wooing. Well, if the sudden assault fails, one can always opt for the long siege. Verdoux repairs to an elegant flower shop, very reminiscent of the one in City Lights, and orders bouquets of roses and orchids for Madame, to be sent twice a week for the next two weeks. “These things must be done,” he simpers to the charming flower girl, after wincing briefly at the cost.
Momentarily checked by Madame Grosnay, Verdoux returns his thoughts to Annabella. Chloroform might not be the thing for her. Something a little more potent, perhaps. He travels home to Mona for another chat with Maurice – what about that fabulous poison you used to talk about for disposing of unwanted animals? Entirely painless, as I remember, and yet completely lethal?
Formula in hand, Verdoux repairs to his furniture store/flat and whips up a batch. Now, of course, he must find a guinea pig. A stroll on a rainy night produces a charming young specimen, Marilyn Nash,37 billed as “The Girl,” as if she were Edna Purviance in one of the Mutuals from 1915. Verdoux takes her home. She’s poor, obviously, an immigrant, “up against it,” fresh out of jail, with no prospects for avoiding a return trip. And what is the point of living, after all, in a society where money is everything, where every man’s hand is turned against you?
Nash doesn’t really look like a candidate for suicide. Young, pretty, glowing with health, her hat brim pulled down rakishly over one eye, she looks ready to take on the world rather than leave it.38 The conversation they have, about Life with a capital “L,” is both unlikely and inconsistent with Verdoux’s character, but it is consistent with Chaplin’s and, fortunately for us, Charlie is smart enough not to give himself all the good lines.
While he prepares her dinner and readies the poison, she studies her book, Schopenhauer, who was, of course, Chaplin’s favorite philosopher. “Have you read his treatise on suicide?” Verdoux asks, in a classic conversation opener.39 She hasn’t, but does venture the thought that the unborn, if they knew what was in store for them, might dread life as we dread death. But life, well, it can be wonderful, after all! There is Spring, art, music, love!
Verdoux isn’t impressed. His world-weary manner produces a shrewd thrust – “You don’t think much of women, do you?” and a fierce answer, “I love women, but I don’t admire them,” which sounds a lot more like Chaplin (or Schopenhauer) than Verdoux, and he continues very much in the same vein. “Women are of the earth. Once a woman betrays a man she despises him.”
All of this has little to do with Verdoux, who, as we’ve been shown, loves his wife passionately – a wife who is very unlikely to be unfaithful to him, and whose love and faithfulness he never doubts – certainly we’ve never been given any reason to believe that he doubts her or that he has any reason to do so.
But of course it has everything to do with Chaplin, an old man fearful that despite all he has to give a woman – all his “poetry” – she might prefer the sexual vigor of a young man – a “real man.” How despicable!
Charlie lets Nash give him the answer he deserves. “How little you know about women,” she chuckles. Women are capable of love, real love, of sacrifice. She knows, because she has done it. She loved her husband, made a hopeless invalid by the war, who died while she was in jail. “I would have killed for him!” she says fiercely, underlining the point, in case we hadn’t quite gotten it, that she’s just like Verdoux.
Proving your virtue by caring selflessly for an invalid is shameless manipulation, in my view.40 It defuses the tenseness of the confrontation between Verdoux and the girl. Of course I can’t kill her! She’s just like me, poor child!
After this existential encounter, it’s back to business for Verdoux, another trip to the flower shop to see how the bouquets for Madame Grosnay are going over. The old bag is still holding firm, so there’s nothing for it but more posies. Unfortunately for Verdoux, Detective Morrow is lurking outside the shop and he follows Verdoux back to his warehouse. When he knocks, Verdoux hesitates, and then decides to bring him in.
Verdoux leads Murrow through the artistic bric-a-brac that clutters the first floor of his establishment41 and takes him upstairs. Once they’re seated, Murrow gets right to the point, accusing Verdoux of fourteen murders, and bigamy. Verdoux thinks he can beat the murder rap, but all the marriages, all the aliases, and all that property, well, it is hard to explain. Murrow has his man and unwisely chooses to celebrate his victory with a glass of wine. This time Verdoux doesn’t switch the glasses. Yes, Detective, you have me, and I will give a full confession – not to the murders, mind you – if you will only let me have one last visit with my wife. Murrow expires quietly as they’re riding the train back to wherever it is that Mona and Peter live. Verdoux, making his exit, retrieves the photo those damned meddling Couvais had passed along.
Back in Paris, on the street, he runs into “the Girl” once more, who’s feeling not so Schopenhauerean this time. He tries to give her money, but she doesn’t want it. She wants to be friends. “You go on about your business,” he tells her sharply, showing us a little bit of steel in Verdoux’s character. Stay away from me! I’m not the sort of man you want to know!
In the morning papers, Verdoux reads of Murrow’s demise with quiet satisfaction. The stuff works, and the police know nothing. It’s time to put an end to Annabella, and time for the only real comedy in Monsieur Verdoux. They’ll have an evening alone together – they’ll even send out Annette, Annabella’s much put-upon maid (Ada May).
Things go awry when Annette decides to use her free time to spruce up her blonde locks, using the poison that Verdoux had hidden in an old hydrogen peroxide bottle. Annette clumsily breaks the poison bottle and cleans up the mess, substituting a bottle of real hydrogen peroxide. Verdoux douses Annabella’s wine with the wrong stuff and settles down to watch her expire, but he’s a long time watching. As we might have guessed, Annabella’s got an iron gut, and she doesn’t mind the H2O2 one bit. She wants to party.
Shots of Annabella’s and Verdoux’s mutual frustration are cleverly intercut with shots of poor Annette, whose tresses are coming out in fistfuls. Down below, when Annabella launches herself into Verdoux’s lap, she spins the table, and Verdoux, of course, finishes off what he will assume to be the last of the poisoned wine, setting up predictable gagging scenes. The doctor arrives with the stomach pump, recommending a few days in the country for convalescence. Verdoux, thoroughly pumped, agrees. A few days alone with Annabella is exactly what he needs.
We cut, rather abruptly, to Verdoux and Annabella, alone on a lake in a rowboat. Naturally, things go awry once more. The slapstick here is predictably broad. Chaplin was a pretty old man to be taking pratfalls, and the pace here is a little too slow for high comedy.42 The mood isn’t helped by budget production values and the complete lack of musical cues or accompaniment on the soundtrack. Chaplin still didn’t understand how to score a talkie. When he uses music, it tends to be a substitute for action rather than an enhancement of it.
Accepting Annabella as indestructible, Verdoux returns to Paris and the pursuit of Madame Grosnay, who, it appears, is so short of diversion that she will succumb even to Verdoux. Egged on by her match-making friend, she calls the flower shop to obtain his address and Verdoux providentially is there. Taking the telephone, he launches into a Pepè le Pew-style rap – “My darling, every moment that I am absent from your arms is an eternity” – that, rather absurdly, knocks the flower-shop girl on her ass and convinces Madame Grosnay as well.
Verdoux rushes over, proclaiming eternal devotion first to Madame’s friend and then her maid before finding his true love at last. He launches himself head over heels and, improbably, Madame consents.
In another abrupt cut, we arrive at the grand society wedding that Verdoux does not want but cannot avoid. Annabella shows up, of course, her braying laugh disrupting Verdoux’s plans for a really big killing. Again, the slapstick, quite similar to the gags in the lake scene, is slow-paced and not terribly funny. The fact that Chaplin’s “confidante” at the wedding is William Frawley, whose persona as Fred Mertz is indelibly etched in the brains of us TV kids, adds a strange note of unreality to the whole affair. Chaplin is clearly trying to revive the sort of “Charlie against the swells” scenes that he used to do in his early shorts – particularly when he waves courteously to Madame on his way out the window – but things just aren’t moving fast enough to make us laugh.
After that fiasco, Verdoux is like a rabbit without a hole. Madame, Annabella, the Couvais, the police, they’re all on his case. But his real foe isn’t the police, it’s capitalism. There’s another crash – bigger than 1929 – and Verdoux is ruined. Chaplin stares at the camera in despair, as he did in The Kid when Jackie was taken from him, and at the end of The Circus when he confronted the collapse of all his hopes.
An unimpressive montage of strutting dictators and a headline about the bombing of innocents in the Spanish Civil War43 lets us know that Europe is descending into the maelstrom. Years pass, evidently, and we catch up with Verdoux at his favorite café, looking remarkably well dressed for a ruined man, but obviously older and spent. He departs from the café, and, as he labors across the street, he is almost impaled on the “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament of a massive Rolls Royce limo. The occupant, not too surprisingly, is “the Girl,” who, it seems, has ridden the crest of the wave that has swamped so many others. She beckons to him, and Chaplin very self-consciously quotes from the “recognition scene” that closes City Lights. “Me?” asks Verdoux. A beautiful rich girl wants to talk to me?
Once he’s inside the limo, of course, he remembers her. She’s taken up with a munitions manufacturer, which explains everything.44 “That’s the business I should have been in,” Verdoux says. She suggests that he take her out to dinner, but he politely lets her know that now he’s the one who’s up against it, and she’ll have to be the one who supplies the hospitality, to which she gladly consents.
Over dinner, Verdoux tells Nash that he’s a broken man. He’s lost his wife and child. Chaplin doesn’t attempt to provide any specifics, probably because none would be believable. Nothing in life moves him anymore. He’s too worn even for cynicism. “You’ve lost the zest of your bitterness,” she says, shrewdly.
A man who lets his guard down in this cruel world, well, he’s not long for it. In a not very convincing coincidence, two of the Courvais crew are at the same restaurant, and, after still more slow-moving slapstick, Verdoux is arrested. Previously, Nash had given him her card, promising him whatever assistance he might require, but he carefully tears it to tiny pieces. He will face his fate alone.
Brought quickly to the dock, Verdoux doesn’t bother to hide his guilt, or his contempt for a society that would hound such a man as himself, a simple, decent, fine man who only sought to fend for his wife and child, while the real murderers, the real monsters, live in palaces and ride in limousines.
Thrown in prison while awaiting execution, Verdoux baffles the wise-guy reporters who come to interview him with his neo-Schopenhauerean/neo-Nietzschean45 rap about good and evil, that darkness is only the shadows cast by the light of the sun. When a priest comes for his confession, Verdoux is polite but resolute. The higher man, the man who has risen above the pasteboard pieties of bourgeois hypocrisy, cannot be judged by society. Condemning him, society only condemns itself. And so Verdoux goes to his fate, the clean amid the unclean, the noble amid the base, the fine, rare spirit destroyed by a society incapable of bearing the weight of his truth.
As a satire of capitalism Monsieur Verdoux is unimpressive. If Verdoux committed murders in order to advance his social position – if marrying Madame Grosnay were his goal in life – the film would have some bite.46 Instead, he’s doing it in order to provide for his invalid wife and child, which is merely sentimental – though the logic of committing fifteen murders (counting Detective Murrow) to preserve the lives of two is dubious. All his life, Chaplin had played the hero, and he couldn’t stop now, no matter how much it muddled the picture’s theme. But despite the muddle, the message of the last scenes of the movie are clear: a higher man, like Chaplin, is beyond society’s rules. He has only one duty – to fulfill his nature. Once he has done that, he is free. Society may kill him, but it cannot defeat him.
The premiere of Monsieur Verdoux was naturally awaited with a great deal of anticipation. When Monsieur Verdoux was released, not everyone hated it. Infamous NYT film critic Bosley Crowther, the king of square, gave it a rave, but the opening night crowd at New York’s Broadway Theatre, an audience packed with Chaplin supporters, greeted the closing scene of Verdoux walking lamb-like to his execution with boos and hisses, with Chaplin himself present.
April 1947 was a very bad time for Chaplin to release a bad film that, however confusedly, presented himself as a martyr. His old buddy Joe Stalin was taking over Eastern Europe in traditional Stalinist fashion, committing new crimes every day while fresh evidence of his old ones – often censored during the war – were coming to light. The Soviet purges of which Chaplin spoke so highly were now seen for what they were – grotesque exercises in cruelty and sadism on an almost unimaginable scale. The public mood was shifting violently against our Red allies, and Chaplin would pay the price for his self-indulgent behavior.
Fortunately for Charlie, he had Oona with him. Unlike his other wives, Oona was not interested in her career. Having been poor, she was happy to be rich. Not surprisingly, considering her parents, she was quite bookish and loved to read, and she loved to read aloud to Chaplin, and having a young, beautiful woman who loves you read aloud to you is not a bad way for a man in his fifties to spend an evening. Chaplin’s public miseries were of his own making, but at home he had a contentment he had never known before.
For the past year or so I’ve been bemoaning the state of Chaplin reissues. Well, things just got a lot better. Flicker Alley has just released a monster, monster restoration of 34 of Chaplin’s earliest films, Chaplin at Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films. I haven’t seen these yet, but to have these films, essentially “lost” since their first release, given state-of-the-art restoration and first-class musical accompaniment, is fantastic news for anyone who cares about Chaplin, and anyone who cares about cinema (or “movies”).
In addition, Chaplin’s most celebrated two-reelers, “The Mutuals,” have been reissued by Image, in some cases with newly discovered prints and added footage.47 The newly recorded soundtracks are about a hundred times better than the shit we used to suffer through back in the early days of the VHS reissues. The Mutuals are bundled with two documentaries – Chaplin’s Goliath, a bio of Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s adversary in the Mutuals, and Gentleman Tramp, a bio of Chaplin made in the early seventies, with the “cooperation” (sort of) of both Charlie and Oona, who appear briefly but don’t say anything.
And, on top of that, a blu-ray edition of Modern Times is being released, by Criterion of course. At this writing, I haven’t gotten yet, but I suppose I will. So, good news all around.
But what about the monsieur? Monsieur Verdoux is available in a number of versions. The most recent reissue is from Warner Home Video (not the one I have), and it might be the best.
If you search for it, you can probably find The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, which is well worth seeing. Chaplin’s autobiographical My Early Years, out of print but available secondhand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price. I reviewed Simon Louvish’s recent book on Charlie, Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, for Bright Lights here.
- The fact that Chaplin’s “solution” didn’t make any sense is a side matter. [↩]
- According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, author of Tramp and my total go-to gal regarding the facts of Chaplin’s life, Paulette never really got Charlie to the altar, but he was willing to pretend that she did. [↩]
- According to Milton, Goddard was already involved with famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera when she and Charlie separated. Goddard worked steadily during the early forties, but her Hollywood career wound down after the end of World War II, although she appeared on TV in The Snoop Sisters as late as 1972. Her connection with Rivera apparently introduced her to the world of contemporary art and she began to build a collection, which she greatly augmented after marrying German author Erich Maria Remarque, once one of the most famous writers in the world, thanks to his 1929 pacifist take on World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque died in 1970, leaving his extensive holdings to Paulette. During the eighties Paulette took her act to New York, hanging with Andy Warhol. She died in 1990, after suffering from breast cancer. [↩]
- Landis hit the big time in 1940 as “Loana” in the original One Million B.C., opposite Victor Mature as “Tumak,” a film that, Wikipedia tells us, was “one of the first to portray primitive humans in any sort of a serious manner.” (Wiki also supplies a hilariously extended plot synopsis for One Million here) One Million B.C. was pretty much as good as it got for Landis, who spent a great deal of time traveling in USO shows during World War II, suffering from both amoebic dysentery and malaria in the process. She committed suicide in 1948 when Rex Harrison refused to leave his wife, Lili Palmer, to marry her. [↩]
- Hedy’s biggest flick was Samson and Delilah, playing opposite, you guessed it, Victor Mature. The man knew his way around a loincloth. When she wasn’t running around naked, or drugging her fascist husband and fleeing Nazi Europe draped in jewels, or being ridiculed for her wooden (“I am Tondelayo”) acting, Hedy also helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communications, with neighbor/avant garde film composer George Antheil. Anheil wrote the film score for Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique, which led, by a not entirely random process, to a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention that would make it harder to jam radio-guided torpedoes. He and Hedy patented the device in 1942, but the U.S. Navy, unsurprisingly enough, didn’t get around to using it until 1962. Today, according to Wikipedia (again), “Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency-hopping idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as COFDM [coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing] used in Wi-Fi network connections and CDMA [code division multiple access] used in some cordless and wireless telephones.” [↩]
- The sordid saga of Joan and Charlie has been told many times, by a variety of sources. The “facts” I’m providing are filtered through Joyce Milton’s Tramp. As I’ve said over and over in this series, of the five or six Chaplin biographies I’ve read, Milton’s is easily the most convincing. [↩]
- Chaplin never used condoms, claiming that he had a phobia about rubber – though it may have been a phobia about rubbers rather than rubber – one of the most common phobias among men. [↩]
- Chaplin would no doubt have been very surprised to learn that the U.S. Army agreed with him and was pushing aggressively for an invasion of France in 1942. In fact, a number of generals went to their graves insisting that a 1942 invasion would have shortened the war by at least a year. Churchill and the British, having been beaten by the Germans over and over again, wisely talked the U.S. into invading North Africa instead. U.S. commanders and troops performed unimpressively in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and it is a certainty that a 1942 invasion of France by the Allies would have been a bloody disaster. British historian Max Hastings, in his excellent books Overlord and Armageddon, documents over and over again the painful superiority of German forces. Only the massive losses inflicted on the Germans by the Soviets in 1943 and 1944, plus Allied air superiority, acquired during those years, and plus a lot of other things, allowed the 1944 D-Day invasions to succeed. It is one of the saddest facts of history than one of the most evil men in history had complete control over perhaps the greatest army that ever existed. [↩]
- Chaplin was extremely proud of his involvement in the Second Front agitation, and dwells on it extensively in both My Autobiography and My Life in Pictures. [↩]
- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, examines Stalin’s purges in detail, pointing out the monstrous and relentless nature of Stalin’s “foresight.” [↩]
- Chaplin had known Anna back in the twenties and had been good friends with Ralph Barton, whose ex-wife, Carlotta Monterey, was the woman who took O’Neill away from Anna. [↩]
- Hopper was once one of the most famous columnists in America and her name comes up endlessly in any history of Hollywood, linked inevitably with her great rival, the infamous and even more influential Louella Parsons. Hopper was originally an actress and appeared in over a hundred films. (She was known, supposedly, as “the Queen of the Quickies.”) Muir, in contrast, is almost unknown today, but in her time was quite notorious, covering crime and the “underworld” as well as Hollywood, combining the two in spectacular manner on the night of July 19, 1949, when she was wounded in a shootout at Sherry’s restaurant on the Sunset Strip during an attempt on the life of gangster Mickey Cohen. According to Wikipedia, “She was also a confidant of Cohen and enlisted her husband to improve Cohen’s reading and vocabulary skills.” [↩]
- There is a long-standing urban legend or urban truth that J. Edgar Hoover was behind Charlie’s subsequent legal troubles. Milton says it was Crocker’s own ambition that drove him. [↩]
- The Mann Act, an early example of federal moralizing, made it a crime to take a woman across state lines for immoral purposes, which included consensual sex with someone other than your spouse. It was usually used in cases involving prostitution – in theory, at least – but proved to be much more “flexible” in practice. [↩]
- The best that can be said about l’affaire Charlie is that no one got killed, which is, after all, pretty important. [↩]
- Chaplin’s first trial on the paternity charges ended in a hung jury. He was held liable in a second trial. [↩]
- Of course, Napoleon’s pursuit of la gloire cost Europe over one million lives, while subjecting perhaps one hundred million to years of hardship and suffering, while Landru only killed eight (he claimed he was innocent). Maybe I’m just thick, but I find the comparison rather strained. [↩]
- Robert Castle discusses aspects of this endlessly discussed film here. [↩]
- Charlie attended costume balls dressed as Napoleon and thought endlessly about making a film about him. Prior to World War I, which somehow made war seem less glamorous, Napoleon was widely regarded as the greatest man who ever lived, and had a particular fascination for the English as their great enemy, the man who almost made them speak French and eat pussy and snails. Above all, perhaps, he was the great hero of short men around the globe, or at least the part that we might call “Christendom.” The fact that Napoleon could conquer “the world” but not the unfaithful Josephine was somehow thought to be immensely significant. [↩]
- “Death the ultimate orgasm” wrote Anna Grace Daniels in her wonderfully rococo schoolgirl hand in the margins of the libretto of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (purchased for her course in “Death and Sexuality”), which she lent me many, many years ago on Atwood Street. Good times! Good times! [↩]
- Yes, human beings are stupid. [↩]
- My favorite “funny death” films both star Alec Guinness – Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. When I saw Kind Hearts and Coronets more than thirty years ago, I found it amazingly witty and “adult.” I didn’t know anyone made films that sophisticated. I’m not sure if it would hold up, but I should give it a try. The Ladykillers relies more on the simple conceit of the murderer murdered, or at least killed, the fun lying in the clever plot twists that eliminate Alec and his doltish gang. [↩]
- According to the IMDB, Kesselring’s play has been made into a movie or TV show seventeen times all around the world, starting, of course, with the Frank Capra/Cary Grant perennial filmed in 1944. Sample titles include Arsenik og gamle kniplinger, Arseniko kai palia dantela, andArsenic et vieilles dentelles. The play, filled with lines like “I’d like to lead her beside the distilled waters,” struck me as the last word in sophistication at age 17. [↩]
- He was also supposed to be planning a film version of The Pickwick Papers, with W. C. Fields in the lead, but that fell through, either because Fields was unavailable or because he made himself so. [↩]
- Welles claimed that he wrote an entire script for Monsieur Verdoux, which, according to Welles, was later tragically consumed in a fire. Believe that if you wish. [↩]
- Famously, Chaplin did not give Welles screen credit until after the film’s disastrous opening. It was all Orson’s fault! [↩]
- Bacon, the most “prominent,” I guess, of the five, is uncharitably described by the IMDB thusly: “a minor character actor who appeared in literally hundreds of films, actor Irving Bacon could always be counted on for expressing bug-eyed bewilderment or cautious frustration in small-town settings with his revolving door of friendly, servile parts – mailmen, milkmen, clerks, chauffeurs, cabbies, bartenders.” [↩]
- Despite the French setting, much of the tone of Monsieur Verdoux is reminiscent of W. C. Fields’ similarly acidic takes on small-town life in films like The Old-Fashioned Way and The Bank Dick. (The films share a certain B-movie ambiance as well. Although Fields traveled first-class, his films did not.) Fields’ contempt for civilians, honed by decades of touring in vaudeville, was a deep as Chaplin’s, but lacked the personal edge. And Fields, unlike Charlie, seldom confused himself with Christ. [↩]
- Our first glimpse of Verdoux comes from a photo in the possession of the Couvais family. Chaplin’s pose is so affected that he doesn’t resemble a music hall Frenchman so much as a parody of a music hall Frenchman. [↩]
- It’s Thelma, one assumes, who’s smoking up the place, but presumably it’s not her villa (or the Couvais would have mentioned it), even though her bank sends her cash there. Chaplin later said that he never would have used incineration as a gag if he had known any of the details of the Nazis’ death camps. It was assumed that Landru had disposed of his victims’ corpses by burning them in his oven, although no proof of that was found at the time of his trial. In fact, almost all of the evidence against Landru consisted of the records he kept aligning his various aliases with the women who had disappeared. [↩]
- In The Woman, one of Chaplin’s early shorts for Essanay, there’s a scene where Charlie undresses a clothing dummy. I’ve written in various places about Chaplin’s fascination with female nudes. See footnote 41 for more. [↩]
- Before he goes inside we see him being nice to a stray cat. Such a sweetheart he is! [↩]
- Correll was a very minor actor who appeared in bit parts in half a dozen films. [↩]
- There’s also a cat – another cat. When Peter pulls poor pussy’s tail, Verdoux remonstrates: “You have a cruel streak in you, Peter! I don’t know where you get it!” That’s irony, baby. [↩]
- Unlike virtually of the other actors in this film, Lewis was an important figure, though on Broadway rather than Hollywood. A friend of Chaplin’s, he was one of the founders of the famous, left-wing Group Theatre in 1931, and also one of the founders of the even more famous Actors Studio in 1947. He was not much of an actor, but in the forties and fifties directed some of Broadway’s biggest hits, such as Brigadoon and Teahouse of the August Moon. [↩]
- Chaplin’s interaction with son Peter is particularly awkward. It’s not hard to guess that Charlie didn’t get along well with kids. Jeffrey Vance, in his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, quotes Chaplin as telling famous Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein that “I despise them.” And Vance quotes from Chaplin’s book My Trip Abroad (written after Chaplin’s return to England following the release of The Kid): “Most of them [children] have assurance, have not yet been cursed with self-consciousness. And one must be very much on his best behavior with children because they detect our insincerity.” Chaplin, who was almost always “on” – almost always insincere – much preferred the company of adults, who were easier to fool. [↩]
- I found Nash very appealing, but she only made a handful of films. [↩]
- She also has a cat with her, a kitten, which Verdoux graciously offers to take off her hands. [↩]
- She also has a cat with her, a kitten, which Verdoux graciously offers to take off her hands. [↩]
- Chaplin was quite likely thinking of his mother, who of course was an invalid mentally rather than physically, and he did provide for her, though unsurprisingly he couldn’t stand to be around her for any length of time. [↩]
- When Verdoux leads Morrow through the crowded first floor of his warehouse, there’s a very strange bit: the clothing dummy that so embarrassed Verdoux when he first met Madame Grosnay reappears, thoroughly out of place among the medieval statuary and other objets d’art. He grabs the dummy and places it so that it’s right between the camera and Murrow. Behind Murrow, if we look closely, we can see the same nude statue that appeared in A Woman of Paris and, more spectacularly, City Lights. Here Chaplin includes it as a strange afterthought, a private joke so hidden that only he knew it was there. What the joke was I have no idea. I’ve written a number of times about Chaplin’s fascination with nudes, but Stephen Weissman, in his extensive Chaplin site here makes an intriguing suggestion. He notes that Chaplin, in his autobiography, recalled that his mother had a full-size portrait of Nell Gwyn in their apartment, “which I disliked.” Nell, a serious babe about town in late 17th-century England, was an actress and mistress to Charles II (the “Protestant whore,” she supposedly dubbed herself to soothe an anti-Papist mob who took her for the Catholic Duchess of Cleveland). Nell posed for this striking nude, and if Hannah Chaplin had had a full-size copy of Nell in all her splendor in her drawing room, I guess little Charlie might well have developed a skittish fascination with the undraped female form. [↩]
- It appears that Chaplin is shooting “on location” – on a real lake. He was much more comfortable in the studio, where he could control everything. [↩]
- The Spanish Civil War was the ultimate leftist cause in the thirties. The ugly reality behind all the “Popular Front” sentiment that surrounded the war is best exposed by the man on the spot, George Orwell, in his classic Homage to Catalonia. The bombing referred to in the headline was undoubtedly inspired by the infamous attack on the Spanish town of Guernica, which itself inspired Picasso’s remarkable painting – a case, perhaps, of bad politics creating great art. [↩]
- During the thirties, millions of people earnestly believed that World War I was started by munitions manufacturers hungry for profits. As conspiracy theories go, it was a step up from “Jewish bankers,” the preferred scapegoat of T. S. Eliot and other luminaries, but of course had nothing to do with the truth. The war was started by the German aristocrats ruling the German and Austrian Empires, who felt that only a splendid victory would give them the prestige needed to shore up their fading dominance over both the bourgeoisie and the rising proletariat. [↩]
- Marx said that he found Hegel standing on his head and set him upright. Nietzsche felt the same way about Schopenhauer. [↩]
- Supposedly, Orson Welles’ original script called for Verdoux to end up romancing a female Verdoux, which might have been fun, the two endlessly switching glasses, not realizing until too late that both were poisoned. [↩]
- Some of the “additional footage” is simply dialogue cards, which aren’t very funny. Chaplin’s early films were made with a fair number of dialogue cards – more than were needed to carry the action, really. When these films were repackaged for sound in the thirties, a lot of them were cut out. Putting them back in makes the shorts longer, but that’s all. [↩]