FilmStruck (now in its last couple days) hosted Monsieur Verdoux along with a handful of other Chaplin movies, old silent ones, and in looking back on their collection after having watched this latest one from the List, from a point in Chaplin’s career where he’d already been an international celebrity for a quarter century, it’s easy to understand why it garnered such a hostile reaction. For one thing, as TCM points out in their notes about the movie, audiences of the 1940s appear to’ve been touchier about morbid humor. They didn’t take kindly to this lark about a dude who earns his living by courting wealthy widows and then marrying them, murdering them, taking all their money.
But there’s another issue. Verdoux is captured, tried, and convicted for his crimes. In court, after the death sentence is passed, he gives a speech to the courtroom where, apart from espousing zero remorse for his crimes (he was killing them so he could support his wife and child), he assumes a weird moral high ground and asks if his own mass murder is any different from the celebrated wartime slaughter we’ve all just finished up with — it made for a problem with audiences because, coming fairly close on the heels of his all-men-must-unite sermon at the end of The Great Dictator, it gave off some Communist vibes. Also, going a couple years back to Modern Times, you can see he’s not a big fan of industry, that he’s all about liberating workers, etc.
But if you go on YouTube and watch that last sanctimonious speech from Verdoux (very different from the beautiful speech at the end of Great Dictator) and then switch over to one of the suggested clips of one of his earlier silent comedies I think you’ll see a performer with different motives. Chaplin was a devout entertainer as both a young and older man, but this movie and Great Dictator, though both are funny, smart, touching and graced by airs of genius, also feel a bit more like vanity projects.
I got the vibe, with his 1920s work, that Chaplin was prepared to jeopardize life and limb to make you laugh, or to rope a wholesome tear outta you, whereas I think with these later movies he would gladly sacrifice 10% of the comedic effect in exchange for boosting the potency of his political message by the same amount.
I like this movie a lot, and I’m extra tickled to see that the story was “suggested” by Orson Welles — who I believe went around saying, years afterward, that he wrote the whole thing. But I’m bothered to see that Chaplin, a guy who, in some respects, stands as a kind of artistic ideal (prolific, hard-working, brilliant), seems to have become kinda corrupted by fame.
It’s not the hideous kind of corrosion we’re seeing with Johnny Depp, for instance, where the person turns into a monster. It’s more like he just…
Drake released a song recently called “Don’t Matter to Me”. It samples an obscure clip of Michael Jackson singing the chorus. I like it and I was curious about the critical reception so I went to the Wiki page and saw that somebody was quoted as saying that the song is a good example of the kinda misstep an artist of Drake’s caliber will make when he chooses to do big radical things simply because he can do them, with little thought as to whether he should.
I don’t agree with that idea in respect to the song but I do appreciate the wording — and I’d say it encapsulates my issue with Monsieur Verdoux and even, to an extent, The Great Dictator (which is brilliant and hilarious and powerful but also probably thirty minutes too long; it overstays its welcome in a way that younger Chaplin would never have allowed).
But yeah — ahdunno why I was so surprised that things got this heavy at the end. I should have known, going in, that 1940s censors would not have allowed a murderous protagonist to get away with his crimes (head on back to the essay about Scarface to get an idea of how these people operated). You can see Chaplin is trying to circumvent the ire of his censors by giving his character a wheelchair-bound wife and a beautiful young daughter on whom he dotes with such earnest affection.
Seems he didn’t dodge much of anything, though. The movie was picketed and also probably the last straw in establishing all of the red tape that kept him from getting back into the country after a trip abroad.