Chaplin Diary, Part 17: Monsieur Verdoux

It took a long time for me to get to the next movie in my Chaplin Diary. I’ve been busy. I’m also not that enthusiastic about Chaplin’s later work.

By the time Monsieur Verdoux came out in 1947, Chaplin had not made a movie in almost seven years. He horribly altered and re-released The Gold Rush in 1942, to very high acclaim. But by the end of the war, the American people had turned on him, thanks largely to his leftist political leanings, his refusal to become an American citizen, and his many sex scandals.

Not the right time to release a movie starring Charlie Chaplin as a literal lady killer.

Monsieur Verdoux shows no sign of The Tramp. You never see Chaplin in a bowler hat or baggy pants. He doesn’t carry a bamboo cane. Chaplin wears a mustache, but it’s pencil-thin, and it’s real; Chaplin grew it for the movie.

The film flopped – a rare experience for Chaplin. Maybe it was the new look? Certainly, the political and sexual issues kept people out of the theater. But there’s another problem: It’s just not that funny. And when it is funny, it’s usually thanks to supporting actress Martha Raye, not Chaplin.

Orson Welles suggested the story idea to Chaplin. The title character is a French bank clerk who lost his job when the market crashed. (The film is set in France, from 1933-37.) To support his family, including his wheelchair-bound wife, he marries and murders older women, then takes their money.

Chaplin succeeds in making us sympathize with Verdoux, even though we know he’s a monster. When we first see him, he’s tending his garden and saves the life of a caterpillar – the perfect image of a very gentle man. But in the background, his furnace is pumping out black smoke – the remains of his latest victim.

Martha Raye, who’s probably on screen for less than 30 minutes, steals the film as a ballbuster of a wife who just can’t be killed. Every time Verdoux sets up a plot to do her in, she unknowingly turns the tables on him. These scenes don’t come up to the quality of Chaplin’s silents, but by 1940s standards of slapstick, they’re very good.

The film has other impressive touches, many of which depend on dialog. In one scene, Verdoux seduces an old woman over the telephone. A young woman in hearing distance, knowing that he’s talking to someone else, reactions to the romantic words.

Chaplin closed his first talkie, The Great Dictator, with a speech. He closed his second one, Monsieur Verdoux, with three. He goes off philosophically, claiming that “One murder makes a villain; millions a hero.” It’s hard to tell if it’s Verdoux, trying to justify his horrible crimes, or Chaplin, offering a very bad argument for world peace.

The love affair between Charlie Chaplin and the United States was fraying badly.