by R.D. Finch
When in the late 1920′s the entire film industry raced to embrace the addition of sound to movies, one notable film artist, Charles Chaplin, resisted. Chaplin’s 1931 picture City Lights was made without dialogue, although Chaplin did include sound effects and compose an original music score for the film. His next picture, Modern Times, was not released for another five years, and still Chaplin resisted the pressure to add dialogue to the story. By 1940, he was at last ready to tackle the task of incorporating dialogue in his next project, the political satire The Great Dictator, and to audiences and critics of the time his efforts proved successful. Chaplin received the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle (which he declined). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture, and Chaplin received nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.
Today it’s a movie loved by many critics and filmmakers. But when I finally saw The Great Dictator a few years ago, I found it disappointing. Parts of the movie are appealing in the ways Chaplin’s silent movies are, alternately touching and funny, but in the end it simply falls short of Chaplin’s greatest work. Throughout the film one gets the sense that Chaplin believed he could merely graft words onto what he was already doing without rethinking his approach to comedy or screenwriting. The subject might have been daring for its time, but the resulting movie often seems awkward and anachronistic.
Many of the film’s shortcomings can be attributed to Chaplin’s use of sound, for the addition of dialogue makes all the more apparent the pitfalls that were always inherent in Chaplin’s sensibilities. A character like the heroine Hannah (Paulette Goddard), whose sketchiness might have been acceptable in a silent movie, begins to look shallow and sentimental when made too specific by speech. Amplified by dialogue, the casualness of Chaplin’s narrative logic—easy to overlook in the feature-length silents, where individual episodes often seem interchangeable—here becomes glaringly obvious. Then there’s the film’s finale. When Chaplin’s little barber impersonates the dictator Hynkel to make a globally broadcast policy speech, the result is an earnest but protracted and embarrassingly preachy Big Statement that brings the film to a sudden conclusion without any real sense of resolution.
What a contrast Chaplin’s second sound film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which took him four years to write, is to The Great Dictator. In the interval Chaplin seems to have completely mastered the art of writing comedy for sound films, and the movie is a complete delight.
This was not the way audiences and critics felt at the time of its initial release. In the movie Chaplin plays a victim of the Depression who, unable to find work, becomes a bigamist who maintains marriages with several wealthy women and, when he needs cash for his stock purchases, murders them for their money. He does this not so much for himself as to support his disabled wife and young son. The movie’s subject, a serial wife-killer, and its approach, to make this seem funny, were perceived as a mismatch when it was released. It is perhaps understandable that in the aftermath of the Second World War critics and audiences were uncomfortable with the depiction of murder as comedy.
When it was rediscovered in the mid-1960s, the film was proclaimed an overlooked masterpiece. Two decades later, critics and audiences had become familiar with the concept of black comedy, even in film, and were more attuned to the picture’s mordant humor. In fact, it hadn’t taken long for other filmmakers to follow the example set by Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. Only one year later Preston Sturges made a very black comedy called Unfaithfully Yours, based on an idea he had first conceived fifteen years earlier but never followed through on, in which orchestra conductor Rex Harrison fantasizes about taking revenge on his unfaithful wife in three different ways, each method inspired by a piece of music he is conducting in a concert. And in 1949 the British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which a distant relation to nobility methodically murders the eight relatives who stand between him and the title, became a cult favorite and launched the heyday of the Ealing comedies. Monsieur Verdoux paved the way for these and subsequent black comedies.
From beginning to end Monsieur Verdoux is a film of great assurance: Chaplin knows exactly the effects he wants to create and is in full control. Never before had Chaplin used irony to such an extent or to such comic effect. He carefully calibrates the exact proportions of opposing elements and blends them flawlessly. In the opening scene the foppish Monsieur Verdoux cuts roses in the garden of his villa on the French Riviera, almost prissily sampling their fragrance, while in the background the incinerator, apparently containing his murdered wife’s body, spews black smoke into the air and the next-door neighbors complain of the stench. Elements that might have seemed bizarrely incongruous in other hands are used by Chaplin to create a humorously ironic counterpoint. Like so much else in the film, Verdoux himself is a fusion of opposites, a man of great sensitivity and equally great ruthlessness. The simple Little Tramp has been transformed into something complex and paradoxical—a genteel monster.
In Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin masters the use of dialogue to give his characters individuality and to create scenes that define them. Directly after the opening sequence, Verdoux impetuously selects at first sight his next mark, the wealthy widow who has come to view the villa, which he has just put on the market. His unsuccessful attempts to seduce Mme. Grosnay (gros nez is French for “fat nose”) are entirely verbal, the effusive flattery of a would-be Lothario. His unctuousness is so hilariously over-the-top that it immediately arouses the suspicion of Mme. Grosnay, who skillfully parries his every attempt at the rhetoric of seduction. Chaplin allows himself one pratfall at the end of this scene, when in his enthusiasm he falls backward from the second-story window of the bedroom to which he has guided his intended prey. In his zeal has he fallen to his death? No, for there is a roof outside the window and after a moment Chaplin hauls himself back through the window, regains control of himself, and abandons his plan—at least for the time being.
Another telling detail that shows how far Chaplin has progressed since The Great Dictator is his use of Martha Raye as the most hilariously awful of the many wives of Monsieur Verdoux. In The Great Dictator Jack Oakie was able to steal every scene he was in with Chaplin (as Hynkel) because Chaplin had written the part, a spoof of Mussolini, as a rival to Hynkel who is supposed to upstage him. In Monsieur Verdoux he does something similar with Raye, an apparently hare-brained lottery winner, but instead of making the two characters rivals, he makes Raye’s Annabella in every way opposite and complementary to Verdoux. He is worldly, she is provincial. He is controlled, she is impulsive. He is subdued and refined, she is raucous and vulgar. The appalled expression on his face each time she addresses him with the pet name “Pigeon” is priceless.
He carefully lays plans—at first to fleece her, then out of desperation to murder her—and watches helplessly as time after time she thwarts him with the spontaneity born of her belief in her infallible good luck. Her unpredictability and complete self-absorption deflect his designs every time. She may appear stupid, but she is actually the shrewdest of all his victims, and Verdoux’s underestimation of her is his greatest miscalculation in the movie. And aside from the one very funny sequence on the lake when he tries unsuccessfully to drown her (she ends up saving him from drowning), the humor is almost entirely derived from their verbal encounters. Even Raye’s voice is funny.
Chaplin uses the irony that pervades the movie as the means of bringing it to its conclusion. Most of the movie occurs during the early 1930′s. Near the end, the movie jumps ahead several years, presumably to 1947. Verdoux’s wife and son are now dead (victims of the war?) and he has lost all his money in a stock crash. Years before he had encountered a homeless young woman on the street late at night and taken her home with him. His aim was to test a new poison on an anonymous stranger, someone new to Paris whom nobody would miss. When he finds that she has been driven to despair by a husband wounded in WW I (gassed?) who later died, he suddenly relents and instead of poisoning her, gives her money and sends her on her way.
Years later they meet again by accident on the street. Now the rich wife of a munitions manufacturer, she insists on treating the penniless and emotionally broken Verdoux to a lavish meal. But Verdoux’s earlier act of kindness to her rebounds with irony when she becomes the unwitting agent of his destruction, for while dining, Verdoux is spotted by the obnoxious and vengeful relatives of one of his early victims. He is arrested, tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. On his way to the guillotine, Verdoux makes a brief statement to a reporter: “Wars, conflicts, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow.”
What a contrast this speech is to the one that ends The Great Dictator. There is nothing protracted or didactic about this statement, and it is delivered to a reporter, not spoken directly to the camera as in the earlier movie. But what really distinguishes this statement from its predecessor is its tone. This is not an impassioned Big Statement, but a detached observation. Verdoux’s final statement is one of calm acceptance of the duplicity inherent in codes of morality and the hypocrisy inherent in judging the actions of others. And Chaplin’s perception of war as business, which at the time must have seemed sacrilegious, today seems more prescient then ever.
I don’t get the impression that Chaplin is attempting to justify the actions of Verdoux. Verdoux seems fully aware of the nature of his crimes, but equally aware that in other circumstances they would be acceptable. The Little Tramp has become, if not exactly a cynic, at the least a moral relativist who recognizes that right and wrong are no longer absolutes, but rather are defined by circumstances. It’s a very modern attitude and a world away from the sentimental optimism of Chaplin’s earlier work. “I know what I am,” Verdoux seems to be saying to the viewer. “What makes you think you are any better?” Chaplin is no longer offering solutions, only asking questions, for in this postwar world there are no longer any easy answers.
How Monsieur Verdoux made the Top 100:
Roderick Heath No. 12
James Uhler No. 24
Pierre de Plume No. 25
R. D. Finch No. 27
John Greco No. 30
Jason Marshall No. 31
Maurizio Roca No. 47