I’d like to write a little about Monsieur Verdoux, not a review, but the film entered my head again recently after writing about Shadow of a Doubt. It’s certainly not the best known Charlie Chaplin film but its one I like the story behind. Chaplin only made three speaking films in Hollywood. The first was 1940’s The Great Dictator, a huge hit for Chaplin. The last was Limelight, the last film before his exile from the US, highly regarded today but almost unseen on it’s original release in 1952, thanks in part to the film he made in between, Monsieur Verdoux.
In Verdoux, Chaplin plays the titular monsieur, a down on his luck father and husband who marries and then murders wealthy women to make ends meet, a mix between Zero Mostel in The Producers and Joe Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. While still a comedy, and a funny one, it’s clear to see how the material was a little too dark a fit for Chaplin in the eyes of audiences of the time, still hoping to see Charlie, the Little Tramp, not Charles the murdering bigamist.
Perhaps the reason the material was such a big change for Chaplin is because it was not his original concept. In fact, it was Orson Welles who was the seed of Monsieur Verdoux. Welles had heard of a real case in France from the twenties, involving a Monsieur Landru, a banker who turned to the same methods after being hit hard in the Depression. Orson worked the concept into a screenplay, always with the idea in mind for Chaplin to star and Welles to direct. The story of why this did not come to pass varies, but here are two of the versions.
The first, and the most repeated, is that Chaplin at first agreed, but pulled out much later, feeling that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else at this stage of his career. He took the idea on to direct himself, Welles was happy to let it go, and Chaplin reworked the concept into the Monsieur Verdoux we have today. All very amicable. The other, which is less frequently reported, goes like this. Welles had the idea and wrote the screenplay for Chaplin. Chaplin could not stand the idea of having another name get the credit or the attention apart from himself, so he refused to collaborate on the picture and claimed he wasn’t interested in the project. Then he went ahead and shot a picture based around the same idea himself. Welles protested when he heard how close this film was to the one he revealed to Chaplin and he got, in the end, the meagre ‘from an idea by’ credit. I’m not sure which is true, but this is the version Billy Wilder tells and the one I prefer.
Whatever the source, the finished film was a huge upset when it was released. The darker tone was a disaster with most critics, apparently unable to see the comedy in it. It is, no doubt, Chaplin’s most negative film. While many of his movies feature a social message about hard times, they are generally more optimistic fare. Monsieur Verdoux has no lower to sink, and his life philosophy is far from optomistic. “Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero!” he says, hardly revolutionary stuff today but not exactly what America wanted to hear in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Of course, the McCarthyist thugs were delighted to hear it, Monsieur Verdoux’s capitalist satire was just the kind of thing they could beat Chaplin over the head with, a man they’d painted red from day one. The film and anything associated with it soon because associated with Communism, subversion and un-American activities, all tied together in that kind of broad stroke that’s so hard to make sense of. The press played along (for the most part, there are some notable exceptions) and the film was soon bullied out of all theatres.
Despite all the hoo-ha and later championing of the film by younger critics and famous directors, I don’t feel the finished film was worth quite all that noise. If Chaplin was an egotist, as Billy Wilder respectfully inferred, then Verdoux and to a lesser extent Limelight are two of his biggest indulgences. Both films are so much about Chaplin himself, in Verdoux his critiques on society, in Limelight his life as a performer. Chaplin is obviously enjoying himself in Verdoux to the point of overdoing it, but it’s amusing to watch him throw himself at the role so hard, little knowing the storm the picture would soon stir up.
The biggest problem with the picture is Chaplin’s first mistake, to proceed without Orson Welles. Chaplin seems like he can only direct or talk, putting both together and you’re on shaky ground. To overturn the help of one of the greatest young talents in Hollywood at the time was egotistical, but all would have been forgiven if the final film was more of a success. Unfortunately, Chaplin cannot tell himself to tone it down, or if he’s trying, he can’t find for himself an acceptable pitch. It’s frustrating to think audiences were robbed of the chance to watch a real Orson Welles / Charlie Chaplin team-up picture, but at the same time it’s fascinating to imagine what might have been. How many dream team match ups and Fantasy Rep Company line ups (like those going on in the boards right now) could have been a reality if not for the prickly egos of silly old men?