When Charles Chaplin Became the Enemy

"It's all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify..."

"Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of diplomacy; Monsieur Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business." 

With his controversial "comedy of murders" Monsieur Verdoux, (click title for YouTube video) Charles Chaplin makes his final, definitive break with the Little Tramp character that had brought him fame and fortune. Verdoux (Chaplin), a mild-mannered family man of pre-war France, has hit upon a novel method of supporting his loved ones. He periodically heads out of town, assumes an alias, marries a foolish, wealthy woman, then murders her for the insurance money.

Monsieur Verdoux Film Still

He does this thirteen times with success, but wife #14, brassy Martha Raye, proves impossible to kill (nor does she ever suspect what Verdoux has in mind for her). A subplot develops when Verdoux, planning to test a new poison, chooses streetwalker Marilyn Nash as his guinea pig. She tells him so sad a life story that Verdoux takes pity on her, gives her some money, and sends her on her way. Years later, the widowed and impoverished Verdoux meets Nash once more; now she is the mistress of a munitions magnate. 

This ironic twist sets the stage for the finale, when Verdoux, finally arrested for his crimes and on trial for his life, gently argues in his own defense that he is an "amateur" by comparison to those profiteers who build weapons for war. "It's all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify..." Sentenced to death, Verdoux remains calmly philosophical to the end. As the condemned man walks to the guillotine, a priest prays for God to have mercy on Verdoux's soul. "Why not?" replies Verdoux jauntily. "After all, it belongs to him."

When Chaplin Became the Enemy
ONE spell was broken and another cast: the world’s most beloved clown became his adopted land’s most reviled figure. As the cold war coalesced in 1947, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp mutated into the monstrous Monsieur Verdoux, a professional bigamist and serial killer supporting his family by marrying and dispatching a succession of wealthy widows.

“Monsieur Verdoux,” opening Friday for a weeklong run at Film Forum, is subtitled “A Comedy of Murders,” and, as the French critic André Bazin observed, it turns the Chaplin universe upside down. The erstwhile tramp is here an honest bank clerk driven to homicide by the 1929 stock market crash. Condemned to death at the movie’s end, he declares his crimes paltry compared with those of Western civilization: “As a mass killer, I’m an amateur by comparison.”

Chaplin considered this, his first post-World War II movie, a topical one. As he had satirized Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940), he would now comment on the carnage Hitler provoked and the mass destruction he feared would follow. “Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of diplomacy,” Chaplin told an interviewer. “Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business.” But “Monsieur Verdoux” was also the logical result of Chaplin’s feelings of victimhood, as a celebrity and a man.

Although enormously popular, “The Great Dictator” had not been without controversy; it was denounced as interventionist propaganda on the Senate floor. The stormier reception for “Monsieur Verdoux” reflected both the film’s content and the filmmaker’s character. 

Throughout the war Chaplin was under attack for his morals — in the form of a sensational paternity suit — and political sympathies. For some the two were identical. Representative John E. Rankin, a Mississippi Democrat, denounced Chaplin as a Communist “notorious for his forcible seduction of white girls.” Even before “Monsieur Verdoux” opened in April 1947 the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote to J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, begging him for an opportunity to attack the star: “You give me the material and I’ll blast.”
Hoover, who demurred, did have a hefty file on Chaplin, including a recent report associating him with the radical émigrés Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht. But “Monsieur Verdoux” — which was surely influenced by Brecht’s notions of social satire — brought its own disaster.

To introduce the film, his first movie in seven years, Chaplin insisted on a series of news conferences. Before the premiere he entertained friendly questions from foreign journalists. The screening itself, at the refitted Broadway Theater in Manhattan, was less cordial. Taken aback by audience hissing, Chaplin fled the scene. At a subsequent meeting with reporters in the Gotham Hotel’s packed Grand Ballroom he encountered even greater animosity. Half the questions concerned his politics or national loyalty. He was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and questioned about his friendship with Eisler, then the prime target of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s evolving investigation into Communism in Hollywood.

The next day “Monsieur Verdoux” received the worst notices of Chaplin’s career, attacked as unfunny, tasteless, poorly made, morally dubious and, per The New York Herald-Tribune, an “affront to the intelligence.” But the reviews were not uniformly hostile. Characterizing the movie as “basically serious and bitter,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times warned that “those who go expecting to laugh at it may find themselves remaining to weep.” For some, the film became a cause — James Agee wrote a three-part defense in The Nation — although it wasn’t much help that the most unambiguously positive review ran in The Daily Worker (“a brilliant comedy whose deep message will stir the hearts and minds of liberty-loving peoples all over the world”).

“Monsieur Verdoux” lasted less than a month at the Broadway and, soon after the Independent Theater Owners of Ohio called for a national ban, United Artists withdrew the movie from release. By mid-June Representative Rankin was demanding Chaplin’s deportation; expecting to be brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chaplin linked his movie to the impending investigation. He sent an open telegram to the committee’s chairman, suggesting that he simply view the movie. “It is against war and futile slaughter,” he wrote. “I am not a Communist. I am a peacemonger.”

Few films have been as polarizing. The day after Catholic War Veterans urged a federal investigation into Chaplin’s political activities, the National Board of Review voted “Monsieur Verdoux” best picture of 1947. For all its intellectual defenders, however, “Monsieur Verdoux” grossed a pitiful $162,000 at the box office. Thus humiliated, Chaplin refused to allow the movie to be revived. By the time it reappeared at the Plaza Theater in July 1964, with Chaplin long since relocated to Switzerland, it was a film-buff legend, greeted with anticipatory excitement and capacity crowds. 

Re-released within months of the apocalyptic farce “Dr. Strangelove” and with Senator Barry Goldwater the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Chaplin’s dark comedy struck a responsive chord. The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris linked this contemporary acceptance to the popularization of sick humor: “If 1947 audiences were too reluctant to laugh at the cruelty in ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’ today’s crowds may be too eager.” 

While never enjoying the canonical status of “The Gold Rush” or “City Lights,” “Monsieur Verdoux” did rise in critical esteem over the course of a long and unpopular war. The movie’s fortunes have since faded, but, learning that its American rights had lapsed, a Brooklyn film programmer, Jacob Perlin, managed to relicense them. Mr. Perlin, 32, said he was struck by the film’s prescience, citing the government’s “murderous public policy” and the profits generated by corporations like Halliburton and Blackstone.

“Monsieur Verdoux” may once again be timely, but the audacity of its statement derives less from Chaplin’s antiwar polemic than from his antiheroic pose. No star ever took a greater risk with his public image or more directly challenged his audience. If Chaplin ridiculed Hitler by transforming him into the Little Tramp, he did something far more disturbing in socializing the Little Tramp. “By his very existence,” Bazin noted, Verdoux “renders society guilty.” Approaching eternity, the convicted killer subtly reverts to the Tramp’s distinctive gait. Has humanity sunk to this? In the movie’s ultimate gag it becomes apparent that, as Bazin wrote, “They’re going to guillotine Charlie!”

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