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Susan Green

Chaplin’s Latest Production

(19 May 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 20, 19 May 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Charles Chaplin has turned his inimitable art as comic and actor to produce pictures of “social significance.” Such are the themes he has handled in The Big City, The Great Dictator and his most recent Monsieur Verdoux. The Big City, showing the little man enmeshed in the intricacies of machine production and modern living, was an excellent vehicle for Chaplin’s cargo; The Great Dictator, less so. In fact, many people reacted with resentment to The Great Dictator, feeling that a subject of such sinister implications to humanity should not be related to slapstick and comedy.

In Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin seeks to comment on capitalist morality. His theme is that society electrocutes the individual murderer, the product of social insecurity, while society itself plunges into murderous wars and rewards the munition manufacturers with untold wealth. In the opinion of this reviewer, Chaplin’s art does not do justice to this theme. Even with the refinements and modifications of his typical buffoonery, apparent, in Monsieur Verdoux what comes out on top is the comedy and not the lesson.

Chaplin’s Story Outlined

The story, briefly, is this. A dapper, meticulous, almost dainty Frenchman – played of course by Chaplin but with different accoutrements than baggy pants, derby, turned out shoes and cane – is fired after thirty-five years of service as a bank clerk. His brains being no longer of use to business, he went into business for himself. With his masculine charms and a suitable “line,” he pursued lonely elderly women possessed of bank accounts and property. He married them, liquidated them, and embezzled their money. This he did to provide security and luxury for his invalid wife whom he adored and for their son Peter. Between jobs he retired for a brief respite from the jungle of business to the sanctuary of his home, even as all good businessmen are wont to do. But the stock market crash wiped out his fortune; also justice finally caught up with our bluebeard. As society is preparing for the big kill of World War II and the munitions manufacturers are beginning to coin bloodsoaked money, the little killer is condemned to death by this, same society.

But detail determines where the emphasize lies, and the detail in Monsieur Verdoux is not concerned with developing the “social significance” of his theme but rather the comic aspects of each marriage and murder. The funny business of inducing wife Lydia to go to the bank before four o’clock so that husband bluebeard can kill her that night and deliver 50,000 francs to his stockbroker the next morning, is followed by the comic scenes with wife Annabel (Martha Raye) who evades husband’s plans to liquidate her – for no other reason than to produce laughs. The. motive to produce laughs is so great that all realism is thrown to the winds when the last hilarious courtship, terminates in an elaborate public wedding right in Paris – a slip an experienced liquidator of wives would hardly make – just to create another humorous situation in the appearance of unliquidated wife Annabel as an uninvited guest. The quantity and quality of the slapstick and fun plus the finesse of Chaplin’s comic acting produce no sense of horrible crime – and murder is, horrible – but rather a sense of a series of engaging peccadilloes. One is reminded of the dear old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, which, however, was supposed to be nothing but high, wide and handsome fun – without any significance.

What Did He Try to Say

The social message of Monsieur Verdoux is conveyed almost in the same way as was that in The Great Dictator, namely, by a propaganda speech at the end. In Monsieur Verdoux, however, there are several shorter statements instead of one long one. At the trial, among other things, the condemned Verdoux says that the world encourages mass killing and that he is an amateur by comparison. Again, in the death cell, he talks to a reporter of robbery and murder being the business of big business, and, except in a small way, they don’t pay. However, dramatic impact is lacking, and when Monsieur Verdoux goes off to the death chamber between the prison guards there is not the flow of sympathy and understanding that used to follow the little tramp of old as he disappeared on the road to nowhere.

How could Chaplin have induced more understanding for his hero-criminal and produced more dramatic impact for his message? The first could have been accomplished perhaps by showing how Verdoux got that way. Chaplin tells us that the bank clerk became the multiple killer because he lost his job. That’s quite a jump – it needs more explaining from the depths of individual development or deterioration. Again, the indictment of capitalist mass slaughter should possibly have been woven like a thread throughout the film for cumulative dramatic effect, rather than saved up for the purely propaganda statements at the end. To do these two things, however, Chaplin would have had to abandon Chaplinism, that is, his tried and true comic method.

So much for Chaplin’s purpose in Monsieur Verdoux and this reviewer’s opinion that it falls short of fulfillment. However, there’s another important angle. Even if Chaplin had accomplished his purpose – and some may think he has – we have a right to ask, “Did he go far enough?” To a Socialist, he certainly did not.

A Reviewer’s Opinion

Many decades ago an expose of this kind might have been of importance. But in this day and decade of capitalism, simply to say “Look what we have here” without saying what we can do about it, is to be not a little backward in coming forward politically. Even if people are impressed by the indictment against society in Monsieur Verdoux, what next, what to do? The pro-capitalist producer would have given a tinhorn salute to the United Nations probably. Chaplin doesn’t do this. If we conclude that Chaplin is against capitalism, what is he for? Is he for Stalinism? Is he for Socialism? Since he’s an independent producer and has taken the unbeaten path, he can go the whole hog – which is the minimum distance one with a social message can go these days.

If reported interviews with Chaplin since his film came out are to be relied on, his political education is low grade. Asked if he is a Communist, he denied it. Asked something about dictatorship, he replied he doesn’t believe in it for the country where he lives. Does he approve it in Russia? He seems to believe in some brave new world without political form, which we all know is impossible of accomplishment. So instead of giving a definite “out” from capitalism, Chaplin mouthed something vague about good and bad and sin, all equally meaningless.

If Chaplin is to employ his great comic art for works of social comment, it seems to this reviewer that, he must-find ways by which his art will enhance his theme rather than detract from it, as seems to be the case in Monsieur Verdoux. And if his social comment is to be of any importance, he will have to do some fearless political thinking – and let us say without guidance from willing Stalinists.

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