Saturday, June 14, 2008

Film Review: Monsieur Verdoux, by Charles Chaplin in 1947

Eric Green

Film Review:
Monsieur Verdoux
A Comedy of Murders
by Charles Chaplin
Based on an Idea from Orson Welles

The film stars:
Charles Chaplin and Martha Raye

"a brilliant comedy whose deep message will stir the hearts and minds of liberty-loving peoples all over the world".

This was part of the 1947 review by The Daily Worker of Chaplin's film, Monsieur Verdoux. Leave it to Chaplin to know how to get under the skin of pro war, profiteers. Of course, he had some help from another iconoclast filmmaker, Orson Welles, who is given credit for the idea for the film.

It is a rather bizarre film. It is not a political track against the war profiteers in the Second World War. There are no fiery speeches from leftists and peace activists, it is just the life one person, Monsieur Verdoux. That was Chaplin's brilliance.

This working class character we meet is his being sacked by a bank and he is facing unemployment. He has many family obligations. He devised a rather macabre scheme to extract money from rich and wealthy woman and he sets about doing it. When the stock market crashes in 1929 he has to increase his activities.

Martha Raye plays the role of one of his targeted woman.

Along the way he meets and befriends a very attractive woman down on her luck; gives her some money to help her out.

The film continues with Verdoux's escapades and dodging of the law.

Chaplin chose to place this film in France, he is English by Birth, and not in the United States.

At the time of the film Europe is still fresh from "The War" as it was called, that was WWI. In this film it is deep in the throws of the depression. Newsreels of Hitler and Mussolini are shown on the screen. He and his family are not doing well. He remeets the young woman. But, now she is quite wealthy. When she takes him for tea at a very upscale restaurant, he asks how she is doing so well. She says, with not a lot of smiles, but some, says, "My husband is in munitions…. and we will be doing quite well soon." No wonder the captains of industry were angry.

When we catch up with Verdoux we learn that times are really bad, he lost his wife and son and he has given up hope.

At the close of the film when Verdoux is facing execution and the police want a confession, he merely says that by current standards of mass murderings, he is very small player.

Post WWII "Reality"

The initial years following the end of WWII were being dramatized as a new birth. The mass media, corporate America and almost everyone wanted to put that part of history behind them. Chaplin didn't agree, just like he didn't agree with most mainstreamers.

Writing in the NY Times [June 8, '08], Village Voice film critique J. Hoberman wrote about the right wing attack that Chaplin took in making and releasing the film. , "'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 peace monger."

Hoberman included The Daily Worker review in his review.

The rest is history. Chaplin never cooperated with the FBI and the US Government. He spent most of the rest of his life in Europe.

Sadly, Martha Raye was a star witness.

Recently, the Academy Awards recognized his brilliance and film genius.

The film had a one-week run at the NYC Film Forum with a new 35mm presentation. Ask your local film clubs and schools to get and show this film classic and anti-war, anti-military industrial complex film. But, again, beware, this is your prototypical anti-war, anti-military industrial complex film.

Good watching!!!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eric Green has written an excellent review. Let me as an historian make a few additions for our readers concerning both Charlie Chaplin and Martha Raye.

First, Chaplin was the most important global film star of the first half of the twentieth century. His films, especially his silent films, were shown literally throughout the world, in China, India, Africa, Europe, Latin America. He was an artist who resisted the studio system, and even making films in sound until the later 1930s. His mostly non talking film(there are voices and music and sound effects of various kinds) Modern Times, was anxiously waited for internationally as a comment on the Great Depression. His later talking film, The Great Dictator, a satire on Hitler and fascism(and one which dealt specfically with the persecution of the Jewish minority of "Tomania",Chaplin's satirical name for Germany) was one of the most effective anti-fascist film made. It was used very widely in liberated areas of France, Italy, and other countries by the U.S. in the last years of the war and helped to demythologize the fascists by portraying them as sinister and grotesque clowns.)
During the Korean war. Harry Truman's attorney general lifted Chaplin's visa to return to the U.S. where he had been a resident for many decades. Althoug he could have returned much much earlier, after the worst of McCarthyism had receded, he showed his contempt for the red-baiters by refusing to do so and returning to the U.S. only on his own terms.

Chaplin was not a Marxist or a Communist but he was an open progressive and example in the best sense of the peoples front in that he befriended and argued with and listened to and learned from a wide variey of people, Communists like Chou En-lai, socialists and many others. He not only symbolized the "little man" fighting to survive in films but he represented that man in politics.
As for Martha Raye, she was essentially a Borscht belt comic(and not a particularly good one either) who had her best moment as an artist in this film. Her role as a "friendly witness" gave her a career doing banana peel comedy on TV. Later, in the late 1960s, she joined
Bob Hope in mugging for the soldiers in Vietnam(she had done similar work in WWII, but the differences in the wars I am sure never crossed her mind).
Norman Markowitz