In 1947 Charlie Chaplin shocked movie audiences by playing a talkative serial killer in the film Monsieur Verdoux. It was completely against type for the man famous for playing the lovable little tramp in silent movies.
Monsieur Verdoux is a very dark comedy in which Charlie Chaplin plays a man who successively marries, then murders, women so that he can steal their assets. His only redeeming quality is that he is using the money to support his real wife, who is suffering from polio. She thinks he is just a kind successful businessman who travels a lot for work.
Monsieur Verdoux was based on the real-life serial killer Henri Desire Landru. In France between 1914 and 1919, he married then killed 11 women. Due to World War I, there were thousands of widows in France who were easy prey for Landru. He went undiscovered for a long time, since he would destroy the victims in an oven.
It is hard to understand why Charlie Chaplin thought this subject would make a good comedy. However, Monsieur Verdoux does have some amusing parts. The funniest person in the film is Martha Raye, who plays Annabella, one of the unsuspecting women Monsieur Verdoux has married. Unlike the other women, Annabella is basically indestructible. No matter what he tries Monsieur Verdoux simply cannot kill Annabella, but does succeed in almost poisoning himself.
Audiences in 1947 did not like Monsieur Verdoux. World War II has just ended. After years of war and millions of deaths, people wanted to see Chaplin in a light comedy. No one wanted to be reminded of death and destruction and evil people in the world.
Monsieur Verdoux himself tries to defend his action by saying that what he is doing is nothing compared to the millions killed in war. Marilyn Nash plays a young woman who is lifted out a poverty by marring a weapons manufacturer. These anti-war themes seem grafted into and out of place in the movie.
Even watching the film today, it tends to fall flat. We can see what Chaplin was trying to accomplish, but it just does not come across. In order for the comedy to work, you have to like and root for Monsieur Verdoux. However, we could not get over the fact that in the film, he does kill many of the woman and burn their bodies in an incinerator. It would have been much funnier if Monsieur Verdoux was an unsuccessful murderer. If all of his “wives” were as indestructible as Martha Raye, audience might have cheered for the bumbling little man trying to be a criminal. Instead, they were shocked to see that Charlie Chaplin had turned the lovable little tramp into a bad guy.
Still, Monsieur Verdoux is a film worth seeing for two reasons. First of all, you get to hear Chaplin speak, which is unusual in itself. More importantly, it gives us a glimpse into the man that Chaplin usually kept hidden from the world. Like many comedians, Charlie Chaplin had a dark side which looked at the world as a place or cruelty and evil. Seeing him as the little tramp, audiences would never guess the depths of his depression. As the character Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin takes off the smiling mask and lets people see the pain beneath. Chaplin should have realized that no one wanted to see that. He should have remembered the lines of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem Solitude.
“Laugh and the World laughs with you, weep and you weep alone. For the poor old Earth must borrow its mirth, but has trouble enough of its own.”
- We rate Monsieur Verdoux Three Stars ***
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