Today marks the anniversary of the release date of one of my favorite movies, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
Suggested by Orson Welles, Verdoux is Chaplin’s comical take on the Bluebeard story. The plot concerns a banker who has lost his job (Chaplin) and now supports his family by romancing, marrying and killing women of independent means. Chaplin uses this story as a springboard to talk about the horrors and follies of the 20th century in the brutal, uncompromising way it needed to be talked about at the beginning of the Cold War. Like a Swift, a Pope or a Voltaire he used his comedy to talk about the madness that was abroad in the world, which was staring everyone in the face, and which everyone seemed to prefer to ignore. With Verdoux, it may be said that Chaplin invented the black comedy.
The public was not amused. It is the first film (or, to be more accurate, the first since about 1914) in which he doesn’t play his famous Little Tramp. There is very little slapstick in the film. And Chaplin does some very heavy-handed, very overt preaching – right to the audience. Chaplin was all but pilloried as a Communist in the wake of the film’s release. I don’t agree with his whole program (he was naïve to the point of idiocy on the subject of the Soviet Union) but I don’t think you can argue with the humanitarian underneath the socialist. And anyway the crank shouting unpopular things at a herd of conformist cattle will always be my hero. Also, this movie is funny. It’s Charlie Chaplin!
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.