It’s fair to say that interest in silent films today is mostly exclusive to those adventurous viewers who share a general interest in the history of the film. Whether they find Chaplin on the shelves of a Barnes & Noble, at a retrospective in some major metropolitan area, or online, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is the most well-known icon of cinema’s earliest era. His slapstick incarnations as the Tramp in his shorts and most famous features (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times) are undisputed essential viewing for those wanting a well-rounded cinematic education.
Those who care enough to study Charles, an icon whose international fame once rivaled Adolf Hitler (whom he impersonated in his The Great Dictator), will know that he was probably the most famous star/filmmaker of early Hollywood and that the pronounced class consciousness in his films, along with his refusal to concede to the government and the press, eventually led to his banishment from the United States. It was during the far-reaching investigations of the House Un-American Activities Council that Monsieur Verdoux was released to a public which had already made their mind up about Charles.
The consensus seemed to be that Chaplin was a Soviet-sympathizer and a Communist. One can imagine the reaction in 1947 to his new talkie, Monsieur Verdoux, in which he appears as a debonair bluebeard who supports his disabled wife and young son by marrying and murdering wealthy women. In an act of daring or foolishness or both, Chaplin fished for audience sympathy (any violence or murder is only implied) while developing his plot as a critique of capitalism and his character as a victim of society. A climactic courtroom scene establishes that Chaplin’s intentions were not to condone murder, but to declare that the American way of life was unjust. This was not what the audience wanted to hear from the formerly beloved icon. Monsieur Verdoux underperformed at the box office in the United States and was berated by the American press.
Almost seventy years later, watching the film can be enjoyed by most Americans without any recollection of this context (though Verdoux’s unapologetic speeches in the final scenes might seem even more morally questionable without 1947 in mind). The balance of the Tramp’s signature visual humor and the dark, cynical worldview of Verdoux is superior to everything Chaplin had achieved before then, the line between comedy and tragedy not nearly as rigidly defined as in his Hitler satire, The Great Dictator (Orson Welles was given credit for the story idea, though he insisted for the rest of his life that he had written most of the script).
Chaplin’s role as actor/director/writer/editor/composer undoubtedly instills a certain coherence to all of his films, but he excels as an actor and director in Verdoux. His performance, which one of the film’s few original defenders, critic James Agee, called the greatest male film performance he had ever seen, is one of the most effective displays of Chaplin’s immense charisma. Though it was unable to sway public opinion in his favor, his suave, delicate way of showing a man at conflict with both his conscience and his society is touching, probably because it so accurately reflected the cynicism and despondency which was taking hold of the filmmaker.
Films like Monsieur Verdoux make an imposing case that we should not be comparing Chaplin to his contemporary, Buster Keaton, as if they were on the same level as filmmakers (as many viewers and scholars have). Keaton was never popular enough to be as controversial as Chaplin and also never defiant enough to be banned from his own country; these are not necessarily desirable attributes, but they at least create a dimension in Chaplin’s films which Keaton’s lacked. Verdoux, in all of its controversiality, is an extension of the issues which Chaplin was always passionate about: poverty and the fight for survival. To champion Keaton first (whose Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite silents by the way) forces us to ignore all the historical, political, and social context of Chaplin’s films and reduce both artists to their visual cleverness and abilities as performers. If you have ever believed such an argument, that Keaton might be even greater than Chaplin (Roger Ebert certainly did), then you have not seen Monsieur Verdoux. If you have, you should see it again with the film’s indispensable context in mind.
Note: Below is the 27-minute documentary included in both the Chaplin Collection and Criterion Collection releases of Monsieur Verdoux as well as a link to Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s especially perceptive take on how audiences should approach Chaplin’s films today. Both have heavily influenced my perspective on the film and the comparison of Chaplin and Keaton in the final paragraph above was introduced in Rosenbaum’s essay long ago.