Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part II (A comedy of murders)

Monsieur Verdoux opens with a shot of Henri Verdoux’s grave and a voiceover by Chaplin. Verdoux was an honest bank clerk for 30 years, until the world depression of 1930 left him unemployed and forced him to go into a different kind of business—murdering widows to support his home and family.

We then move to the home of the Couvaises, wine merchants in northern France. They quit their bickering when a letter comes, saying Thelma has closed all her accounts. Thelma also hasn’t been heard from since she married three months ago. The family is very worried, and wants to go to the cops.

Verdoux is introduced in the rose garden of his villa in southern France. Two neighbors complain among themselves about how his incinerator has been going for the last three days and making an awful stink. Verdoux’s humanity is shown when he picks up a caterpillar on the ground, talks to it, and puts it on a leaf.

A mailman arrives with a registered letter for Thelma, requiring her signature. Verdoux goes inside to pretend Thelma is signing from the bathtub. The letter contains the 60,000 francs Thelma requested from her bank account, which is now emptied and terminated. The letter also establishes the year as 1932.

Verdoux is visited by a woman named Louise, from an employment agency. He gives her orders for how to clean his villa, and while she’s occupied, he conducts some financial business over the phone.

We then move to the Couvaises in the office of a police judiciary. Though Lena accidentally threw his photo in the fireplace, they all swear they’d know him if they saw him.

After they leave, the police judiciary and his detective discuss how twelve women have mysteriously disappeared over the last three years, all under similar circumstances. Many  were middle-aged, with little or no means of support, and married the same type of man.

While Verdoux is in process of selling Thelma’s estate, along comes prospective buyer Marie Grosnay and her real estate agent. He makes up a story about how his wife passed away from a heart attack, and says he’s selling the house to get away from the memories.

Once Verdoux discovers Marie is a widow who never remarried, he begins pulling out all the stops to try to seduce her. Marie isn’t having any of it, but Verdoux remains undeterred over the ensuing weeks.

Verdoux discovers he needs 50,000 francs unless he wants to go bankrupt. He quickly thinks of one of his wives, Lydia, who knows him as Monsieur Floray. She’s quite annoyed to see him showing up all of a sudden, after months away.

Lydia, who thought he’d died during his pretended business in Indochina, is smart enough to understand he only shows up when he wants something from her. She stands her ground and refuses to believe the fish stories he’s spinning, but he finally manages to convince her all the country’s banks are about to go bankrupt.

After Lydia has withdrawn all her money, Verdoux murders her off-camera.

Verdoux visits his son Peter and his wheelchair-bound real wife, Mona, on their tenth anniversary. He surprises Mona with the deed to their house and garden, which ensures they’ll never be homeless or have to go back to living in a single room. It also means Verdoux will be able to retire in a few years.

During this visit, Verdoux lectures Peter about his habit of pulling the cat’s tail. He tells Peter it shows a cruel streak, and that violence begets violence.

Verdoux’s next stop is another of his wives, Annabella (Martha Raye), who knows him as Monsieur Bonheur, a sea captain. He’s really met his match in her, since every time he visits her, he keeps failing at his attempts to get her money and murder her. Annabella is possibly the best secondary character!

Verdoux develops an untraceable poison to improve his killing methods. However, he chickens out after he invites his first would-be victim to his flat. He grows to care too much about her as a human being, and is touched by her enduring belief in love. Verdoux sends her off with some money.

Marie Grosnay finally succumbs to Verdoux’s seduction campaign, but things get complicated when Annabella shows up by the wedding.

Verdoux loses everything after the European markets collapse, and the woman he decided not to poison repays Verdoux’s past kindness. But when the Couvaises recognize Verdoux, it’s the beginning of the end.

I think this is my favorite of Chaplin’s talkies. Not only does he excel at both comedic and serious acting, but he also shows his character’s humanity over and over again. Verdoux isn’t a black-hearted monster who enjoys murdering women and stealing their money, which makes his actions all the more disturbing. We can’t dismiss him as one-dimensionally evil.

Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part I (General overview)

Released 11 April 1947, Monsieur Verdoux was not only Chaplin’s first film without either the Little Tramp or a Tramp-like character, but also his first true all-talking film. While The Great Dictator was his first actual talkie, that film uses sound rather selectively. A number of scenes have no dialogue, letting the pantomime do the talking.

This dark comedy didn’t go over so well in the U.S., due to the radical departure from Chaplin’s usual forte, and all the political controversies and personal scandals he’d weathered in recent years.

The story of bluebeard (serial wife-murderer) Henri Verdoux was inspired by Henri Désiré Landru (12 April 1869–25 February 1922). He served in the French Army from 1887–91, and upon his demobbing, began a relationship with his own cousin.

Though they had a daughter together, Landru married another woman two years later, with whom he had four kids. After a boss swindled him, he turned to the dark side.

Landru was convicted and sent to prison in 1900. He was estranged from his wife by 1914, and became a used furniture dealer. As WWI progressed, he took advantage of the ever-increasing pool of widows to prey upon fresh victims.

When a widow answered his personal ad and came to his villa, Landru would seduce her, gain access to all her assets, murder her, and burn her body in his oven. He murdered ten women from 1914–19, as well as the teen son of one of them. Since Landru used many aliases and left no bodies behind, it was impossible to catch him.

Finally, in 1919, the sister of victim Célestine Buisson convinced the cops to arrest him. Though she didn’t know his real name, she remembered his address and appearance.

Landru was initially only charged with embezzlement, since a thorough search which included digging up the garden yielded no bodies. He also refused to talk to the cops. However, cops eventually put together a trail of evidence proving what he’d done.

In November 1921, the trial began. Landru was convicted on all eleven counts of murder and sentenced to death. Three months later, he was guillotined in Versailles.

Over the years, he’s been referenced or depicted many times in popular culture.

Orson Welles wanted to cast Chaplin as a character based upon Landru. Chaplin claimed he backed out of the idea when Welles admitted the script hadn’t been written yet and that he wanted Chaplin’s help to write it.

Welles claimed the script already existed, and Chaplin bought the script from him and rewrote several important scenes. Because Welles desperately needed money, he signed away all his rights, in spite of feeling he would’ve been a better director.

Chaplin claimed he soon began thinking about what a great idea it would be to use Landru’s story as the basis of a dark comedy. Chaplin phoned Welles and offered $5,000. Welles eventually accepted screen credit for the idea.

The film was a poor match to the prevailing social, political, and cultural milieu in the U.S. in 1947, but it did rather well in Europe, particularly France. In spite of this, it was nominated for the 1947 Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

While promoting his film, Chaplin was subject to hostile press treatment. During the brief time it played in the U.S., several boycotts were staged. By one of his promotional press conferences, Chaplin followed his opening remarks by inviting the press to “Proceed with the butchering.”

Chaplin’s speech near the end of the film is brief but powerful. Along with the first season finale of The Boondocks, it almost, almost, almost made me reconsider my support of the death penalty.

The film opens with a shot of Verdoux’s grave and proceeds to a flashback explaining what lead up to that moment. The viewer knows going in what happened to him, but not the how and why.

Originally, the final speech was even more biting, but the Hays Office wasn’t pleased with these lines:

“To be shocked by the nature of my crime is nothing but a pretence… a sham! You wallow in murder… you legalize it… you adorn it with gold braid! You celebrate it and parade it! Killing is the enterprise by which your System prospers, upon which your industry thrives!”

Modern Times at 80, Part III (What it means to me)

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Though I love each of the big four silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Arbuckle) for different reasons, on different levels, I think Chaplin wins it for me on the personal level. Though I was never as poor as he was growing up, I have very deep working-class roots on both sides of my family, and am really proud to be a member of the proletariat. Honestly, I’ve never had any desire to be part of the bourgeoisie. To me, the bourgeois lifestyle and class represent things that are completely alien to my personality, interests, and background. That’s just not who I am. I’d be quite happy to spend my entire life in a respectably working-class existence, hopefully an upper-working-class existence.

The story of Modern Times resonates so very, very deeply with me because I remember all too well what it was like to grow up without a lot of money, with parents who weren’t always in the greatest or most steady jobs. My parents were on welfare when I was born, and two months later went on unemployment insurance. They didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at one time till I was about fifteen. They didn’t own their own house till I was perhaps 19 or 20. Until then, we’d rented apartments and houses.

I have never, ever forgotten how much it stung when my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a rocking horse, talking doll Cricket, or a beautiful redheaded baby doll I named Apricot. I enjoyed simple toys like marbles and toy cars, but I really would’ve liked those other toys. If I’m ever blessed with kids, I never want them to grow up lacking what I did. Samuel will have a rocking horse, no matter how much money I have to spend.

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I don’t like to discuss my political views on this blog, since I want to keep my posts focused on writing and topics related to history (silent and early sound film, people and places I’ve written about, classic rock and pop, antique cars, etc.). I also don’t want to risk alienating readers who may hold much differently, for the same reason I wouldn’t start a very political conversation at the dinner table and just assume everyone present shares my views exactly.

However, this is one of those times when the topic of my political views is pertinent to the discussion. Though I don’t like to put one label on my beliefs, and there’s a very long story behind my political awakening and evolution, the TLDR story is that I’m a very left-wing Democrat, a classical liberal (NOT to be confused with what’s been termed the regressive Left; i.e., SJWs whose minds are so open their brains fell out). I do have a couple of more conservative views, like my support of the death penalty, and I’m more old-fashioned in my personal life, but politically speaking, in most aspects, I’m a Socialist who registered Democrat.

Now that I’ve lived a little longer and am no longer as far Left as I was in my teens and very early twenties, I understand there are many different ways to hold politically. We all need to respect and understand one another. If I’d been born into more money, in a different geographical location, in a different era, as a man, etc., I might very well be much more conservative or middle of the road, or manifest my leftist views in a different way.

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Modern Times speaks to me because it’s the story of two exploited people from the underclass, living from hand to mouth, going through a series of menial jobs, not having a secure home, never knowing if they’ll have enough money to get through the week. As the opening image illustrates, they’re the black sheep among the indistinguishable flock mindlessly going along with the crowd. It’s not just a story of man vs. machine or trying to make a living during the Great Depression, but a story for all time. This is the story of the proletariat, a story I’ve been steeped in my entire life.

No matter how hard the Tramp and the Gamin try, it’s just not good enough in the harsh, cruel world they live in. They dream of having a respectable home, a modern kitchen, good food on the table, modern furniture, nice clothes, all the good things in life, but they just can’t grasp that carrot. They don’t enjoy being poor, living this itinerant existence, and being seen as impersonal cogs in a huge machine.

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The life of the proletariat in the machine age isn’t all gloom and doom, though. The Tramp and the Gamin determinedly pick back up and try again, instead of letting themselves be relegated to a degraded state. Eventually, they’ll find their big break, and be able to create a happy little home. It might not be the type of home or working life the bourgeoisie or upper-classes aspire to, but to people in their world, it’s a beautiful paradise.

Modern Times at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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Originally conceived of as a talkie, Modern Times instead ended up being Chaplin’s last stand against sound. It really all came down to knowing his character better than anyone else. Just because someone else thinks such-and-such would be an awesome idea for a book, film, painting, or song doesn’t mean it’s what’s truly right for the creator’s artistic vision. Chaplin stuck to his guns, and gave the Little Tramp a beautiful swan song.

Modern Times was filmed from 11 October 1934–30 August 1935, and was largely shot at 18 frames per second, the standard silent speed. Normal sound speed is 24 frames per second. Thus, the slapstick scenes appeared even more frenetic when projected in theatres at sound speed. Today, this has been corrected on the several official DVDs.

Most people who aren’t really into film don’t understand these differences in filming and projection speeds, and how the wrong speed can have a negative impact on an otherwise great film. One of the reasons for certain people’s stigma against silent cinema is the memory of watching a film projected too fast, and being left with the impression of ridiculousness.

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The film was Chaplin’s first overtly political one, and the political and social commentary which are part and parcel of the story are a huge reason why it means so much to me. Chaplin got the idea for the film during his 18-month world tour in 1931–32, when he saw firsthand the economic devastation and rise of ultra-nationalism in Europe. The growing tide of automation concerned him, particularly since it seemed to be replacing human workers. He proceeded to formulate his own ideas about how to potentially solve such problems, based on some of the books he’d been reading.

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Several supporting roles were played by actors Chaplin had a long working relationship with. They include Chester Conklin (the walrus-moustached Mechanic stuck in the gears above), Henry Bergman (the Café Proprietor), and Tiny Sandford (Big Bill). These comic veterans were at home in the world of silent cinema.

For the second time, Chaplin composed the musical score, and also created the sound effects. By this point, he seemed to realise sound cinema was here to stay, but he knew it couldn’t work for his character and the type of story he wanted to tell. All the human speech is filtered through machines (a record, a radio, a television screen), except for the nonsense song “Smile” near the end.

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Contemporary reviewers loved the film and praised it highly, though it didn’t do so awesomely at the U.S. box office due to being mostly silent and for having such overt political overtones. However, it did turn a profit thanks to box office returns in other countries. This feels like more of an episodic gag comedy than a plot-driven story, but that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. Episodic stories are highly underrated these days, and can be done well so long as they’re hung on some kind of story arc and feature great characters we care about.

The German film company Tobis Film sued Chaplin for alleged plagiarism of the 1931 À Nous la Liberté (Liberty for Us), which was directed by René Clair. The lawsuit wasn’t successful, and Monsieur Clair (a huge fan) was flattered Chaplin would imitate so much of his film. The lawsuit was pretty embarrassing for him, and he was never part of the case. In 1947, Tobis Film sued again, in what was believed to be an act of revenge for Chaplin’s anti-Nazi views in The Great Dictator. This time, they settled out of court.

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The conveyer belt scenes inspired the Donald Duck cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) and the “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy. One of the scenes in the Tramp and the Gamin’s shack home, where the Tramp trips over a stool, also inspired the bit in the opening credits of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Today, the film rightly holds a place as one of Chaplin’s all-time greatest.

Modern Times at 80, Part I (General overview)

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Welcome to Modern Times week, a celebration of my favouritest Chaplin film on its 80th anniversary. Part I is a general overview of the film itself, Part II looks behind the scenes, and Part III explores what the film means to me.

Released 5 February 1936, Modern Times was Chaplin’s last stand against talking pictures. The film is a beautiful, bittersweet farewell not only to the silent era, but also to the Little Tramp. It was originally conceived of as a talkie back in 1934, but Chaplin knew in his heart it would be a fatal mistake to give a voice to the Tramp.

There actually is a fair bit of sound, but it all comes from machines. Except for the nonsense song near the end, none of this speech comes directly from an actual living, breathing human. I can’t describe how it feels in the lead-up to “Smile,” knowing the Tramp is about to speak for the first and only time. A nonsense song in a made-up language is the only kind of speech which works.

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The Little Tramp is an assembly-line worker at the Electro-Steel Corporation, with a boss who puts profits over people. The boss keeps track of his employees via closed-circuit television surveillance, and barks orders at them when he appears onscreen. This is one of the film’s uses of speech. He even appears in the bathroom, as he snaps at the Tramp to get back to work when he’s about to start smoking.

Presently, several men come in to audition a feeding machine meant to eliminate the lunch hour by automatically feeding workers. The explanation of the machine is provided via a record. Of course, the guinea pig ends up being the Tramp. At first, the demonstration goes well, but then it starts going hilariously haywire.

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The boss decides the machine isn’t practical and has no use, and the Tramp goes back to the assembly line. As a result of being forced to work so frenetically, and because he’s treated like a mere cog in a machine instead of a human being, the Tramp cracks up and goes totally nuts. Finally, he’s caught and hauled off to hospital to recover.

After his release, he finds himself out of a job and gets in trouble all over again when he picks up a red flag that fell off of a truck. He helpfully runs after the truck to try to give back the flag, and a lot of protesters rally behind him, believing he’s one of them. The cops presently arrive to break it up and haul the protesters off to jail. It’s so surreal to watch these kinds of scenes from the era before Miranda Rights.

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One of the jail scenes was extremely daring under the Hays Code (very strict movie production rules forbidding things like illegal drugs, implied sex, childbirth, cursing, interracial relationships, and violence). While the Tramp is in the dining hall, investigators arrive in search of a suspected cocaine smuggler. The drug fiend quickly pours his cocaine into a salt shaker, and the hapless Tramp puts it on his food.

The cocaine causes him to crack up yet again, and he wanders into the prison yard instead of marching back to his cell. During this brief moment of liberty, he foils an attempted prison break and is hailed as a hero. In reward, he earns an early release, but the Tramp has grown to like life in prison. He doesn’t want to leave and go back to his precarious existence.

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Once out of jail, the Tramp crosses paths with the Gamin (Paulette Goddard, his real-life wife of the time). The viewer has already been introduced to her, and seen her losing her father and escaping from the juvenile officers who took her two little sisters away. (Though she’s consistently credited as the Gamin, the proper feminine form is actually Gamine.) The Tramp tries to take the fall after she steals a loaf of bread, but the ruse isn’t successful.

The Tramp begins a pattern of being in and out of jail, in and out of work. Jail offers a more secure existence than work during the Great Depression, when jobs were hard to come by and strikes weren’t uncommon. There are lots of awesome slapstick scenes during the Tramp’s numerous jobs, including one with the awesome Chester Conklin.

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The Tramp and the Gamin ultimately end up working in a café, and seem to be doing well. However, the authorities come by to arrest the Gamin for her earlier escape, and the couple make a run for it again. I think the ending of this film chokes me up even more than the ending of City Lights. It’s a farewell to the Little Tramp, watching him walking off into the sunset and knowing he’s finally got a companion by his side to face the uncertain future.

I strongly believe in Carl Jung’s theory of race memories, and I feel the Tramp has become a race memory. This beautiful, universal character now exists in each of us, for all time.

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