CHAPLIN’S BLUEBEARD COMEDY IS A KILLER!
Not until I saw this movie had I heard of the term ”Bluebeard”. Originating in a French folktale, the character, a wealthy man who kills the women he marries, eventually found its way into the English language to describe a type of serial killer. The ”Bluebeard” of this movie was based on Henri Désiré Landru, a French man who spent most of World War I seducing and killing women; he was found guilty of 11 murders and guillotined in 1922.
Orson Welles became intrigued by the story and wanted to make a movie. Both men likely agreed that Charles Chaplin would be the right person to play the killer. Welles got a story credit, but not the chance to direct. The duo argued over who agreed to what… but it’s interesting to ponder what Welles would have done differently as director.
Starting a secret life
Sometime before the Great Depression, French bank teller Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) has been laid off, but still needs to support his wife and child. He doesn’t tell them what has happened and instead embarks on a new chapter – starting a secret life as a debonair womanizer who charms older, wealthier women and eventually kills them once he’s sure of getting his hands on their money. As we meet Verdoux, he’s in the process of selling the home of his most recent victim when he meets a potential new target, Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), and pursues her vigorously. He is also preparing to get rid of Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman) who has become increasingly convinced that he’s up to no good.
Verdoux also learns of a new drug that a local chemist is developing. It’s a poison for exterminating animals, and Verdoux believes it might be useful for his purposes…
Not in great shape PR-wise
When this movie premiered, Chaplin was not in great shape PR-wise. He had spent most of the decade, after making The Great Dictator (1940), fighting to clear his name in a series of scandals. First there was a paternity suit against him, then a Mann Act trial that could have sent him to prison for decades, and finally he married the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. So, in 1947 neither critics nor the audience were pleased to see him play such an odd character in such a dark, strange film as Monsieur Verdoux.
There were a few critics mature enough to look beyond the scandals and realize that this was something unusual and a very bold choice for Chaplin, both as a filmmaker and an actor. He’s fascinating to behold as Verdoux. His take on this character is not all that far removed from his silent-era tramp; the comedy is fairly broad and physical at times. Chaplin is not above accidentally falling out of a window, even in a movie like this. Verdoux is elegant and sophisticated, unctuous and false; we in the audience get the feeling that his schemes are executed with a wink to us. Part of the fun is watching him interact with one of his women, Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), who’s anything but a gullible victim. Raye plays her almost as broadly as Chaplin does Verdoux and they have several memorably farcical scenes together, including a fishing trip (!).
Monsieur Verdoux wouldn’t be Chaplin if it didn’t have at least some humanistic, sentimental ingredients. In this case, it’s represented by Marilyn Nash as a young woman who touches something deep inside Verdoux. When things turn sour in the shape of the Depression and the rising Nazi threat in neighboring Germany, she’s a chance encounter that’s unlike anything he’s ever had. In the end though, that doesn’t mean Madame la Guillotine will go without a date.
Monsieur Verdoux 1947-U.S. 123 min. B/W. Produced, written, directed and music by Charles Chaplin. Story: Orson Welles. Cast: Charles Chaplin (Henri Verdoux), Martha Raye (Annabella Bonheur), Isobel Elsom (Marie Grosnay), Marilyn Nash, Irving Bacon, William Frawley.
Quote: “As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head.” (Chaplin)