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Tag Archives: Barbara Slater

Monsieur Verdoux (April 11, 1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
United Artists

Monsieur Verdoux, “a comedy of murders,” is a product of Charles Chaplin’s Frantic One-Man Band. Besides starring in the film, Chaplin is credited with directing the picture, writing the screenplay, producing the film, and writing the music. Orson Welles wrote the original script and was slated to direct Chaplin in the picture, but at the last minute, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else — he’d always been his own director in the past — and bought the script from Welles, crediting him with the “idea” for the film.

The film is based on the career of real-life murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1914 and 1918 seduced a number of women and murdered them after gaining access to their assets. He burned their dismembered bodies in his oven, disposing of them completely, which made prosecuting him a challenge after he was caught. A trail of paperwork and other evidence was enough to eventually convict him of 11 counts of murder (10 women and one of their teenaged sons), and he was executed on the guillotine in 1922.

In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a man named Henri Verdoux, who describes himself as an “honest bank clerk.” Honest, that is, until the Depression of 1930, at which point he began his new career, “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” He claims that he began his career as a Bluebeard strictly as a business proposition. This is utter claptrap, as is nearly every other word out of M. Verdoux’s mouth that isn’t plot-advancing dialogue, but we’ll get to that later.

The film takes place in 1932. M. Verdoux had a 30-year career in banking before he began his new career as a murderer, and with his dainty, foppish clothes he looks like a relic of another time. When the film begins, he is living in a villa in the south of France. He’s a tidy little man who loves to garden, but whose incinerator has been going full-blast for the past three days. He’s kind to animals, moving a caterpillar out of his way in the garden path and feeding a cat on the street. M. Verdoux is even a vegetarian.

He is also a lothario with an insatiable appetite for well-heeled widows. But this, M. Verdoux assures us, is just his day job. His heart belongs to his wheelchair-bound wife Mona (Mady Correll) and adorable little boy Peter (Allison Roddan). At home, M. Verdoux lectures Peter when he catches him pulling the cat’s tail that “violence begets violence.” He also tells his son that he has a mean streak. “I don’t know where you get it!” he exclaims.

Aside from the saintly Mme. Verdoux, nearly everyone in the film is a grotesque and obnoxious caricature. In this way, Monsieur Verdoux is a distillation of Chaplin’s career-long vacillation between sentimentality and cruelty. A perfect example of this is the scene in which M. Verdoux brings a girl in off the street to poison her, but thinks better of it after she speaks of how wonderful life can be, and how she loved her husband, crippled in the war. (The girl is played by 20-year-old ingenue Marilyn Nash.)

The few bits of physical comedy in the film are funny, but they’re mostly either too brief or out of character with the rest of the scene in which they take place. Several comedic scenes — such as when M. Verdoux and another man start slapping each other with rapid-fire speed, or when M. Verdoux is romancing the older woman who was going to buy his villa in the beginning of the film, and he’s moving ever closer to her on the couch — fade to black in a quick, unsatisfying way.

When Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin’s reputation was severely tarnished. He hadn’t made a film since The Great Dictator (1940), and he was under attack for both his Leftist political sympathies and his morals (he was the subject of a sensational paternity suit, and was a serial seducer of young women, many of them underage).

Chaplin and Nash

Monsieur Verdoux can be seen as a defiant stand against his critics. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and was a box office disaster in the United States when it was first released (it fared a bit better in Europe), but has built up quite a cult since it was re-released to receptive audiences in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of its release, however, it polarized critics. James Agee crowned it a masterpiece, and the National Board of Review named it the best English-language film of 1947. Others were less enthusiastic.

I think that Monsieur Verdoux is a deeply flawed film. Chaplin was the preeminent clown of the silent era. He wasn’t quite the master technician of hijinks that Buster Keaton was, but he was able to convey a panoply of emotions through his face and body. His films are not only some of the funniest of the silent era, but are emotionally affecting, too. The ending of City Lights (1931) is still one of the most powerful I have seen in any film.

When he was able to speak onscreen, however, Chaplin was a tedious hack who only thought he was profound. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t as crushingly pretentious and boring as his later film Limelight (1952), but it has its moments.

The end of Monsieur Verdoux is especially problematic. Speaking on his own behalf in court, M. Verdoux says, “I was forced to go into business for myself. 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. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

The problem with this is that the murders of dowdy and grotesque women that we’ve seen M. Verdoux carry out in the film are very different from the mass mechanized killing of the Great War or the genocidal horrors of World War II. They’re intimate crimes, carried out for personal gain, and occasionally hilarious, such as the sequence in which M. Verdoux is repeatedly foiled while attempting to drop a noose around one of his wives’ necks while they are out fishing. It would be one thing if Chaplin were presenting M. Verdoux’s crimes as symptoms of a sick society, but what he seems to be doing is using a sick society as a justification for M. Verdoux’s crimes.

Is M. Verdoux meant to be an unreliable narrator? Perhaps, but he never comes across that way. I think that Chaplin was simply too infatuated with himself to present M. Verdoux as anything but a lovable cad, which makes the entire film uncomfortable and off-putting in ways I’m not sure Chaplin ever intended.

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Half-Wits Holiday (Jan. 9, 1947)

I normally don’t review shorts, but Half-Wits Holiday (a reworking of the 1935 Three Stooges short Hoi Polloi) marked a milestone for the Stooges, since it was Curly’s last film.

Curly Howard (born Jerome Lester Horwitz in 1903) had suffered a series of minor strokes in 1945, but during the filming of Half-Wits Holiday in 1946, he suffered a severe stroke, which ended his career. (Curly’s older brother Shemp, an original member of the trio, stepped in, and appeared in dozens of shorts with Moe Howard and Larry Fine until his death in 1955.) Curly lived until 1952, but he was unable to perform during the last years of his life.

In this burlesque version of the Pygmalion myth, a couple of egghead “scientists” — Prof. Sedletz (Theodore Lorch) and Prof. Quackenbush (Vernon Dent) — argue over environment vs. heredity and make a $1,000 bet. Quackenbush believes in environment, and claims he can take a man from the lowest strata of life and turn him into a gentleman after just one month in the right situation and with the proper instruction. Enter the Three Stooges. Guess who’s going to win the bet?

When Quackenbush asks Larry, Moe, and Curly if they’d like to make $1,000, Moe asks, “Who do we have to murder?” (And because it’s Moe, he sounds serious.) Quackenbush’s lovely daughter Lulu (Barbara Slater) is home from college, and offers to help tutor the Stooges (see poster above). A month passes, and the Stooges make their grand entrance in society. Moe and Larry acquit themselves well for a few minutes, but the kleptomaniac Curly bites the diamond ring off of a grand dame’s finger when he kisses her hand, pockets champagne (a word he can’t even pronounce), and steals a load of silverware. And before you can say “Sword of Damocles,” a pie stuck to the ceiling falls on a woman’s face, and the party devolves into a pie-in-the-face-athon.

When I was in high school, I bought a $2 VHS tape featuring two Three Stooges shorts, Disorder in the Court (1936) and Sing a Song of Six Pants (1947). I watched it frequently, which led my mother to declare the Three Stooges entartete Kunst.* She even compared them with New Kids on the Block, as a high-water mark of how pop-culturally unenjoyable I should find them. But you know what? I refused to apologize for loving the Three Stooges when I was 15, and I refuse to apologize today.

Unlike every single other genre, I judge comedy by only one criterion — does it make me laugh? The Three Stooges may be aggressively lowbrow, but they crack me up every time. I love them. There, I said it. I’ll say it again. I love the Three Stooges. I would marry them if I wasn’t already married and they weren’t all dead.

*It’s just an expression. My mom’s not a Nazi.

The Lady Confesses (May 16, 1945)

HughesMary Beth Hughes appeared in dozens of films from 1939 onward as a second- or third-billed actress (including films in the Charlie Chan, Cisco Kid, and Michael Shayne series), but in director Sam Newfield’s P.R.C. production The Lady Confesses she gets to strut her limited but charming stuff in a lead role. A natural redhead, Hughes usually appeared onscreen as a platinum blonde. Her round cheeks, big eyes, and moxie made up for what she lacked as a thespian.

When The Lady Confesses begins, Vicki McGuire (Hughes) receives a visit from a woman named Norma (Barbara Slater), who turns out to be the wife of Vicki’s fiancé, Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont). Norma has been missing for seven years and was presumed dead. Nasty Norma tells little sweetheart Vicki that she won’t let anyone marry her Larry, even though she doesn’t care for him one bit. Vicki runs off to find Larry, who has been stumbling around a nightclub, three sheets to the wind, generally making an ass of himself. When she finds him and wakes him up, they go to Norma’s apartment to sort things out with her. When they arrive, however, the place is lousy with cops, and Norma lies dead, strangled with a piece of wire. To convince the police of his innocence, Larry takes them to the club where he had been dead drunk for the past several hours. Everyone there admits having seen him, except for the club owner, the shady Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald), who denies having seen Larry, even though Larry had talked to him and asked him for permission to sleep it off in his office. Later, under police questioning, Brandon admits he knew the dead woman, and that she had lent him $10,000 to start up the club, and had recently returned to collect interest on the loan. Suspicious of Brandon, Vicki goes undercover in his club. She waits tables, sings a few songs, and even begins to feel herself falling under his dangerous sway.

The Lady Confesses is an average bottom-of-the-bill noir, but it moves at a nice clip and Hughes is cute. Also, you get to see Beaumont (who would go on to play everyone’s favorite sitcom dad, Ward Cleaver) act totally wasted for the first 10 minutes, which is fun.

A note on the title of the film; contextually it makes no sense. Both Ladies of the Night and Undercover Girl were considered. The first might have implied that the film was about prostitutes. The second actually would have been fitting. But I suppose the point is to get asses in the seats, not to give people an accurate idea of what they’re going to be seeing, especially when it’s a Poverty Row production.