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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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Twilight on the Rio Grande (April 1, 1947)

Frank McDonald’s Twilight on the Rio Grande features Gene Autry and his co-stars being put through their B-movie paces south of the border.

Crime melodramas (we call them film noirs nowadays) were very popular Hollywood products in 1947, and Twilight on the Rio Grande incorporates several elements from them, such as the hero investigating the murder of his partner, lots of nighttime photography, a plot about jewel smuggling, and a beautiful knife-throwing señorita. (They showed up in noirs every now and then, didn’t they?)

Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry) and his ranch hands, Dusty Morgan (Bob Steele), Pokie (Sterling Holloway), and the singing trio The Cass County Boys, are all down in Mexico, singing in Spanglish and ogling the ladies. (If there was a deeper purpose to their visit, I missed it.)

The diminutive Bob Steele was a western actor whose star had faded by the mid-’40s, and he picks up a pretty easy paycheck in Twilight on the Rio Grande, since his character is murdered in the first reel, which I thought was a shame. I like Steele, and would have enjoyed seeing him and Autry solve the murder of Sterling Holloway’s character, Pokie, since the loose-limbed, rubber-faced Holloway is more annoying than a barrel of Jim Carreys.

The femme fatale of the film is the beautiful and hot-blooded Elena Del Rio (Adele Mara), who throws knives at Gene while he’s singing “I Tipped My Hat and Slowly Rode Away.” She throws one after the other into the wall behind him, in order to show him how angry she is. She has a steady hand, so she doesn’t hurt him. But then Gene shows her his steady hand when he finishes his song, throws her over his knee, and spanks the bejeezus out of her with the flat of a big knife blade.

Dusty is murdered with a knife in the back, and a smuggler Gene and his boys rope out on the prairie winds up with a knife in his back that could only have been thrown, not thrust at close range, so suspicions fall on Elena.

The title song is a good one, and was never released as a record by Autry, so if you’re a fan of his music, it’s a reason to see this picture. He sings two versions, a slow, mournful version at Dusty’s funeral, and a more upbeat version to close the picture.

If you’re not a fan of Autry’s music, there is really no reason to see this picture. It’s not terrible, but there are plenty of better B westerns out there.

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.'”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.