(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin

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Eric Bentley

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There are things to find fault with in Monsieur Verdoux, but I should say that there is something heartening even in Charlie Chaplin's faults, because they are faults of excess, not of deficiency. If some scenes in Verdoux are puzzling, is it not because they might mean several things, not that they might mean nothing? In the revolutionary act of making the screen say something, Chaplin has made it say too much. There is more material in his latest film than he is able to manage—which is to say, more than any living dramatic artist could manage. (p. 161)

Chaplin takes the familiar moral dichotomy between the private life and the public, which in modern life has taken form as the dichotomy between the solid citizen's respectable Christian home and his dirty Machiavellian dealings in business, and he broadens the moral contrasts until they are expressible in terms of his own art, which is, if you like, slapstick. The strong contrast between the kind of treatment the material suggests and the kind of treatment it actually meets with at Chaplin's hands is likely to baffle the solemn modern spectator, whose imagination has been deadened by naturalism. For Chaplin's purposes, however, the broader the contrast, the better. Like the classic comedians, he thrives on the contrast, (pp. 162-63)

Chaplin is broken, but about his boss, the stockholder and speculator, polygamist and murderer, Henri Verdoux. The aspiration after a refined life, after courtesy and elegance, which the clowning always stood for has no longer any spontaneity. The hollow appearance of such an aspiration is brought into being for strictly business reasons by Henri Verdoux. (p. 166)

We watch the comic gags with admiration, but also with horror because their usual meaning has been shockingly inverted. That the clown lays the table for two when he is quite alone is funny, but in Monsieur Verdoux we know that he has removed his partner by cold-blooded murder; it makes a difference. At every turn, devices that were quite lighthearted in early Chaplin movies become macabre in Monsieur Verdoux….

The general context effects a general inversion of meaning, and in addition Chaplin sometimes inserts particular inversions. The Pursuit of Charlie—an archetypal pattern of movie comedy—is ruthlessly inverted in the night-club scene where Chaplin shows his old skill in leaping first to this side, then to that while his pursuer rushes past. But the gymnastics are little more than futile virtuosity: Verdoux only wants time to say good-by to the Girl. The Pursuit of Charlie cannot take place, because Charlie is not running away. (p. 167)

Pursuit and flight or mock pursuit and mock flight: such cultural commonplaces, such comic turns and gags, are the bricks from which Chaplin constructs his edifice—and it is an edifice, not just a pile of bricks. To change the metaphor: Monsieur Verdoux is a network of continuities and cross-references. Some of these are matters of detail (but then every detail in a Chaplin movie is a studied effect). (pp. 167-68)

It is by stage properties—or at any rate by objects in the environment—that continuity is indicated in the two major affairs of Verdoux. In the courtship of Mme Grosnay roses are the leitmotiv. Verdoux is carrying a rose when he first meets Mme Grosnay. He gives her the bunch of roses that we have seen him cut. He courts her exclusively with roses until she capitulates. The leitmotiv in the courtship of Annabella is water. As a sea captain, Verdoux-Bonheur lives by water; Annabella enters upon speculations that, if successful, will make her ruler of the waves—"that's all,"...

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as she puts it. Finally Verdoux resolves that Annabella shall die by water. But Annabella has the capitalist virtue of luck, and it is Verdoux who goes overboard.

I am not saying that all the groupings and parallels in Monsieur Verdoux are equally successful. Chaplin makes the parallel between Verdoux and the Girl a little too sentimental. She had had a wounded husband. He has a crippled wife. She is up against it; he has been up against it. Both are given a cat to be kind to. The music played for the sparing of the Girl is the music associated with the Verdoux home. And so on.

I am not praising Chaplin for the sheer number of parallels, but for the degree of expressiveness achieved by most of them. To conceive of the parallels was something, no doubt; but it is in the individual "frame," the particular movement, that Chaplin's genius is manifest. (pp. 169-70)

It is simply not true … that Chaplin is only an actor. What he does in Verdoux in the creation of characters shows an amazing creative talent. With the exception of two roles that are not very well acted—The Girl and the Flower-seller—every role in the film has a significant and well-defined identity, and, moreover, is sharply etched in the classic manner of dramatic characterization, for here at least one can agree with Professor E. E. Stoll: the playwright doesn't have to put together detailed psychological portraits of complete human beings: he has quickly to bring into relief the relevant trait. This is exactly what Chaplin does with a whole gallery of people in Monsieur Verdoux…. Chaplin understands that comic characters more often exist in pairs than alone. Each of the principal women was obviously chosen to make the most interesting pairing with Verdoux, a kind of contrast that is redoubled by the fact that he is a different man with each wife. Chaplin understands also the specially cinematic way of portraying character. The cinema, need one say, is a visual art, and we find from Monsieur Verdoux that Chaplin has something of the talent of a great caricaturist. (pp. 171-72)

As one who writes a good deal about theater, about comedy, I should like to record that, had I never seen Charles Chaplin, I should never have known what the possibilities of comic performance are—what the full realization of comic action is. I am much addicted to playgoing. I have seen Jonson and Molière competently and even expertly performed. But I wonder if the competence and expertness of a hundred different productions taught me more about the way comedy works than the film Monsieur Verdoux. I can now imagine what sort of performance a Jonson or Molière play would require before it could fully exist. (p. 172)

Eric Bentley, "'Monsieur Verdoux' and Theater" (originally published in a slightly different form as "'Monsieur Verdoux' As 'Theatre'," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, Winter, 1948), in his In Search of Theater (reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers; copyright 1953 by Eric R. Bentley), Atheneum, 1975, pp. 161-73.

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