Film : A classic Chaplin at the Capawock
Although "Monsieur Verdoux" dates from 1947, it offers an intriguing lens on current issues like the economic recession, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the arrest of film director Roman Polanski. The setting for the film is the Great Depression, with newsreel clips of bank failures and economic collapse, and the lady-killing bluebeard Verdoux tosses in a few anti-war barbs once he is finally called to account.
Vineyard Haven's Capawock Theatre hosts a special digital screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic black comedy, "Monsieur Verdoux," on Wednesday, March 24. Martha's Vineyard Film Society director Richard Paradise will provide commentary on the film a la Turner Classic Movies host Richard Osborne.
Like Polanski, Chaplin developed an unsavory reputation for wooing underage girls. Two of his wives were 16 when he married them, and his longest marriage, to Oona O'Neill, began when she was 18 after her father, playwright Eugene O'Neill, refused to consent to an earlier betrothal. Chaplin's leftist politics led Congress to denounce him as a Communist, and he was denied reentry to the U.S. in 1952 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Always an advocate of the little guy, Chaplin endeared himself to Americans during the Silent Film era through his characterization of the Little Tramp. By the time he directed and starred in "Monsieur Verdoux," from an Orson Welles documentary script he bought for $5,000, the legendary comedian/director had turned to serious issues.
In "Monsieur Verdoux," Chaplin plays a bank clerk who resorts to murder and bigamy to support his wife and son after he loses his job during the Depression. Henri Verdoux, based on an actual bluebeard murderer, echoes in many ways the beloved Little Tramp of the Silent era.
The film is full of Chaplinesque funny business. A dapper fellow with a mustache, Verdoux speedily flips through the bank notes the ex-bank clerk cadges from his lonely-heart victims. The women he preys on are hardly pushovers, but he woos them through a combination of romantic balderdash and appealing pratfalls.
Verdoux meets his match in Annabella Bonheur, played by the legendary comedienne Martha Raye, a bullet-busted lottery winner who thinks he's a ship captain. At one point when he is about to marry another intended victim, Annabella shows up at the wedding and provokes a loony cat-and-mouse game with her beloved "Pigeon."
As a director, Chaplin is careful to demonstrate that Verdoux is no mustache-twirling villain. In a signature Chaplin touch, he rescues a caterpillar in his garden. He treats his real wife, Mona (Mady Correll), who is confined to a wheelchair, with affection and is indulgent and fatherly to his son Peter.
In a scene reminiscent of the flower girl in "City Lights," Verdoux befriends a young woman down on her luck. He plans to poison The Girl (Marilyn Nash), but her heartwarming story wins him over, and he gives her cash instead, sending her on her way.
Much of the pleasure of watching Chaplin at work comes from the breakneck pace of the story and the visual gags. The director's editing sometimes causes whiplash, though, as the audience struggles to keep up with the scene-to-scene switches.
When the action slows down toward the end and the director has Verdoux pontificating on the evils of capitalism, it is easier to understand why contemporary critics condemned the film. McCarthyism was about to grip the country.
"Monsieur Verdoux" earned Chaplin an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay in 1948, but the film was a box office flop at the time. Novelist/critic James Agee recognized the film's innovative qualities. It led to a spate of dark comedies including Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove."
While not on a par with Chaplin's greatest directing achievements, "Monsieur Verdoux" is well worth viewing for his masterly comedic performance. Watching rubber-mouthed Martha Raye in action is another of the film's pleasures, and film buffs will enjoy catching glimpses of William Frawley, who plays the inimitable Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy."
Capawock owner Benjamin Hall has collaborated with Emerging Pictures, which also provides Islanders with opera and ballet events on a digital screen, to make possible the screening of "Monsieur Verdoux."
"Monsieur Verdoux," 7 pm, Wednesday, March 24, Capawock Theatre Vineyard Haven. $5.