As many times as I can each week, I go for a walk on a section of the Bruce Trail close to where I live in Ontario.
Every so often I come across a caterpillar slowly making its way from one side of the path to the other.
I always stop, gently grab onto it as it curls itself up into a circle and deposit it out of harm’s way on the other side of the path.
I’m sure you’d do the same thing. After all, the more butterflies there are in this world, the nicer place it is to live.
Big picture-wise it’s a small insignificant gesture (not to the caterpillar, of course, though she or he will never know it.)
Whenever a caterpillar crosses my path, I can’t help but think of the scene in the film Monsieur Verdoux, where Verdoux reaches down to pick up a caterpillar on the garden path and subsequently deposits it safely in a bush.
He does this while the incinerator in his backyard is billowing smoke for the third day running. Inside the incinerator, the smouldering remains of an elderly lady Verdoux recently married.
One of the first “grown up books” I read growing up was called My Autobiography written by Charlie Chaplin.
I remember thinking to myself at the time that I couldn’t believe I was actually reading words written by the Charlie Chaplin.
Looking back I know how silly that seems. It was just a book. He wrote it. A publisher published his book. I bought the book. Nothing magical or unbelievable about that.
But for me, my awe for Chaplin had elevated him to the larger than larger than life status. And the fact that I had access to words actually written by the man himself seemed pretty wonderful.
Monsieur Verdoux was released in 1947 when Chaplin was in his 58th year.
Because of his prior suggestion that the United States should align with Russia to fight Hitler’s Nazis (and coupled with his well-known leftist tendencies,) Chaplin had been branded a communist.
Chaplin’s recommendation, as we all know, was exactly what transpired. Together the U.S. and Russia successfully put an end to Adolph Hitler’s Germany. A very necessary partnership.
Chaplin being labelled a communist has more to do with times – the Red Scare/McCarthyism that was quickly sweeping across America – than the accuracy of the accusations against him.
Chaplin’s public perception was not helped by the paternity suit brought against him in 1943 by actress Joan Berry. (Although blood tests indicated Chaplin was not the father of Barry’s child he was still ordered to pay child support which he did until the girl, Carol Ann, was 21 years old.)
So being that Chaplin’s popularity was not at its highest level and that to some it might not be the most appealing theme for a film – a suave cynical man marries and murders rich women for their money – Monsieur Verdoux bombed at the box office grossing only $323,000. However it did better internationally, bringing in about $1.5 million.
Reviews of the film didn’t pull any punches. They attacked it as being unfunny, tasteless, poorly made, and morally dubious. The New York Herald-Tribune called it an “affront to the intelligence.”
Some critics did praise it, most notably the writer James Agee. Agee wrote a three-part defence of it in The Nation calling it “a brilliant comedy whose deep message will stir the hearts and minds of liberty-loving peoples all over the world.”
Where some films age terribly and seem to be dragged down by the decade they were made in, 67 years later Monsieur Verdoux’s reputation has been restored and shines brighter than ever.
One of its many memorable scenes features Chaplin’s first interaction with Marilyn Nash whose character is billed only as “The Girl.”
It’s also the scene where some critics and non-professional reviewers point to when they accuse the film of containing some bad acting. Not on Chaplin’s part of course, but Nash’s.
Nash (October 26 1926 – October 6, 2011) was born in Detroit Michigan. On a break from the University of Arizona, she met Chaplin while playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He quickly signed her to a contract for Charlie Chaplin Studios starting at $50 a week.
Personally I find Nash’s acting to be just fine. But my guess is, those who don’t, disapprove of her rather stilted “tears of joy” performance brought on by Verdoux gifting her some money. But despite that, she pulls off her part more than adequately. Her warm and inviting smile immediately draw us in. She’s extremely likeable and we want only the best for her.
Their first scene together has a great subtext to it.
Verdoux has chosen The Girl, who has just got out of jail for pawning a typewriter she didn’t own, as the subject of his experiment. He wants to see if a lethal concoction he has put together will kill a person without leaving a trace.
He offers her some food complete with a glass of toxic red wine.
Perhaps to clear what little conscience he seems to possess, Verdoux peppers The Girl with a few questions in hopes that her answers will reveal that he’s actually doing her a favor:
Verdoux: What book is that you’re reading?
The Girl: Schopenhauer.
Verdoux: Do you like it?
The Girl: So-so.
Verdoux: Have you read his treaties on suicide?
The Girl: Wouldn’t interest me.
Verdoux: Not if the end could be simple? Say for instance you went to sleep and without any thought of death there was a sudden stoppage, wouldn’t you prefer it to this drab existence?
The Girl: I wonder…
Verdoux: It’s the approach of death that terrifies.
The Girl: I suppose if the unborn knew of the approach of life, they’d be just as terrified.
The Girl grabs her wine as if in preparation to sip.
The Girl: Yet life is wonderful
Verdoux: What’s wonderful about it?
The Girl: Everything, spring mornings, summers night, music, art, love-
Puts her wine down.
The Girl: There is such a thing.
Verdoux: How do you know?
The Girl: I was in love once.
Verdoux: You mean you were physically attracted by someone.
The Girl: It was more than that.
Verdoux: I suppose women are capable of something more.
The Girl: You don’t like women, do you?
Verdoux: On the contrary I love women, but I don’t admire them.
The Girl: Why?
Verdoux: Women…are of the earth, realistic. Dominated by physical facts.
The Girl: What nonsense.
Verdoux: Once a woman betrays a man, she despises him. Despite of his goodness and his position she will give him up for someone inferior. That someone is more, shall we say…attractive.
The Girl: How little you know about women.
Verdoux: You’d be surprised.
The Girl: That isn’t love.
Verdoux: What is love?
The Girl: Giving, sacrificing the same thing a mother feels for her child.
She then reveals something that makes him change his mind about killing her. Instead he continues his kindness in the form of money to help her get back on her feet.
The scene ends on an optimistic note, despite Verdoux’s attempts otherwise:
The Girl: Sorry for carrying on this way. I was beginning to lose faith in everything and this happens and you want to believe all over again.
Verdoux: Don’t believe too much. This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.
The Girl: That isn’t true. It’s a blundering world and a very sad one. Yet a little kindness can make it beautiful.
Verdoux: You’d better leave before your philosophy corrupts me.
Monsieur Verdoux is filled with many great scenes including most notably scenes that feature a stunningly comedic performance by Martha Raye.
Be forewarned: There are some spoilers that follow in regards to the ending.
The first time I watched Monsieur Verdoux, I found Verdoux’s justifications for his actions a bit absurd. In a short speech after the guilty verdict is delivered Verdoux has this to say…
“However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me he at least admits that I have brains, thank you monsieur I have, and for thirty five years I used them honestly, after that nobody wanted them. So 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 soul purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to little pieces and done it very scientifically. Huh… as a mass killer I’m 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.”
Today I see nothing absurd about Chaplin’s words. And I’m pretty sure the reason I felt this speech was absurd was due to a naive view of war and profit…and that wars and domestic murders often share similar motivating factors.
A gauge of the success and beauty of a film is, of course, the journey itself and how the film ends. Another gauge is how long it stays with you. The questions it raises. The answers it illuminates or doesn’t.
In that regard and all others, Monsieur Verdoux is no ordinary film.
Chaplin describes it as “the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.”
The writer James Agee agreed saying it was “one of the best movies ever made.” Chaplin’s theme “the greatest that he has yet undertaken” according to James Agee “is the bare problem of surviving at all in such a world as this.”
An apt description. The problem Verdoux faced and powered every move he made throughout the film is similar to what many people face in today’s economy. When they reach a certain age, they’re often liquidated from their work of choice and have to do whatever it takes to make ends meet.
Just as war seems to be the natural extension of civilization and the world we live in, to Verdoux murder was the natural extension of business.
As Verdoux’s time on earth draws to a close, he muses…
“It’s all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify…”
Some things will never change.