Whenever I stumble upon a Turner Classic Movies‘ Spotlight of Charles Chaplin, I’m compelled to tune in. The Tramp charmed his way into my brain at a prepubescent age, and secured a VIP seat in my heart ever since.
I grew up on TCM, with special evenings set aside to enjoy the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and others. Chaplin, however, was a result of my own piqued interest. His basic (but clownish) style of dress and general kindness while finding himself in some of the most ridiculous of situations was captivating. The Silent Film era also captivated me. Not only because it gave insight to the history of film making, but it showed a side of acting mainstream movies no longer possess. In a way, it was animated theater.
For the month of August, TCM has been paying tribute to a different star each day, including Chaplin. During his slot, I skimmed through the lineup and one title caught my eye. Monsieur Verdoux. I kept my fingers crossed for a French film with subtitles, but didn’t mind English. When I read the synopsis, I was sold. A black comedy starring Chaplin as a man who married and murdered. Content far from anything else I had seen from him by that point. I was surprised that, while released later than notable films The Circus, Modern Times, or The Great Dictator, I hadn’t heard much about it. During the introduction via host Ben Mankiewicz, I learned a deal of controversy and criticism surrounded the film.
Monsieur Verdoux was viewed by some as making too light of serial killing or not having enough comedy. Seems hardly anyone found the motion picture pleasing. I wasn’t deterred. As someone having seen the aforementioned works, I believed in his abilities. The beginning was a slow start for me, admittedly I had some laptop distractions, but the humor and story telling I expected was still there. Also, much like his other works, a serious tone presented itself.
Questions of morality often find themselves in film. In Verdoux, I was reminded of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral dilemma. A man doing what he believes he must for the sake of his family, and whether or not it justified. Chaplin provides commentary on more than if this murderer’s deeds were wrong, but looks to the actions of businesses and governments and questions why society accepts one individual’s crimes as more heinous than those with the power (and often choose) to do far worse. It wasn’t revealed in the “epic” speech style of The Great Dictator, but still orated in a way warranting undivided attention. In these moments, my gratitude grows. Because funny aside, there’s something of substance left for the audience. And while these types of considerations have been and continue to be studied in academia or posited by other filmmakers, it doesn’t make it any less admirable or thought-provoking when witnessed in modern times.