Yet more stuff for watching


He's coming up rather rapidly on 60 here. I never would have thought. The only real signs are the dramatic white flash in the front of his hair, which started when he was in his thirties, and the crow's feet, which I would have guessed put him in his mid-40s.

Being a talkie -- only his second -- the entire thing is filmed at standard Academy ratio and speed, which is a 4:3 rectangular picture at 24 frames a second. Without the variable speed of undercranking, you can see how ungodly fast he really is. Tripping up stairs especially; several times, someone follows him up or down, and while you can hear the second person's footfalls, you hear nothing from Chaplin, who's invariably up on his toes. (Also when rifling through papers or banknotes. He does it with both hands, which impresses me extra.) No camera tricks, he's just very, very quick. Gravity is still thoroughly unconcerned with his existence. Whenever he throws himself at the ground for the purposes of funny, I half expect him to miss.

The film is intentionally ham-tastic, a comedy of errors murders where everyone's performance has been cheerfully stuffed with enough pork products to handle a convention of William Shatner impersonators. Some of his random girlfriends victims are especially hilarious -- and he manages to rev up the girl at the florist he orders his stalker-bouquets from completely by accident, when she overhears him on the phone setting up another one of his soon-to-be-late wives. It still gives rather a lot of insight into how Chaplin got a reputation as a ladykiller of a less literal sort in his off-camera life. The tramp is shy and flighty and endearingly childish in his movements; Verdoux tends to be overbearingly passionate and a little too insistent to be sincere. Somewhere in the intersection of the two is the fellow who interrupted his conversation with Gandhi to stick his head out the window and wave his hat at the crowd below when they wouldn't stop clamoring.

[I kind of miss the days when entertainers got introduced to important politicians and philosophers. Hollywood has gotten so incestuously constricted nowadays that they mostly get introduced to each other. No one would expect a film star to carry on an intelligent conversation with a professor of physics anymore. I think those days ended somewhere around the time Lalla Ward was introduced to Richard Dawkins, more or less by accident, at what I think was a birthday party for Douglas Adams, who was writing for Doctor Who at the time.]

The best part of Chaplin in talkies is the sarcasm. I have never heard anyone sound quite so exactly much like that face he makes when he finally realizes that the universe is just not going to let him succeed at something. The comic potential of both of the roles he played in his first full-sound film rested on both of them being completely, obliviously earnest, but M. Verdoux is a sharp-witted, double-dealing, pathological liar whose humor rests in the absurdly huge divide between what he says and what he does. So when the loudmouth wife he is trying unsuccessfully to kill for her money opines that the witnesses picnickers with field glasses on the far shore are ruining their romantic boat ride, all he can do is agree in the driest, most disgruntled voice ever. 

Monsieur Verdoux is also rather risqué for 1947. It doesn't look very eyebrow-raising today, but Chaplin fought with the morals board over goddamn everything. Movies were not rated at the time; they operated under what was called the Motion Picture Production Code instead. Like with the MPAA, it was technically voluntary to submit a film to the MPPC board for critique, but since the vast majority of theaters wouldn't buy prints which didn't pass the censors -- and certain violations could get your product seized and the distributor charged with disseminating indecent materials -- in practice it was compulsory. The Wikipedia entry on the Hays Code gives the long list of "Don'ts" and the even longer list of "Be Carefuls", but suffice it to say, they did not much appreciate how Verdoux skips through the movie banging other peoples' wives, cheating on his own wife, murdering over a dozen women, murdering a police inspector who catches him murdering over a dozen women, embezzling, lying, defrauding, evading justice, using the mails for nefarious purposes, and probably jaywalking, I wasn't paying attention. They hated the parts of the script that said Verdoux offers to stay the night with one of his paramours, the one where he follows a woman to whom he is not married into her bedroom at night and emerges again putting his tie back on the next morning, the part where he comes to within a couple of microns of making out with several of them on camera, the entire conversation he has with the one he doesn't kill wherein she makes it pretty clear she was having an unsuccessful night at streetwalking when he picked her up, and about five million others. Chaplin gives the distinct impression when he talks about it that he's kind of surprised they didn't set the screenplay on fire right in front of him.

I don't know how many bits of the script were specifically censor bait. I would be perfectly willing to believe that none of them were, actually -- the only time Chaplin admits to specifically trying to piss someone off with his work is The Great Dictator, which never pretended to be anything but a lengthy and exceedingly funny insult. I think he wrote exactly the story he wanted and if the censor board wanted to be pernickety twits about it, he would make them knock it off, regret it, or both.

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