When in the late 1920's the entire movie industry raced to embrace and adapt to the addition of sound to the movies, one notable film artist, Charles Chaplin, resisted. Chaplin's 1931 masterpiece, City Lights, was made without dialogue, although Chaplin did compose an orginal music score for the film. Chaplin's next film, Modern Times, was not released for another five years, and still Chaplin resisted the pressure to add dialogue to the story.
By 1940, Chaplin was ready to tackle the task of incorporating dialogue in his next project, the political satire The Great Dictator, and to audiences and critics of the time his efforts proved successful. Chaplin received the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle (which he declined). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture of the year, and Chaplin received nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. A great fan of the silent movies of Chaplin, I recently had the opportunity to see The Great Dictator for the first time. My expectations were hopeful. The movie is loved by many knowledgeable critics and filmmakers and rated highly by users of the Internet Movie Database. But I found the experience ultimately to be a disappointing one.
I found parts of the movie appealing in the ways Chaplin's silent movies are, alternately touching and funny. The opening sequence, in which Chaplin plays a Jewish barber fighting in what is understood to be the German Army (although here the country is called Ptomania) in 1918, could have been lifted from one of his early silent short films. Here is a version of the Little Tramp, the meek and compliant anonymous man pushed around by overbearing, bullying officers. He is the comically inept enlisted man ordered by his superiors to perform the dangerous tasks that they avoid, the one whom they clearly consider insignificant and dispensable. So unimportant is dialogue in this sequence that I kept expecting to see title cards.
When the war ends just as he completes a dangerous mission, Chaplin receives a head wound that leaves him with amnesia and spends the next twenty years or so in a military hospital. Released in the late 1930's, he finds the world to be a changed place. His country is now ruled by a megalomaniacal dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin), who is clearly intended to be Adolph Hitler. And his people, confined to the Ghetto, have become the powerless victims of gangs of uniformed thugs who berate and terrorize them mercilessly.
Chaplin was taking a risk in using current world events as fodder for satire. We know now that the situation he made fun of was far worse than he ever imagined at the time and that Chaplin has said that he regretted making light of what were later revealed to be some of the most vicious and heinous acts of atrocity in human history. But even on its own terms, for me the movie often falls short. The addition of dialogue to situations that were often not that different from those found in Chaplin's great silent films make the pitfalls inherent in Chaplin's sensibilities all the more apparent. In The Great Dictator the dangerously sentimental attitude of Chaplin toward his characters too often crosses the line into the maudlin. His depiction of the heroine Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, is a good example of this. I could see that Chaplin envisioned her as a successor to the heroines of his silents, but the addition of speech makes obvious the shallow and vague nature of her character. She seems more a type than an individual, a conceptual deficiency that works to the film's detriment.
Chaplin's depiction of the dictator, who (apparently unnoticed by other characters) strongly resembles the little barber, is a very mixed one. Chaplin has all the physical attributes of Hitler down pat. His mimicry of Hitler's facial expressions, posture, gestures, and way of speaking are brilliant But the pidgin German he uses to mock Hitler's speeches quickly grows tiresome, an initially good joke stretched far, far too thin. Again the addition of speech diminishes a character rather than enhancing it. By contrast, Hynkel's silent ballet with the globe is a great pantomime bit. Here Chaplin is in his familiar element, satirizing Hynkel's egomania so brilliantly with movement that no words are necessary.
Even the deficiencies of the screenplay seem amplified by dialogue. It is often easy to overlook the gaps and lurches is the narrative logic of some of Chaplin's silents. Sometimes his silents really are collections of nearly independent sequences that can be shuffled around because their function is self-contained and not really causative. In The Great Dictator these deficiencies in the narrative structure are glaringly obvious.
The buildup to the big finale, when the little barber stands in for the dictator to make a globally broadcast policy speech, turned into a big letdown when I actually heard the speech. It is too long and embarrassingly unsubtle. There is no denying the sincerity of the sentiments Chaplin expresses, but as Martin Scorsese (an admirer of the movie) observes, "It does sound like preaching." In narrative terms it is incomprehensible how events would proceed from this point, so Chaplin seems merely to have arbitrarily ended the film, bringing the film to a dead stop without any sense of resolution. And it is the use of words to make Chaplin's idealistic beliefs explicit that exposes the weakness in the narrative strategy of using this speech to conclude the movie.
My overall assessment of the movie is that it is brilliant in parts but uneven as a whole. I get the feeling that Chaplin believed that the addition of speech required him to outdo himself, and that his way to respond to this self-imposed imperative was to make a Big Statement. In doing so, he forgot what it was that made his best silent films great: the small but universal details. In The Great Dictator he miscalculated by going for the too specific and too grand, and the elements that were always his strengths simply got overwhelmed. Chaplin seems to have thought that he could merely graft words onto what he was already doing without rethinking his approach to comedy or screenwriting. The resulting movie seems faltering and anachronistic.
When I watched Chaplin's second sound film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a few nights later, I was apprehensive. But what a contrast that movie is to The Great Dictator. In seven years Chaplin seems to have totally mastered the art of writing comedy for sound films, and I found the movie, which took Chaplin four years to write, to be a complete delight.
This was not the way audiences and critics felt at the time of its initial release. Monsieur Verdoux (the name translates from French as something like "mild-mannered worm") was savaged by critics of the time. In the movie Chaplin plays a victim of the Depression who, unable to find work, becomes a bigamist who maintains marriages with several wealthy women and, when he needs cash for his stock purchases, murders them for their money and property. He does this not so much for himself as to support his disabled wife and young son. The movie's subject, a serial wife-killer, and its approach, to make this seem funny, were perceived as a mismatch when it was released. It is perhaps understandable that in the aftermath of World War II critics and audiences were uncomfortable with the depiction of murder as funny.
When it was rediscovered in the 1960s the film was proclaimed a lost masterpiece. By then critics and audiences had become familiar with the concept of black comedy, even in popular entertainment like motion pictures. In fact, it did not take long for other filmmakers to follow the example set by Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. Only one year later Preston Sturges made a very black comedy called Unfaithfully Yours, based on an idea he had first conceived fifteen years earlier but never followed through on, in which orchestra conductor Rex Harrison fantasizes about taking revenge on his unfaithful wife in three different ways, each method inspired by a piece of music he is conducting in a concert. And in 1949 the British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which a distant relation to nobility methodically murders the eight relatives who stand between him and the title, became a cult favorite and launched the heyday of the Ealing comedies. Monsieur Verdoux paved the way for these and subsequent black comedies.
From beginning to end Monsieur Verdoux is a film of great assurance: Chaplin knows exactly the effect he wants to create and is in full control. Never before had Chaplin used irony to such an extent or to such comic effect. He carefully calibrates the exact proportions of opposing elements and blends them flawlessly. In the opening scene the foppish Monsieur Verdoux fastidiously cuts roses in the garden of his villa on the French Riviera, almost prissily sampling their fragrance, while in the background the incinerator, apparently containing his murdered wife's body, spews black smoke into the air and the next-door neighbors complain of the stench. Elements that might have seemed bizarrely incongruous in other hands are mixed by Chaplin to create a humorously ironic counterpoint. Verdoux is immediately established as a man of great sensitivity—and equally great ruthlessness. Like so much else in the film, Verdoux is a fusion of opposites. The simple Little Tramp has been transformed into something complex and paradoxical—a genteel monster.
In Mosieur Verdoux Chaplin masterfully uses dialogue to give his characters individuality and to create scenes that define them. Directly after the opening sequence, Verdoux impetuously selects at first sight his next mark, the wealthy widow who has come to view the villa, which he has just put on the market. His unsuccessful attempts to seduce Mme. Grosnay (gros nez is French for "fat nose") are entirely verbal, the effusive flattery of a would-be Lothario. His unctuousness is so hilariously over-the-top that it immediately arouses the suspicion of Mme. Grosnay, who skillfully parries his every attempt at the rhetoric of seduction. Chaplin allows himself one pratfall at the end of this scene, when in his enthusiasm he falls backward from the second-story window of the bedroom to which he has guided his intended prey. In his zeal has he fallen to his death? No, for there is a roof outside the window and after a moment Chaplin hauls himself back through the window, regains control of himself, and abandons his plan—at least for the time being.
Another telling detail that shows how far Chaplin has progressed since The Great Dictator is his use of Martha Raye as the most hilariously awful of the many wives of Monsieur Verdoux. In The Great Dictator Jack Oakie was able to steal every scene he was in with Chaplin (as Hynkel) because Chaplin had written the part, a spoof of Mussolini, as a rival to Hynkel who is supposed to upstage him. In Monsieur Verdoux he does something similar with Raye, an apparently hare-brained lottery winner, but instead of making the two characters rivals, he makes Raye's Annabella in every way opposite and complementary to Verdoux. He is worldly, she is provincial. He is controlled, she is impulsive. He is subdued and refined, she is raucous and vulgar. The appalled expression on his face each time she addresses him with the pet name "Pigeon" is priceless.
He carefully lays plans—at first to fleece her, then out of desperation to murder her—and watches helplessly as time after time she thwarts them with her spontaneity born of her belief in her infallible good luck. Her unpredictability and complete self-absorption deflect his designs every time. She may appear stupid, but she is actually the shrewdest of all his victims, and Verdoux's underestimation of her is his greatest miscalculation in the movie. And aside from the one very funny sequence on the lake when he tries unsuccessfully to drown her (she ends up saving him from drowning), the humor is almost entirely derived from their verbal encounters. Even Raye's voice is funny.
Chaplin uses the irony that pervades the movie as the means of bringing it to its conclusion. Most of the movie occurs during the early 1930's. Near the end, the movie jumps ahead several years, presumably to 1947. Verdoux's wife and son are now dead (victims of the war?) and he has lost all his money in a stock crash. Years before he had encountered a homeless young woman on the street late at night and taken her home with him. His aim was to test a new poison on an anonymous stranger, someone new to Paris whom nobody would miss. When he finds that she has been driven to despair by a husband wounded in WW I (gassed?) who later died, he suddenly relents and instead of poisoning her, gives her money and sends her on her way.
Years later they meet again by accident on the street. Now the rich wife of a munitions manufacturer, she insists on treating the penniless and emotionally broken Verdoux to a lavish meal. But Verdoux's earlier act of kindness to her rebounds with irony when she becomes the unwitting agent of his destruction, for while dining, Verdoux is spotted by the obnoxious and vengeful relatives of one of his early victims. He is arrested, tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. On his way to the guillotine, Verdoux makes a brief statement to a reporter: "Wars, conflicts, it's all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow."
What a contrast this speech is to the one that ends The Great Dictator. There is nothing didactic or prolix about this statement, and it is delivered to a reporter, not spoken directly to the camera as in the earlier movie. But what really distinguishes this statement from its predecessor is its tone. This is not an impassioned Big Statement, but a detached observation. Verdoux's final statement is one of calm acceptance of the duplicity inherent in codes of morality and the hypocrisy inherent in judging the actions of others. And Chaplin's perception of war as business, which at the time must have seemed sacrilegious, seems today more prescient then ever.
I did not get the impression, as some viewers might, that Chaplin was attempting to justify the actions of Verdoux. Verdoux seems fully aware of the nature of his crimes, but equally aware that in other circumstances they would be acceptable. The Little Tramp has become, if not exactly a cynic, at the least a moral relativist who recognizes that right and wrong are no longer absolutes, but rather are defined by circumstance. It's a very modern attitude and a world away from the simple and hopeful optimism of Chaplin's earlier work. "I know what I am," Verdoux seems to be saying to the viewer. "What makes you think you are any better?" Chaplin is no longer offering solutions, only asking questions, for there are no longer any easy answers.