Monsieur Verdoux (1947): Chaplin’s Oscar-Nominated, Controversial Comedy of Manners and Murders

Genius comedian-director Charlie Chaplin subtitled Monsieur Verdoux, one of his last efforts, as a “çomedy of manners and murders.”

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster (1947)

But the tale is much more than just a comedy, due to its shifting (intentionally and unintentionally) tone.

It’s Orson Welles who reportedly suggested the idea to Chaplin, opting for a screen credit instead of money.  Chaplin later regretted that move.

With “Monsieur Verdoux,” Chaplin made his final, definitive break with the Little Tramp, his iconic character that had brought him fame and fortune, hailing back to the silent era.

When the saga begins, Verdoux is a decent family man living in pre-war France, but in actuality, he’s an original, finding novel, unconventional ways to support his loved ones. Assuming alias, while out of town, he marries a foolish, wealthy older woman, then murders her for the insurance money.

He does this thirteen times with success, but wife number 14, played by the aggressive and resilient Martha Raye, proves impossible to kill.

Chaplin the writer must have realized that he needed additional ideas to enrich the saga. Thus, a subplot develops when Verdoux, planning to test a new poison, chooses the streetwalker Marilyn Nash for his experiment. However, when she tells him her sad life story, he gives her money and leaves.

Years later, the widowed meets again Nash, now the mistress of a munitions magnate, and new opportunities arise.

Verdoux, finally arrested for his crimes and on trial for his life, argues in his own defense that he is an “amateur” by comparison to those profiteers who build destructive war weapons, claiming: “It’s all business.” “Sentenced to death, Verdoux remains calmly philosophical to the bitter end. The priest prays for God to have mercy on Verdoux’s soul. “Why not?” replies Verdoux cynically. “It belongs to him.”

Chaplin was sure that he could get away with the audacious character of a cold-blood murderer by presenting him as a sympathetic, lovable figure.

He changes identities smoothly and skillfully, playing, among others, Henri Verdoux, Varney, Bonheur, Foray, as well as the narrator who links among the episodes.

Monsieur Verdoux was released at a time when Chaplin was under political suspicions for his allegedly Communist ideology–he had never applied for American citizenship.

Moreover, it didn’t help that he movie came out after a much-publicized paternity suit involving Chaplin and Joan Barry.

At the time, the controversial Monsieur Verdoux became Chaplin’s first commercial flop. But history has vindicated the director: A new generation of critics reevaluated the picture in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently, its status has been elevated as a bold and significant work, well ahead of its time.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Sidney Sheldon for the Cary Grany comedy, “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.”

Charlie Chaplin as Monsieur Henri Verdoux.

His aliases: Monsieur Varnay; Monsieur Bonheur; Monsieur Floray
Mady Correll as Mona Verdoux (legal wife of Verdoux)
Allison Roddan as Peter Verdoux, their son
Robert Lewis as Maurice Bottello, Verdoux’s friend
Audrey Betz as Martha Bottello

The Ladies
Martha Raye as Annabella Bonheur, who believes Verdoux to be Bonheur, a sea captain who is frequently away
Ada-May as Annette, her maid
Isobel Elsom as Marie Grosnay, aged widow interested in purchasing Thelma’s residence and whom Verdoux (as Varnay) attempts to court.
Marjorie Bennett as her maid
Helene Heigh as Yvonne, Marie’s friend
Margaret Hoffman as Lydia Floray, who believes Verdoux to be Floray, an engineer away from home for months.
Marilyn Nash as The Girl, young woman whom Verdoux  attempts to poison before her views change his mind.

The Couvais Family
Irving Bacon as Pierre Couvais
Edwin Mills as Jean Couvais
Virginia Brissac as Carlotta Couvais
Almira Sessions as Lena Couvais
Eula Morgan as Phoebe Couvais

The Law
Bernard J. Nedell as Prefect of Police
Charles Evans as Detective Morrow
Others in the Cast
Lois Conklin as Florist
Christine Ell as Louise (Maid)
William Frawley as Jean La Salle
John Harmon as Joe Darwin
Arthur Hohl as real estate agent
Fritz Leiber as Father Fareaux
Vera Marshe as Mrs. Vicki Darwin
Barbara Slater as the florist (flower seller)

Joseph Crehan as Broker
Cyril Delevanti as Postman
Paul Newlan as Garden Party Guest
Frank Reicher as Doctor
Addison Richards as Bank Manager
C. Montague Shaw as Mortgage Banker
Pierre Watkin as Prison Official

Directed, produced by Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin; Story by Orson Welles
Cinematography Roland Totheroh; Curt Courant (uncredited)
Edited by Willard Nico
Music by Charlie Chaplin
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: April 11, 1947

Running time: 124 minutes
Box office $323,000 (US); $1.5 million (international)