Chaplin, Metastasis

Chaplin changes, can you? – The Sabotage of Monsieur Verdoux

 | Essay |

  BY Tino Balio

Chaplin directing Verdoux


More than six years had passed since Chaplin had delivered a picture to the company and his new work was eagerly anticipated. But the critical reception from the daily press after the opening on 11 April 1947, was hostile: “It has little entertainment weight, either as somber symbolism or sheer nonsense…It is also something of an affront to the intelligence (Howard Barnes in the Herald Tribune): “The film is staged like an early talkie with fairly immobile camera, self-conscious dialogue, acting that looks like the late-twenties…an old-fashioned production, almost quaint in some of its moments.” (Eileen Creelman in The Sun): It is slow-tediously slow-in many stretches and thus monotonous.” (Bosley Crowther in The New York Times).

Chaplin consented to a press interview the following day to drum up support for the movie. He confidently expected to answer questions on why he abandoned his famous tramp to play the role of a cynical middle-class bank clerk who happened also to be a modern Bluebeard. The UA publicity department warned him to expect questions on his sex life and his politics as well. Chaplin’s popularity had sunk to its all-time low, as a result of the sensationalist lawsuits involving Joan Barry, the Mann Act, and the paternity of her child, and rising resentment over Chaplin’s so-called pro-Communist stand during the war.

The conference took place in the Grand Ballroom of the Gotham Hotel. Radio producer George Wallach reported that “the Ballroom was filled literally to the rafters. Every seat on the floor was taken. People were standing in the doorways and on the seats encircling the balcony. They represented every major newspaper and magazine, and also there were journalists from any and all minor papers able to squeeze in.” Chaplin told his audiences to “proceed with the butchery.” He was asked if he was a Communist, he was asked why he had not become an American citizen, and he was accused of being unpatriotic. Much was made of the fact that Chaplin advocated a second front against the Nazis early in the war. The press conference was an excruciating ordeal for the film-maker, who intended his characterization of Verdoux, “to create a pity for all humanity under certain drastic circumstances-in times of stress.”

After the picture had run for a short time in New York, Chaplin decided to withhold it from national release until October, to enable his new publicity man, Russell Birdwell to revamp the promotion campaign, Birdwell’s plan was to capitalize on the controversy surrounding both Chaplin and Monsieur Verdoux by adopting the slogan: “Chaplin changes, can you?”

Chaplin received another dose of notoriety that summer when he learned from the newspapers that he was being called to testify before the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) which was beginning a probe into the alleged Communist infiltration of the motion-picture industry. In response, Chaplin sent the following telegram to HUAC’s chairman, J. Parnell Thomas:

From your publicity, I noted that I am to be “quizzed” by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in September. I understood I am to be your “guest” at the expense of the taxpayers. Forgive me for this premature acceptance of your headlined newspaper invitation. You have been quoted as saying you wish to ask me if I am a Communist. You sojourned for ten days in Hollywood not long ago and could have asked me the question at that time, effecting something of an economy. Or you could telephone me now – collect. In order that you be completely up-to-date on my thinking I suggest that you view carefully my latest production “Monsieur Verdoux”. It is against war and the futile slaughter of our youth. I trust you will find its humane message distasteful. While you are preparing your engraved subpoena I will give you a hint on where I stand. I am not a Communist. I am a peacemonger.

Learning that HUAC planned to take up the case of movie composer Hanns Eisler, on 25 September, as a prelude to its full-scale investigation of Hollywood, Chaplin instructed United Artists to open Monsieur Verdoux in Washington the following day. The Capitol theater was booked for the run, but its management at the last moment decided to “postpone” the engagement. UA’s interpretation of the action was that “official Washington has been led to believe a big, bad wolf is running around loose on the screen and that it should be caged before some damage is done.” The picture opened on schedule, nonetheless. UA managed to book five theaters in an attempt to blanket the city. To Thomas and the other members of the Committee, Chaplin sent the following telegraphed invitation: “I am opening my comedy, ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ on September 26th in five Washington DC theaters and it would indeed by a pleasure to have you as my guest on opening day. Respectfully – Charles Chaplin.”

Birdwell’s ballyhoo broke attendance records at opening and elicited an avalanche of booking requests from across the country. UA confidently expected a 500-theater release after the Washington run.

The HUAC hearings began on 20 October 1947, and lasted for two weeks. Chaplin was subpoenaed to testify, but his appearance was postponed three times. Then he received a courteous letter stating that his testimony would not be needed and that he could consider the matter closed. But American audiences apparently agreed with HUAC member John E. Rankin, who that summer in Congress had called for Chaplin’s deportation. Chaplin’s character was “Detrimental to the moral fabric of America”: by deporting him said Rankin, “he can be kept off the American screen and his loathsome pictures can be kept from the eyes of American youth.”

There followed a hate campaign of frightening proportions led primarily by the Catholic War Veterans and the American Legion. These and other pressure groups succeeded in instituting boycotts against the picture. First the Independent Theater Owners Organization in Columbus, Ohio, representing 325 theaters, called on theater owners “to give serious thought to the matter of withholding screen time” from Monsieur Verdoux. Then Loew’s and certain of the Paramount affiliates refused to supply play dates and had grossed a mere $325,000 when Chaplin ordered it withdrawn from distribution two years later. Even though the picture grossed more than $1.5 million abroad, Chaplin felt that the UA sales force was responsible for its poor domestic showing, with the result that he lost confidence in his company.