CHAPLIN AMONG THE IMMORTALS
Man is interested in one thing: man.
LAST NIGHT, I had a strange dream. I was sitting at my dining room table carving a leg-of-mutton. I went at it in the French manner, which is to slice it in length. In that way, you get a great variety of cuts. Those who like it well done are served first. You wait till you get closer to the bone, for those who prefer it rarer. My guests had been lost in a sort of fog, but as I asked each one how he liked his meat, they suddenly came into a very sharp focus, and I recognized them as people I admire and like. The couples of The Best Years of Our Lives were right there at my table, smiling amiably at me. I served them, and they ate with evident appetite. Next to them were the priest and the pregnant woman of Open City, a bit more reserved but no less cordial. At the end of the table, the loving pair of Brief Encounter were holding hands. This abandon was proof that they felt themselves among friends, and I was gratified by it. As I was about to proceed to the beautiful courtesan of Children of Paradise, the door-bell rang.
I went to open the door and found myself facing a gentleman of distinguished appearance. Off-hand, he reminded me vaguely of someone I knew well, a little old tramp who had made the whole world laugh. But I quickly understood that the resemblance was merely physical. Even under the rich fur coat of a gold-mine owner, the other one had remained a bit of a gutter-snipe. It was obvious that he would never completely get rid of his lowdown ways. Whereas this one, on the other hand, was most certainly the scion of a "good family". His parents had taught him proper table manners, and when and how to kiss a lady's hand. He had breeding. And all of his person gave off that impression of suppressed passions, of hidden secrets, which is the earmark of the bourgeoisie in our old Western civilizations.
I introduced myself. With exquisite politeness which bespoke his old provincial background and his prep-school education, he told me his name was Verdoux. Then he placed his hat and cane on a chair, flicked a speck of dust from his jacket, adjusted his cuffs, and headed for the dining room. Immediately, the others edged closer together to make room for him. They seemed happy to see him. Obviously, they were all members of the same social world.
After dinner, we went outdoors. But word of the presence of my famous guests had spread, and the street was crowded with people. When we walked down the porch steps, the public enthusiasm burst out. Everyone wanted to shake their hands, there was a terrific crush, the autograph-seekers were at work. Suddenly, a very dry lady, wearing an aggressive little hat, recognized Monsieur Verdoux and pointed a finger at him. And, strangely, the enthusiasm turned into fury. They rushed at him, raising their fists. I tried to understand, and kept asking the same question over and over again: "What did he do? What did he do? ..." But I could not hear the answers, for everyone was speaking at once and the caning the poor man was taking made a deafening racket. So deafening, in fact, that I awoke with a start and had to close my window, which a sudden storm wind was violently banging back and forth.
I don't believe that the people who attacked Chaplin so sharply over his latest film (Monsieur Verdoux, 1947) did so for personal or political reasons. In America we haven't yet reached that stage. I think rather that the trouble is their panicked terror before total change, before a particularly long step forward in the evolution of an artist.
This is not the first time such a thing has happened, nor will it be the last. Moliere was a victim of the same kind of misunderstanding. And the Hollywood commentators who have been unable to recognize the qualities of Monsieur Verdoux are in very good company, indeed. Moliere's detractors had names no less important than La Bruyere, Fenelon, Vau-venargues, Sherer. They said he wrote badly. They criticized him for his barbarism, his jargon, his artificial phrasing, his improper usage, his incorrect wording, his mountains of metaphors, his boring repetitions, his inorganic style. "Moliere," said Sherer, "is as bad a writer as one can be."
This animosity on the part of certain self-appointed intellectuals is not the only point of resemblance between the careers of Moliere and Chaplin.
In his early stages, the former achieved great success by simply following the traditions of the Italian Comedy. His characters bore the familiar names and costumes, their predicaments were those to which the public was accustomed. Only, beneath Sganarelle's make-up and behind Scapin's somersaults, the author injected a rarer element, a little human truth. But on the surface, there was not too much of an apparent change. When the action slowed down, a solid laying-on with a stick was always good for a laugh. The sentimental side was taken care of with formulae no different, except for the author's masterful touch, from those used elsewhere in the same period: a noble young gentleman falls in love with a scullerymaid and his family will have none of her. But, in the end, it all works out. It is revealed that the ingénue was really a well-born maiden who, as a baby, had been carried off by pirates.
Chaplin, to begin with, simply followed the traditions of the then most popular form in the world, English farce. His feet foul him up on the stairs and his hands get entangled in flypaper. The sentimental side in his films is represented by babies left on doorsteps, street-girls mistreated by life, or other carryovers from the good old mellers. In spite of that, he never falls into the worst vulgarity of our time, phony, bathetic goodness. And beneath his character's flour-face, as well as behind the fake beards of his companions, we rapidly discern real men of flesh and blood. As he grows, like Moliere, he introduces into the conventional framework, which he has made his very own through the vigor of his talent, the elements of a sharper and sharper observation of humanity, of a more and more bitter social satire. Nevertheless, since the appearances remain the same, no one is shocked, no one protests.
One day, Moliere decided to give up the form which had brought him his success, and he wrote The School for Wives. Accusations were heaped upon him. He was called a mounte-bank. People became irritated with him because he was director, actor and writer all at the same time.
One day, Chaplin wrote Monsieur Verdoux. He turned his back on the outward forms to which he had accustomed his public. There was a great hue and cry of indignation, he was dragged through the mud.
After The School for Wives, instead of giving in, Moliere went on hitting harder and harder. His next play was Tartuffe, which impaled phony religion and bigotry.
What will Chaplin's next film be?
I think it is unnecessary to explain why I like the Chaplin of the old school, since everyone seems to share that taste. It is even probable that some of the attackers of his present film must have written glowing tributes to The Gold Rush or The Kid. I would like, however, to present a few of the reasons which, to me, made the showing of Monsieur Verdoux a pure delight.
Like everybody else, I have my own ideas about what is conventionally called Art. I firmly believe that since the end of the period in which the great cathedrals were built, since the all-pervading faith which was to bring forth our modern world is no longer present to give artists the strength to lose themselves in an immense paean to the glory of God, there can be quality to human expression only if it is individual. Even in cases of collaboration, the work is valuable only insofar as the personality of each of the authors remains perceptible to the audience. Now, in this film, that presence is, to me, as clear as that of a painter in his canvas or of a composer in his symphony.
Moreover, every man matures, his knowledge of life increases, and his creations must develop at the same time he does. If we do not admit these truths in our professions, we might as well admit right now that it is an industry no different than the rest, and that we make films like efficiency experts supervise the production of iceboxes or shaving cream. And let's stop priding ourselves on being artists, and claiming that we're carrying forward the grand old traditions. `
It is agreed, some will say, that Chaplin has created a highly personal work, and we admit that he has undergone a natural artistic transformation. We only feel that he has done all this in a wrong direction. And they add that the greatest crime of Monsieur Verdoux was the killing-off of the beloved little vagabond who had been such a charmer. His creator should not only have kept him alive but depended on him in his search for a new form of expression. I cannot share this opinion.
In giving up the rundown shoes, the old derby hat and willowy cane of the raggedy little guy whose pathetic hangdog look used to melt our hearts, Chaplin has gone deliberately into a world that is more dangerous, because it is closer to the one we live in. His new character, with neatly-pressed trousers, impeccably-knotted tie, well-dressed and no longer able to appeal to our pity, does not belong in those good old situations, outlined in strong broad strokes, where the rich trample the poor in so obvious a manner that even the most childish audience can immediately grasp the moral of the story. Before, we could imagine that the adventures of the little tramp took place in some world that belonged exclusively to the movies, that they were a sort of fairy tale.
With Monsieur Verdoux, such misapprehension is no longer possible. This one really takes place in our time, and the problems faced on the screen are really our own. By thus giving up a formula which afforded him full security, and undertaking squarely the critique of the society in which he himself lives, a dangerous job if ever there was one, the author raises our craft to the level of the great classical expressions of the human novel, and strengthens our hope of being able to look upon it more and more as an art.
Let me add a purely personal note here: Having given up the powerful weapon which was the defenselessness of his old character, Chaplin had to look for another to be used by his latest creation. The weapon he chose is one that appeals particularly to the Frenchman in me, steeped as he is in the 18th Century: psychological logic.
I understand perfectly the misgivings of certain confused minds before this method which seems to belong to a bygone aristocratic era. I hope they will forgive a devoted reader of the works of Diderot and Voltaire for the pleasure he found in Monsieur Verdoux.
Moreover, even when it is not thus spiced with psychological logic, genius often has something shocking about it, something subversive, some of the characteristics of a Cassandra. That is because it has better vision than ordinary mortals, and the commonsensical truths that it has still strike the rest of us as something akin to madness.
Another reason for liking Monsieur Verdoux: I like to be amused at the movies, and this film made me laugh until my tears flowed like wine.
I believe I see growing up about me a certain taste for collective accomplishments, the anonymousness of which is a tribute to the
adoration of new deities. Let me mention at random some of these false idols: public opinion polls, organization, techniques. These are but the saints of a dangerous god that some are trying to substitute for the God of our childhood. This new divinity is called Scientific Progress. Like any self-respecting God, he tries to attract us with his miracles. For how else can one describe electricity, anesthesia or atomic fission? But I am very leery of this newcomer. I am afraid that, in exchange for the refrigerators and the television sets that he will distribute so generously, he may try to deprive us of a part of our spiritual heritage.
In other times, every object was a work of art, in that it was a reflection of the one who made it. The humblest early American sideboard is the creation of one given wood-worker, and not of any other. This personal touch was present in everything, in houses, in clothes, in food.
When I was young, in my village in Burgundy, when we drank a glass of wine, we could say: That comes from the Terre a Pot vineyard up over the hill behind the little pine wood, or from the Sarment Fountain, or from some other specific spot. Some bottles left on your tongue the silex taste of their vines, others were like velvet and you knew they came from a lush green valley with plenty of moisture. Closing your eyes, you could see a certain greyish hill, with its twisted little oaks and the imprints of the boars' feet which had been found there last fall after the harvest. And later the young girls bending under the weight of their baskets full of luscious grapes. Especially, you recalled the wrinkled face of the vintner who had devoted his life to the culture of that difficult soil.
All the manifestations of life took on a profound meaning, because men had left their mark upon them. You felt that you were in the center of an immense prayer sent heavenward by all of the workers, with their ploughs, their hammers, their needles, or even simply their brains. Today we live in a desert of anonymity. The wines are mixed together. The stainless steel pipes in my bathroom, the wood of my inlaid floor, the fences around my yard, evoke in me only the uniform humming of the machines that produce them.
There are still a few places where we can seek a refuge. A painter can still speak to us of himself in his canvases, as a chef can in his culinary creations. That is probably why we are ready to pay fortunes for a good picture or for a good meal. And then there is also this film craft of ours, which will remain one of the great expressions of human personality if we are able to retain our artisans' spirit, which fortunately is still very much alive. That spirit is Chaplin's, down to the tips of his toenails. One feels it in a certain decent way he has of going into a scene, in the almost peasant-like thriftiness of his sets, in his wariness of technique for technique's sake, in his respect for the personalities of actors, and in that internal richness which makes us feel that each character just has too much to say.
Monsieur Verdoux will some day go into history along with the creations of artists who have contributed to the building of our civilization. He will have his place alongside the pottery of Urbino and the paintings of the French Impressionists, between a tale by Mark Twain and a minuet by Lulli. And during that time, the films which are so highly endowed with money, with technique and with publicity, the ones that enchant his detractors, will find their way God knows where, let us say into oblivion, along with the expensive mahogany chairs mass-produced in the beautiful nickel-plated factories.