You Must Remember This

Charlie Chaplin, the “Peace-Monger”

While Hollywood faced the blacklist, Chaplin made a film that did him no favors in the public eye.

Still of Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux.
Charlie Chaplin in 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux.

Screenshot via Criterion

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 7 below, on Charlie Chaplin and the blacklist, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

There’s no credible evidence that Charlie Chaplin was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party—which, remember, was perhaps ill-advised from a public relations point of view, but it was not illegal. If Chaplin was an actual communist, rather than a vocal communist sympathizer, he was more hypocritical than the writers who were mocked, sometimes by one another, as swimming-pool radicals. “Charlie Chaplin gave almost as brilliant a performance in a business meeting as he did in his comedies,” wrote Budd Schulberg, who called Chaplin “another of those idealists who talked socialism and practiced capitalism.” Chaplin lived large and had a habit of entering into relationships that ended expensively, and his personal wealth was tied to United Artists and thus to the wider film industry—so it would have been incredibly difficult for him to divorce himself from the capitalistic structure of the film industry on the whole even if he tried, which it doesn’t seem like he did.

However, if you were someone like J. Edgar Hoover, and you were looking for high-profile targets to suppress to show that you were doing something to eradicate subversives—with Chaplin there was a lot of smoke, which you could point to even if you knew there was no fire. Even more than the people in Hollywood who we now know were active Communist Party members, Chaplin dedicated much of his life and career to subversion. Not subversion of the United States government or social system, necessarily, although certainly he sometimes used his culturally subversive films to critique it. This wasn’t so much of a problem when he was the lovable Little Tramp, even when he was using the Tramp to comment on the soullessness of the industrialized system that was a largely American gift to the march of capitalism. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, when anyone who didn’t support unfettered accumulation and consumption was a potential traitor and anyone whose private life didn’t conform to a squeaky-clean image of the American nuclear family was considered a threat, Chaplin’s history of celebrating the little guy, paired with his pattern of sexual impropriety and his foreign citizenship, all put him on the wrong side of a binary divide.

Chaplin also had a history of saying things that he believed, without worrying about how he’d be perceived—he apparently believed, not totally without reason or historical precedent, that his fame would protect him from any and all negative consequences. As we’ve seen, following The Great Dictator, with its impassioned anti-fascist message, Chaplin spent the next couple of years advocating for a leftist response to what was now a second world war. In several speeches delivered to live audiences and on the radio, Chaplin warmly supported the Soviet army and people. In a speech delivered in San Francisco in 1942, where Chaplin had been asked to fill in for the U.S. ambassador to Russia when the ambassador lost his voice, Chaplin addressed the Russians in the crowd and said, “The way your countrymen are fighting and dying at this very moment, it is an honor and privilege to call you comrades.” Chaplin went further than that in a speech in New York, where he called the Soviet purges of dissidents “a wonderful thing.” At the same appearance he stated, “The only people who object to communism and who use it as a bugaboo are the Nazi agents in this country.”

Even in the midst of the war, when Russia and the U.S. were allies, this last statement was questionable and was either an ill-thought-out exaggeration, or a deliberate taunt to the reactionary media. In late 1942, a columnist named Westbrook Pegler declared that he “would like to know why Charlie Chaplin has been allowed to stay in the United States about forty years without becoming a citizen.”

It was around this time that Orson Welles went to Charlie Chaplin’s house and pitched him on a film about the French murderer Henri Landru. Chaplin calls the proposed film a “documentary” in his autobiography, but it seems like what Welles was proposing was a hybrid of dramatized nonfiction: He and Chaplin would collaborate on a script based around the idea of Chaplin playing Landru. Chaplin quickly decided he wasn’t interested in collaborating on a script. But the more he thought about it, the more he was drawn to the idea of playing the story of a killer like Landru for dark comedy. He offered Welles $5,000 for his idea, and according to Chaplin, Welles accepted. According to Welles, Welles wrote the screenplay, and Chaplin gave him $1,500 for it and deprived him of adequate credit. Welles also called Chaplin “deeply dumb in many ways” and “the cheapest man who ever lived.”

Anyway. Chaplin’s central attraction to this character was, as he put it: “How could this man so methodically take these women out and cut them up and burn them in his incinerator, and then tend his flowers, with the black smoke coming out of the chimney?” The answer, Chaplin decided, was that the killer would have been forced through circumstance to practice a murderous form of capitalism. Monsieur Verdoux would be “a paradox of virtue and vice” who, having lost his job at a bank due to the Depression, marries a series of rich ladies and murders them for their money, to support the basic bourgeois lifestyle requirements of his handicapped wife and young son. Going off the saying that war was the logical extension of diplomacy, Chaplin said, “Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business.”

Even acknowledging the need to rehab his rep following the paternity suit Joan Barry filed against him in 1943, Chaplin admits that he felt unmotivated while working on Monsieur Verdoux, and thus, it took more than two years to complete, even though the shoot only lasted 12 weeks. The censorship office didn’t help matters by rejecting his script flat out. The censors had a number of issues. So many issues, in fact, that in a letter to Chaplin they agreed to “pass over those elements which seem to be anti-social in their concept and significance.” Meaning, “the sections of the story in which Verdoux indicts the ‘System’ and impugns the present-day social structure.”

But they could not accept the speech Chaplin was to make at the end of the film, in which his character creates a moral equivalency between that system, particularly what would later be called the military-industrial complex, and his own serial murders.

The censors also opposed the very idea that a married man would take multiple other wives. “This phase of the story,” claimed the censors, “has about it a distasteful flavor of illicit sex, which in our judgment is not good.” When Chaplin requested a meeting with censorship czar Joseph Breen to discuss the matter, Chaplin was interrogated by an underling who insisted the script was unacceptably anti-Catholic, due to one scene in which the killer is allowed to converse with a priest in prison.

Somehow, Chaplin was able to make just a few minor changes to his script and get the go-ahead to make the movie. While he was putting the finishing touches on the final cut, Chaplin received a summons ordering him to come to Washington on a date to be named later to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chaplin’s wording is imprecise, but he implies that he was one of the original Unfriendly 19, which no other account claims; maybe he would have been the 20th man, but he was never formally subpoenaed. Instead, he kept receiving postponements, essentially forcing him to put his work on hold while he waiting for an official subpoena with a date and time. All the while, throughout 1946 and the first half of 1947, Chaplin was frequently invoked as an example of Hollywood filth by legislators like William Langer and John Rankin, who publicly suggested that Chaplin should be deported. But still the subpoena didn’t come.

Finally, Chaplin decided to force the issue by sending HUAC a telegram:

In order that you may be completely up-to-date on my thinking I suggest you view carefully my latest production, Monsieur Verdoux. It is against war and futile slaughter of our youth. I will tell you what I think you want to know. I am not a Communist, neither have I ever joined any political party or organization in my life. I am what you call “a peace-monger.” I hope this will not offend you. So please state definitely when I am to be called to Washington. Yours truly, Charles Chaplin.

To this telegram, as Chaplin later wrote, “I received a surprisingly courteous reply to the effect that my appearance would not be necessary, and that I could consider the matter closed.”

Of course, it was not, because it wasn’t just HUAC who was after him. Chaplin’s real enemies were J. Edgar Hoover and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. And there were plenty of other journalists and activists eager to tar and feather the Little Tramp. Instead of going to Washington in the fall of 1947 with the Hollywood Ten, Chaplin donated $1,000 to their defense and went to New York to launch Monsieur Verdoux. Before he even arrived, the Daily News called him a “fellow traveller” and announced their intention to make him answer “one or two embarrassing questions” at a press conference planned in support of his film.

At the press conference the next day, Chaplin opened by joking about the negative reaction to the film. He greeted the media by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am not going to waste your time. I should say— proceed with the butchery. If there’s any question anybody wants to ask, I’m here, fire away at this old gray head.”

The first reporter to speak was a woman seated in the front row. She asked Chaplin, “Are you a communist?” He responded, “No. The next question please.”

Then, Chaplin was barraged with questions from an interloper representing the Catholic War Veterans, who demanded to know why the British-born Chaplin hadn’t become an American citizen. When a reporter noted that Chaplin seemed “to like communists,” Chaplin said, “Nobody is going to tell me whom to like or dislike. We haven’t come to that yet.”

But of course, we had. The only friendly voice at the press conference was James Agee’s. The screenwriter, film critic, and novelist, then a reporter for Time magazine, asked: “How does it feel to be an artist who has enriched the world with so much happiness and understanding of the little people, and to be derided and held up to hate and scorn by the so-called representatives of the American press?” Chaplin was so flustered that he couldn’t provide an answer. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I thought this conference was to be an interview about my film; instead it has turned into a political brawl, so I have nothing further to say.”

At Monsieur Verdoux’s premiere, the audience laughed—at the movie. All Chaplin could hear were hisses. He and his partners in United Artists had been counting on the movie grossing at least $12 million, and they needed it to do close to that to make back its cost and to bail the studio out of debt that had accrued while Chaplin had been distracted by other things. Arthur Kelly of United Artists found Chaplin in the lobby after the movie and said, “‘Of course, it’s not going to gross any 12 million.”

Monsieur Verdoux did good business in New York for a few weeks, and then tumbleweeds started floating through the theaters. Maybe Chaplin’s faithful fans were enough to fill theaters for about a month, but the general public had been scared off by a decade’s worth of negative headlines. Or maybe audiences didn’t know how to respond to, and didn’t spread positive word of mouth about, a film whose protagonist was a not entirely unsympathetic serial killer whose backyard incinerator evoked the Holocaust while his self-defense, in damning atomic warfare, implicated each and every American viewer in capitalistic war crimes.

Of course, those who were convinced Chaplin was a dangerous subversive were not about to let the market decide his fate. The film was picketed by Catholics in New Jersey and banned by theater owners in Ohio. The American Legion pressured theater owners to stop showing it in Denver. Eventually, United Artists removed the film from general release.

To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This Episode 7, “Monsieur Verdoux: Charlie Chaplin’s Road to Hollywood Exile.”