Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Sexy Tramp: Monsieur Verdoux and Charlie Chaplin as Stud

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot looks at the overlap between “Monsieur Verdoux” and the real-life, very grown-up Little Tramp.

The Sexy Tramp: “Monsieur Verdoux” and Charlie Chaplin as Stud

For weeks I’d been raving to anyone and everyone that the recent re-release of Chaplin’s controversial 1947 “Monsieur Verdoux,” in which the Tramp sheds moustache and cane to become a gold digging serial killer of wealthy widows, is one of the finest films of the year. So I wasn’t surprised when an actress/comedienne friend of mine on the west coast emailed to say she’d just rented and laugh-out-loud adored it. What did give me pause was her follow-up, “That scene where he woos the rich woman in the parlor at the beginning, and also the one where he’s in the flower shop ordering roses…is it wrong for me to have the hots for a clown? Chaplin is so fuckin’ sexy!”

My answer: not only is it not wrong, but Chaplin wouldn’t have been believable mesmerizing his prey in Monsieur Verdoux if he hadn’t finally allowed his natural sexual charisma to shine through. For his entire career up until then Chaplin had been masking his virility beneath a shabby overcoat like a drag queen packing away her package. Monsieur Verdoux is perhaps the closest character to the real, really-young-women loving, multiple wed Hollywood legend than any other role he ever undertook. Verdoux’s seducing and serial killing of old coots seems like a screen-friendly substitute for Chaplin’s real-life seduction and serial impregnation of teenage girls.

That Chaplin couldn’t keep his dick in his pants was slave to his insatiable libido, is part of the hedonistic fabric of Tinseltown lore. His indulgence in erotic escapades with the underage rivaled that of Mae West with her muscle boys. The difference was that Miss West was out and proud, always playing a version of her raunchy self, while Chaplin was a closeted pervert, one of the richest, most powerful men in the motion picture business, forever acting the hard knocked innocent. (It ain’t for nothing that director Richard Attenborough chose the equal parts talented and hunky Robert Downey Jr., a man every bit as uncomfortable with his sexuality as Chaplin, to portray the titular character in his 1992 tabloid biopic.)

Where Miss West had her knowing smirk, Monsieur Verdoux has that devilish twinkle in his eyes that acts as a magnet for the Prince Charming-vulnerable women. Patient, doting, seemingly obsessed with the widows’ wellbeing, Verdoux is the ultimate paternal ego feeder, not unlike Chaplin must have been to his little Lolitas. And because Verdoux has convinced himself that it’s all for the good of his invalid wife and young child at home, he’s a carefree companion, a guilt-free assassin. Through the lens of this HUAC era flick it’s easy to view Chaplin’s many marriages as attempted “legitimizations” of his girl fetish rather than symbols of true love, the most natural way for a deviant to exculpate himself.

And though the Tramp was chaste he certainly didn’t lack passion––Chaplin’s signature character was forever dreamy and lovesick, and ultimately as childlike as the jailbait Chaplin collected. There was Hetty Kelly who Chaplin fell for when she was just 15, soon followed by child actress Mildred Harris (at age 16), Lita Grey (also at age 16), then the old maids Georgia Hale (at age 19) and finally Oona O’Neill (at age 18). (And these are just the well known nubile virgins!) As predatory as Chaplin seems to have been, and setting aside the inevitable talk of daddy issues, these girls were swept up in the very sexual allure of Hollywood that Chaplin embodied, and helped invent. He was the Big Bad Wolf––the sexiest character in the storybook. While the Tramp may be a near eunuch, no doubt Sir Charles Chaplin would have been a larger-than-life lay.

Movie stars, like politicians, are media giants for a reason. Big charisma, massive talent and huge ambition – all prerequisites for stardom. Why should their erotic appetites be any smaller? Besides, it’s naïve to think one can separate the creative force from the sexual (after all, creative has its roots in “to create,” be it babies or blockbusters!) Chaplin’s lust for his art, an all-consuming fire, wasn’t put out when he called cut at the end of the day.

A new print of “Monsieur Verdoux” is currently making the rounds of rep houses, courtesy of The Film Desk. It opens in Seattle on Friday. It’s also available on DVD, in Volume 2 of “The Chaplin Collection.”

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