THE DVD SHELF: Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," Olivier's "Richard III" and Douglas Fairbanks as "The Thief of Bagdad"

By Steven Suskin
19 May 2013

While any and all Chaplin films are well worth our attention and strongly recommended, "Verdoux" is decidedly uneven. It is at its best at the most unexpected moments. Here we are in small-town France during the 1930s, and who comes into Verdoux's target as likely prey? Martha Raye! That's right, the loud, vulgar, very American and very funny comedienne. Not Verdoux's type, probably, and certainly not Chaplin's. Not all that Continental, either.

Well, it is a match made in heaven. Not matrimonially, of course, but comically. They battle their way through their scenes, stepping on each other's toes and each other's lines with gleeful abandon. It's like watching Crosby and Hope, Martin and Lewis, or W. C. Fields and Mae West. This is all to Chaplin's credit; he cast Raye and directed her, although you can't say he controlled her. But it is in their scenes together that "Verdoux" sparkles. Some of the other parts tend to fizzle.

The cast is otherwise little known, with two exceptions. Veteran character actor William Frawley, who was to achieve small-screen immortality several years later as Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy," seems as out-of-place as Raye but is effective in his scenes with Chaplin (playing the host at Verdoux's wedding to a society lady). Also on hand, as Verdoux's family friend in the gentle scenes with his invalid wife, is Robert Lewis. An original member of the Group Theatre and noted acting teacher, Lewis had a busy year: after filming "Verdoux," he directed the original Broadway production of Brigadoon and co-founded The Actor's Studio.

The new restoration is accompanied by a 2003 documentary on the film; a new documentary, "Charlie Chaplin and the American Press"; and an illustrated audio interview with Marilyn Nash, the twenty-year old who played a Paulette Goddard-like street waif and who tells us that she met Chaplin when tennis pro Jack Kramer took her over to play on Chaplin's court.