Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles will always be counted among the pioneers who revolutionised cinema in the 20th century in ways that nobody thought were possible. While Chaplin expanded the visual language of silent films and broadened the horizons of comedy, Welles completely redefined the grammar of cinematic editing and gave birth to modern filmmaking as we know it. That’s exactly why future generations of directors will always have to stand on their shoulders in order to push the medium forward.
When asked about his favourite films of all time, Welles actually placed Chaplin’s Incredible City Lights at the top of his list. However, the Citizen Kane director was also critical of some of Chaplin’s other works, and he once famously said: “Chaplin was deeply dumb in some ways.” Not just that, Welles even went so far as to claim that the widely acclaimed Modern Times “doesn’t have a good moment in it”. His dislike for Chaplin wasn’t aided by their feud when it came to a particular project.
The latter half of Chaplin’s career is often unfavourably compared to his early silent gems, but one film that usually escapes that criticism is his 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin stars as an on-screen version of the French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, blurring the lines between comedy and horror. The idea came from Welles, who wanted to make a documentary series about Landru starring Chaplin, but the latter eventually decided to buy the project from him.
In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled: “Thus, a deal was negotiated: Welles to get $5,000 and I to be clear of all obligations. Welles accepted but asked for one provision: that after seeing the picture, he could have the privilege of screen credit to read: ‘Idea suggested by Orson Welles.’ I thought little of the request because of my enthusiasm. Had I foreseen the kudos he eventually tried to make out of it, I would have insisted on no screen credit at all.”
Chaplin was interested in the idea of working in Welles’ documentary series because he wanted to expand his oeuvre by taking up a more dramatic role, but he decided that turning the idea into a comedy would be a much more fascinating idea. Welles insisted on the ‘Story By’ credit, even though Chaplin had reworked the Welles’ script significantly. In a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, the F for Fake filmmaker expanded on the differences.
Welles explained: “He ‘brought it up to date’. My period was the First World War, with zeppelin raids, to escape’, in which the ladykiller takes his victims to the safety of the suburbs. He moved it ahead—gave us shots of Hitler and goose-stepping Nazis: you know, social significance. The opening was from my version: the neat little bourgeois in the garden of his little villa briskly, neatly, delicately clipping his hedge while, in the background, thick, black crematory smoke pours up out of the chimney. At least Charlie didn’t change that.”
Watch the trailer below.