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Morgane Jourdren, Chaplin’s America: Between Dream and Illusion

Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2023. 134 p. ISBN : 978-2753587090. 20 €
Clémentine THOLAS
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Morgane Jourdren, Chaplin’s America: Between Dream and Illusion. Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2023. 134 p. ISBN : 978-2753587090. 20 €

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1When I started reading Morgane Jourdren’s monograph Chaplin’s America: Between Dream and Illusion, I first had reservations regarding her approach about Chaplin’s oeuvre as she studied it from a literary perspective and not as a film historian and because we did not share the same reading of some films, in particular Monsieur Verdoux (1947) which I consider one of Chaplin’s masterpieces. I felt that Morgane Jourdren did not fully grasp the gloom and cynicism of Landru’s case for he was, to me, a deceitful and cold-blooded serial lady-killer, plotting against rich widows to steal their money and murder them. Instead, she presented Verdoux as a “scapegoat” (72) for a hypocritical ruthless society and stated that, in this film and other films by Chaplin, death was given different values depending on who is killed and for which purposes. However, it often takes very little to change one’s mind and see things from a different perspective. Indeed, for unknown reasons, I decided to watch Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and it opened my eyes to Jourdren’s subtle understanding of Monsieur Verdoux as a story of downfall and redemption, of cruelty and compassion, rather than a narrative of “pure evil” (73). Interestingly, the character Oskar Schindler, interpreted by Liam Neeson, combined unapologetic sarcasm, arrivisme, greed and unexpected kindness and empathy, and he reminded me of Jourdren’s analysis of Verdoux as just a flawed human rather than a terrible villain, a contradictory being capable of acts of malevolence and acts of benevolence, like so many men and women. This sudden twist influenced my entire insight of Chaplin’s America as an ingenious volume on the complexity of Chaplin’s portrayal of America, land of opportunities and disillusions, home of an ambiguous dream of upward mobility and social integration paved with many obstacles.

2Associate professor at Université d’Angers, Morgane Jourdren is one of the best French experts of Charles Chaplin’s works, with several individual and collective publications on the topic, the organization of an international conference on the filmmaker and contributions to curate different exhibitions. Divided in nine small chapters with relevant illustrations and references to almost all of Chaplin’s filmography, this new monograph completes her previous work and addresses one of the most structuring concepts of the United-States mythology: the American Dream. If the introduction and the first chapter of the book offer a theoretical framework to the notion which seems too wide and general, in my opinion, from the second chapter onward, Jourdren cleverly demystifies the illusory dream and enhances Chaplin’s cinematic strategies to lampoon the corruption and artificiality of America’s grand narratives. The book underlines the British filmmaker’s refusal to fully embrace Americanness in order to keep some critical distance regarding an adopted country which both nurtured and tormented him. The author’s elegant style sometimes transforms the volume into a page-turner, which is quite surprising for an academic work. Some sections of the book read almost like a novel, considering the fine and well-crafted analysis of certain films proposed by Jourdren, in particular for City Lights (1930), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940). One of the greatest achievements of the monograph is to demonstrate Chaplin’s mastery at creating an iconic subversive character who appears as an enlightened candide, capable of bringing the truth to light by challenging American Puritan society’s rigid and duplicitous codes. Often perceived as a kind-hearted trickster, the Little Fellow is both unique and universal and he builds his own imaginative world to reintroduce greater humanity into a country whose founding values and principles are increasingly being undermined.

3Nevertheless, as previously said, I could not ignore Morgane Jourdren’s literary background which truly departed from my own training as a historian of the United States, with an interest in motion pictures history and American visual arts. Therefore, I was surprised by the methodology and references she used to analyze Chaplin’s films and philosophy and also to explain the visual representations of America conveyed during the early twentieth century. If Jacob Riis’s work of photojournalism on New York tenements, How the Other Half Lives (1890), is briefly evoked at the beginning of the third chapter, it is a pity Jourdren did not consider the impact of such a report on Chaplin’s imagery and completely ignored the photographic work of Lewis Hine on child labor. The construction of Chaplin’s own cosmogony and of cinematic representations at large are connected with pre-existing visual creations, which could be direct or indirect sources of inspiration. Moreover, the connection between Riis and Hine’s vision of impoverished America and Chaplin’s films seems more obvious than a possible interest for Transcendentalist philosophy she mentioned many times. If the Transcendentalist movement is to be seen as the first major current of philosophy in the United States, the recurrent references to Thoreau and Emerson seemed a bit far-fetched to me. Chaplin was a visionary, an intellectual, an artist and a one-man-band but it doesn’t seem appropriate to mainly read his work in the light of a movement to which he did not seem to be attached. I agree with Morgane Jourdren that some aspects of Transcendentalism resonate to a certain extent with the vision of the world Chaplin elaborated, but it is not necessarily the most logical way to understand it. Indeed, I also deplore the decontextualized analysis of Chaplin’s work, as if it were not part of the early Hollywood industry, and the absence of essential references regarding silent motion pictures such as volumes by Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser Kevin Brownlow, Miriam Hansen, Garth Jowett. If the bibliography proves that the author is familiar with both classic writings and the most recent publications on Chaplin, her selection regarding American cinema is elliptic and fails to present the most specific and solid volumes on silent cinema. It seems impossible to study the work of this genius director without understanding his background and experience within a nascent cultural industry. Much of this information could be found in Chaplin’s various autobiographies, which form part of Jourdren’s bibliography but seem to have been under-utilized in her writing, in favor of numerous quotations from Jean Mitry, certainly illuminating but a little dated.

4I don’t want to undervalue the contribution of this book to the literature on Chaplin because it is a monograph that I really enjoyed reading, especially for its linguistic excellence and elegance and the very detailed and even moving analysis of certain films. Yet, I am wondering whether this well-written and informative volume should have targeted a neophyte audience rather than an academic readership. In my opinion, despite its great qualities, it addresses more the general public than US history or film specialists.

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Clémentine THOLAS, « Morgane Jourdren, Chaplin’s America: Between Dream and Illusion »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Clémentine THOLAS

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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