The Banishment of Charlie Chaplin

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Thu, 2006-06-29 01:05

[From The Free Radical, Issue 67]

Charlie Chaplin was one of first geniuses of cinema and had a career that lasted over 50 years and spanned over 80 movies. During the height of his fame in the 1920s and 30s he was one of the wealthiest and most famous movie icons in the US. And yet after the Second World War Chaplin was to provoke a moral backlash and frenzy over his alleged communist activities that would see him effectively banished. How was it possible that such a man who had become the most universally recognized icon in the world suddenly became persona non grata in his adopted country?

The Immigrant

Charles Chaplin was born in England in 1889. As a boy growing up in abject poverty with little education he made a living acting and performing small parts in London’s thriving theatres and music halls. As a young man he got his first big break when he was taken on by a famous British troupe of touring comedians. He immediately displayed talent and was soon getting top billing. When the troupe made a tour of the United States in 1912 he was spotted by the director of the Keystone Films Company and was hired, at the age of 24. Movies were an exciting new medium at that time with many small companies competing in a rapidly expanding marketplace. With film companies producing dozens of single-reel movies per week, Keystone was hoping that the talented young Chaplin would help give them an edge over their competitors. And that he did. Chaplin with his trademark character of the “Tramp” became a box office sensation for the next thirty years. Indeed, Chaplin was also a very shrewd businessman and when his one year contract with Keystone expired he progressively moved on to more and more lucrative contracts with other film companies. Within five years he had built his own film studio and was asking for $200,000 dollars per picture. He began taking control of his work by starring, writing, directing, producing, editing and even composing the music to all his own films. By 1919, he made history by helping to set up a film company owned exclusively by artists. Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith became the joint owners of United Artists. He had rapidly become world famous through the new mass medium of film and had become an icon synonymous with US slapstick comedy. By 1930, at the age of 32, Chaplin was paid an unprecedented one and a half million dollars before royalties for his first feature-length film, The Kid.

The Movie Maker

Chaplin’s black and white silent movies were funny, charming, sentimental and romantic. Probably one of the most heart-rending scenes ever filmed appeared in his silent-movie classic, The Kid. The scene is set-up when the Tramp discovers an abandoned baby and after unsuccessfully trying to give the child away, unofficially adopts the Kid himself. Fast forward five years and the Tramp and the Kid have grown together as business partners as well as father and son. However, the Kid falls sick and the Tramp calls a doctor to their impoverished dwelling. When the Doctor discovers that the Tramp is not the child’s real Father, he calls the authorities in the form of an officious representative of an orphan asylum, his assistant and a police officer. Despite the heroic struggles of the Tramp and the Kid to escape their clutches, the child is carried off and thrown, like a stray dog into the back of a truck. The Tramp escapes out the window with the policeman in pursuit and scrambles across the slum rooftops and jumps down onto the moving vehicle. He manages to hurl the orphanage official out of the truck and sends the assistant who was driving it running off in fear of the enraged Tramp. This emotional scene never loses its impact, however often it is seen. There is passion and despair in the Tramp’s desperate trajectory across the rooftops as he is filled with indignant courage. Few screen embraces are as affecting as the kiss which the Tramp plants on the check of the upset Kid after his rescue.

Indeed, the high quality achieved in Chaplin’s finished films was entirely due to his own effort. He was involved in every single aspect of the movies he made and would act out each single part himself to show his actors exactly what he wanted and would re-shoot single scenes dozens of times, often spending a year or more making one film. For Chaplin, it did not matter the time and money spent on a film in order to get it exactly right.

Philosophizing with a fellow artist about his work in the 1920s, he said:

There is nothing so beautiful that it will make people forget their eggs and bacon for breakfast. As for admiration of the world— it’s not worth anything. There is in the end but oneself to please. You make something because it means something to you. You work— because you have a superabundance of vital energy. You find that not only can you make children but you can express yourself in other ways. In the end it is you— all you—your work, your thought, your conception of the beautiful, yours the happiness, yours the satisfaction. Be brave enough to face the veil and lift it, and see and know the void it hides, and stand before that void and know within yourself is your world…

The Red Scare

During the Second World War, Chaplin was to unwittingly start a chain of events that would be the start of his downfall in the US. In 1943, Chaplin was invited by the Russian War Relief to give a speech at an “Arts for Russia” dinner. Naively he accepted and gave an address by the title of “Salute to our Russian ally.” In his speech he praised the Russian soldiers for their bravery and claimed that they “the Communists” were just as human as anyone else. He later recorded the speech at the Soviet consul for subsequent broadcast in Russia.

Following the Second World War, paranoia was whipped up in the American public over the possibility of subversive communists in their midst by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1947, Chaplin was called to account by the media for his communist sympathies during the Second World War. Chaplin refused to change his former position and stated that he still owed his thanks to Russia for its help during the war and did not consider communists to be his enemy. To add further insult to injury, when quizzed about why he had never taken US citizenship and hadn’t declared himself a “patriot,” he explained that he considered himself to be merely a “paying guest” and a “man without a country.” The media were outraged and the Los Angeles Herald Express demanded that Chaplin be taken at his word and denied residency in the US.

Later that same year, the Representative for Mississippi, who was also a member of the HUAC, told the House:

I am here today demanding that Attorney-General Tom Clark institute proceedings to deport Charlie Chaplin. He has refused to become an American citizen. His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. In that way he can be kept off the American screen, and his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

One month later, the newspapers learned from Representative Thomas that HUAC now intended to issue a subpoena requiring Chaplin to testify before them. Chaplin did not wait for the subpoena but sent a reply by telegram to Thomas:

From your publicity I note that I am to be quizzed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in September. I understand I am to be your single ‘guest’ at the expense of the taxpayers. Forgive me for this premature acceptance of your headline’s newspaper invitation. You have been quoted as saying you wish to ask me if I am a Communist. You sojourned for ten days in Hollywood not long ago…and could have asked me the question at that time, effecting something of an economy, or you could telephone me now—collect…While you are preparing your engraved subpoena I will give you a hint on where I stand. I am not a Communist. I am a peacemonger.

In an atmosphere of growing fear, some of Chaplin’s best friends in Hollywood felt that he should shut up and not make unnecessary enemies. However, Chaplin always maintained that, “A democracy is a place where you can express your ideas freely—or it isn’t a democracy.” In the opinion of his son Charles, “He always felt he belonged here in America, with its promise of freedom in thought and belief and its emphasis on the importance of the individual.” Chaplin later described how he imagined he would behave if he were called before the Committee:

I’d have turned up in my tramp outfit— baggy pants, bowler hat and cane—and when I was questioned I’d have used all sorts of comic business to make a laughing stock of the inquisitors. I almost wish I could have testified—if I had, the whole Un-American Activities thing would have been laughed out of existence in front of the millions of viewers who watched the interrogations on TV.

It is tempting to speculate that this could have well turned out to have been one of the greatest and most memorable performances of his life.

However, in reality he was subpoenaed three times and each time the date was postponed until eventually he received a surprisingly courteous reply to his telegram, saying (without any given reason) that his appearance would not be necessary and that he could consider the matter closed.

The Banishment

Yet Chaplin’s troubles were not over, as he still refused to change his unorthodox views.

In 1948 Chaplin decided to travel overseas and applied for a re-entry permit in order to return to the United States. The Immigration Department stalled on the application for some weeks and then, when reservations were already made, arrived one day at his home. When the deputation arrived, it consisted of a stenographer, an FBI agent and an immigration officer, who told him that they had the right to demand Chaplin’s evidence under oath. The unexpected inquisition lasted for four hours and was recorded by the stenographer. It contained personal questions about Chaplin’s racial origins, political views and sex life. He found the enquiries into his life, thought and opinions most personal, insulting and disgusting. However, they failed to discover any reason to deny him re-entry and had no choice but to grant him the permit. Not to be outdone though, the US Treasury immediately put in a claim for $1 million in taxes and demanded a bond of $1.5 million before he left the country. In any event, Chaplin decided not to leave the country after all.

In 1949 the FBI had a request from the Assistant Attorney-General, Alexander Campbell, for the Chaplin files, since a “Security-R investigation was pending.” The files were disappointing to him. “It has been determined that there are no witnesses available who could offer testimony that Chaplin has been a member of the Communist Party in the past, is now a member, or has contributed funds to the Communist Party.” However, the heated paranoia in Government to take action against suspected high profile communists like Chaplin was now beginning to reach fever pitch. It was an open secret that the FBI was monitoring Chaplin night and day for any potential communist activity, but not widely known that they were failing to obtain any incriminating evidence against him.

In 1952, Chaplin sailed to England for the premier of his latest film, “Limelight.” Before he had arrived at his destination, it was announced that the United States Attorney-General, Judge McGranery, had rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit and ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to hold him for hearings when or if he attempted to re-enter the country. These hearings, he said, “will determine whether he is admissible under the laws of the United States.” The Justice Department added that the action was being taken under the US Code of Laws on Aliens and Citizenship, Section 137, Paragraph (c), which permitted the barring of aliens on grounds of ‘morals, health or insanity, or for advocating Communism or associating with Communist or pro-Communist organizations.’

When Chaplin arrived in England, after hearing the news en route, he was defiant:

The US Government does not go back on anything it says. It will not go back on my re-entry permit. These are days of turmoil and strife and bitterness. This is not the day of great artists. This the day of politics…I’ve never been political. I have no political convictions. I’m an individualist and I believe in liberty.

Indeed, the FBI files reveal how unfounded the Attorney-General’s actions were. At a meeting between an FBI supervisor and three officers of the INS, it was stated bluntly that at the present INS did not have sufficient information to exclude Chaplin from the United States if he attempted to re-enter. They pointed out that the INS could, of course, make it difficult for Chaplin to re-enter, but in the end, there was no doubt Chaplin would be admitted. They advised further that while the INS did not have sufficient information on which to exclude Chaplin if he attempted to re-enter before December 24 1952, INS hoped that under the new Immigration and Nationality Act (Public Law 414, 82nd Congress), effective on and after that date, it would be able to make a case against Chaplin sufficient to exclude him.

Consequently, the public mood in the US was also swept along by the allegations and Chaplin’s films became virtually untouchable. The American Legion picketed screenings of “Limelight” and threatened distributors with disruption if they didn’t withdraw all of Chaplin’s films from movie theatres immediately. Nearly all complied.

However, the Authorities needn’t have worried about his return. By this time Chaplin had decided that he didn’t want to live in the US again. He chose instead to relocate to Switzerland with his American wife and family.

It is not clear why exactly the US Government was so eager to paint Charlie Chaplin as a communist when they could find no evidence to support the allegation. Most likely he was an easy target on which to focus the post war anti-communist hysteria, being a well-known icon, but not a US citizen or patriot. They probably felt threatened by his public platform and his fearlessness in speaking his mind. He failed to conform to the popular anti-communist opinions of the time and therefore was made an example of.

Epilogue: The Reunion

Over the next 20 years Chaplin continued to make films outside the US, one of which was A King in New York whereby he famously ridiculed his anti-communist persecutors by having his fictional King douse them with a fire hose. Nevertheless, Chaplin would make one brief return to American shores. In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to award Chaplin an Honorary Oscar and proffered a joint invitation together with the Lincoln Center Film Society in New York. The prohibition placed on Chaplin’s re-entry to the US had been dropped long ago. Chaplin, who was now 83 years old, was at first hesitant to make the trip, but was swayed by the possibility of buying a new type of camera for his latest film project. On his arrival in the US, Chaplin was greeted by an adoring public affording the same celebrity icon status upon him that he had enjoyed in the past. The audience of the gala concert at the Lincoln Center cheered upon his entrance into the hall. They also cheered the screening of his film, The Kid, at the end of which they gave him a standing ovation. Many of the audience, like Chaplin himself, were in tears. When the applause permitted he spoke into the microphone:

This is my renaissance. I’m being born again. It’s easy for you, but it’s very difficult for me to speak tonight, because I feel very emotional. However, I’m glad to be amongst so many friends. Thank you.

And with that Charlie Chaplin was finally reunited with his former adopted country, no longer a suspected communist, but the celebrated genius of film he always was. A tragic error in judgement had been made by the US Government in harassing a politically naïve but yet innocent man. It had cost him dearly, but Charlie Chaplin had never wavered in his unflinching belief in his right to express his opinion, no matter how unpopular.

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The funniest comment about

Elijah's picture

The funniest comment about Charlie Chaplin I ever heard was, ironically, by Paul Holmes commenting on Chaplin marrying Oona when she was 18 and he was 54....

"Oona was married at 18 and suddenly felt old age creeping up on her..." Wink

I nearly choked on my laughter when I heard Paul say that! ha ha ha ha ha ha! Tongue

(if the anally rententive solo-socialists do not get that only confirms long held opinions about you chaps..gosh!)

Chaplin had a great sense of life!

Marcus's picture

You just have to watch his feature-length films to see that.
You will notice that these films always end on an optimistic note. The tramp is always the underdog, but he never gives in. There was also his wonderful mockery of Hitler in "the Great Dictator". Weirdly enough, the FBI deemed it to be pro-communist because of his rousing speech for peace at the end (the only film in which the Tramp speaks!)

Also that wonderful song he wrote, "Smile", for Modern Times. He spent the later part of his life mainly writing classic memorable film soundtracks for his "silent" feature films.

Thanks for the comments Derek and "other guy".

This is an excellent

Derek McGovern's picture

This is an excellent article, Marcus. I've always been very interested in Chaplin, and have read & enjoyed his much-maligned 1964 autobiography, which far from being "monstrously egotistical" - as one critic has damned it - was the work of a genuine individualist with a refreshing aversion to false modesty.

Chaplin was Awesome

jtgagnon's picture

Marcus writes: "For Chaplin, it did not matter the time and money spent on a film in order to get it exactly right."

Yes, and this is what defines most of the great ones, isn't it? The willingness to go forward with a personal project and throw every ounce of energy and every penny one has to make sure the end result is perfect... I wish more people were like that. Imagine a world where everyone operated in such a fashion!

Great post, Marcus - thank you.

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