Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided
“An engrossing story of the tumultuous final years of a movie icon.”
By the Great Depression, the comic British actor Charlie Chaplin (1889–1997) was the “most famous man in the world,” writes Scott Eyman, veteran author of Hollywood biographies. Living in the United States and rich at a time when most individuals were suffering, the handsome Chaplin had nonetheless won the hearts of filmgoers worldwide.
He did so with his totemic Little Tramp character, the man with the toothbrush mustache, the bowler hat, and a funny walk, made greatly famous in the 1935 silent movie satire Modern Times, which depicted a society organized against the powerless.
But the beloved Chaplin’s private life enraged critics. Prominent newspaper columnists like Hedda Hopper railed against his “unchecked sexuality” (he was involved in a paternity suit and had a penchant for teenage girls) and his alleged Communist sympathies.
Chaplin claimed he had no interest in politics. “I am not political. I have never been political,” he insisted. “I am an individualist and believe in liberty.” Yet he made no effort to conceal his “basic contempt” for authority, which became apparent in his films.
His concern about capitalism and its Depression-era victims was reflected in movies like Modern Times.
In Charlie Chaplin vs. America, Eyman recreates the second half of Chaplin’s career, when the actor’s disregard for societal conventions prompted nearly 30 years of investigations by federal agencies and sent his life and career into a tailspin. The author’s richly, perhaps overly detailed account, stems from a lifetime of interest in his subject.
Chaplin aficionados will love it.
Without doubt, Chaplin’s off-screen behavior made him a ripe target for critics.
“At a time when political and cultural paranoia converged, the FBI did not restrict itself to the collection of facts, but actively proselytized for the image of Chaplin as subversive, freely disseminating a steady stream of largely unsubstantiated disinformation to Chaplin’s political adversaries,” writes Eyman. “Chaplin became the most prominent victim of what amounted to a cultural cold war—a place where art always loses.”
A shy, self-conscious man, Chaplin in person was dour and unsociable. He had his own distribution company, United Artists, giving him complete control over his films; he directed his own movies; and he was decidedly “uninterested in what other people thought,” writes the author.
That applied to the youth of the women he married: Mildred Harris (17), when Chaplin was 29. Lita Grey (16), when he was 35. And then there was the beautiful Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill), an 18 year old who was 36 years younger than her 54-year-old husband.
In 1952, Attorney General James P. McGranery set the U.S. case against Chaplin.
Chaplin had announced that he and his family were leaving for Europe on vacation. The reentry permit in his British passport was valid for one year. The actor was barely at sea when McGranery announced he had told immigration officials to hold a hearing to decide whether Chaplin should be allowed to return to the U.S.
“If assertions about Mr. Chaplin are true, he is, in my judgment, an unsavory character,” said the attorney general. “He has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist Party, with grave moral charges and with making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him.”
In fact, Chaplin was friendly with bohemians, including socialist Max Eastman, who had been tried unsuccessfully for sedition over articles published in his radical magazine, The Masses. “Charlie liked radical ideas,” said Eastman.
But the actor “studiously avoided organizations,” including the Communist Party, writes Eyman. He was, however, politicized by the Depression and its toll on people. He angered officials with his remarks about The Great Dictator (1938), his first talking picture, which showed, he said, that “the funniest thing” is “ridiculing phonies and stuffed shirts in high places.” The film made laughingstocks of Hitler and Mussolini.
As it happened, and as the FBI stated, the U.S. lacked “sufficient information to exclude Chaplin from the United States.”
Recounting all of Chaplin’s troubles of the period, Eyman writes: “[Chaplin] was practically and emotionally an outsider from another country and another time, a man completely of his own making who held himself above conventions in politics, in society. From the beginning he engaged in social commentary on a scale that transcended categories of left and right.
“The Tramp’s meaning was as clear to the ordinary viewer as it was to intellectuals. By birth and social inclination Chaplin and the Tramp both set themselves resolutely against the prevailing American grain.”
Perhaps the British journalist Alistair Cooke put it best.
Chaplin was “a vague nuisance and a tiresome talking point among the noisy patriots who never felt that the government’s ‘Loyalty’ procedures proceeded far enough,” he wrote. “Chaplin was all the more offensive in that he could never, after endless investigating, be pinned down as a criminal.” He was “a useful sacrifice to the witches who were then supposed to be riding exclusively on the broomstick of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
“The Chaplin expulsion was a squalid episode in a shabby period.”
Chaplin never did return to the U.S., although he probably would have gained entry if he had applied for it. He sent his wife back to the U.S. to settle his affairs. The couple then created a permanent home in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva. Chaplin continued to make (non-Tramp) movies.
“I was fed up with America’s insults and moral pomposity,” he said.
An engrossing story of the tumultuous final years of a movie icon.