Today in London’s cinematic history: Clown supreme (and communist sympathiser?) Charlie Chaplin born, Walworth, 1889.

In his time, Charlie Chaplin was accused of being a “communist sympathizer” – in fact he was barred from re-entering the USA in 1952 (having lived there for 40 years) because of his suspect political views… Yet he was also a millionaire film star. Was his exclusion from the US just McCarthyite paranoia gone barmy? Or was he a fully committed Stalinophile, as you can find him described on those rightwing fruitcaky websites even today?

Born and raised in South London, in extreme poverty, Chaplin retained the memory of growing up at the sharp end of class society all his life – even when he was the idol of millions, living in luxury.

Charlie Chaplin was born in Walworth on 16th April, 1889. Both his parents were music hall entertainers and Charlie started appearing on the stage while still a child. His father, Charles Chaplin, deserted the family and eventually died of alcoholism. His mother, Hannah Chaplin, found it increasingly difficult to find work on the stage and in 1895 the family entered the Lambeth Workhouse.

Chaplin later wrote: “Although we were aware of the shame of going to the workhouse, when Mother told us about it both Sydney and I thought it adventurous and a change from living in one stuffy room. But on that doleful day I didn’t realize what was happening until we actually entered the workhouse gate. Then the forlorn bewilderment of it struck me; for there we were made to separate, Mother going in one direction to the women’s ward and we in another to the children’s. How well I remember the poignant sadness of that first visiting day: the shock of seeing Mother enter the visiting-room garbed in workhouse clothes. How forlorn and embarrassed she looked! In one week she had aged and grown thin, but her face lit up when she saw us.” Later, Charlie’s mother had a mental breakdown and was sent to the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum. He told a close friend: “I loved my mother almost more when she went out of her mind. She had been so poor and so hungry – I believe it was starving herself for us that affected her brain. She so wanted me to be a successful actor.”

When he was sixteen Chaplin won the part of Billy in a West End production of Sherlock Holmes. He later joined Fred Karno’s music hall revue. While touring the United States in 1913 Chaplin was discovered by the film producer Mack Sennett. Over the next couple of years Chaplin made a series of short slapstick films for Sennett’s Keystone Company. In these films Chaplin developed the classic  character of the tramp – wearing baggy pants, tight frock coat, large shoes on the wrong feet and a black derby hat.

By his thirteenth film, Caught in the Rain (1914), Chaplin began to direct his own films. Chaplin now slowed the pace of his films, reduced the number of visual jokes but increased the time spent on each one. Chaplin placed the emphasis on the character rather than slapstick events. The themes of his films became more serious and reflected his childhood experiences of poverty, hunger and loneliness. Chaplin’s work revolutionized film comedy and turned it into an art form.

Chaplin’s films were highly successful and he became a household name throughout the world. When Chaplin first started with the Keystone Company he was paid $150 a week, by 1915 he was receiving $1,250. Three years later, when he joined First National, Chaplin signed cinema’s first million-dollar contract. During this period Chaplin’s films included The Tramp (1915), The Pawnshop (1915), Easy Street (1917), The Immigrant (1917) and A Dog’s Life (1918).

These films often have a fierce class consciousness: “he… exposed audiences to charity hospitals for unwed mothers, flophouses populated by rootless transients, and cold attic rooms inhabite by the poor. In The Kid and The Idle Class, the rich are not people to be admired, but hypocrites who denounce how the poor care for their children but do nothing to help. Likewise, the authorities who run charity hospitals and orphanages are more concerned about their institutions than the people they are supposed to serve… Amid the well-known scenes of the Tramp eatin his own shoe, conducting a dance with two potatoes, and turning into a human-sized chicken, Chaplin depicts a tough world in which the pursuit of wealth is filled with hunger, betrayal, violence and death…”

In 1919 Chaplin joined with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to form United Artists, a company that enabled the stars to distribute their films without studio interference. It is also argued that it was in response to a rumour that the film companies intended to put a ceiling on the star salaries. Films produced by Chaplin and his company included The Kid (1921).

Chaplin made a series of highly successful films including The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931). Chaplin became increasingly concerned with politics. A strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936), was seen by some critics as an attack on capitalism. This is often disputed, though the film does not paint a pretty picture of industrial America.

Undoubtedly Chaplin was influenced by socialist ideas. He had become a friend of novelist Upton Sinclair, a powerful leftwing voice, who Chaplin had met in 1918, and mixed with a number of left-thinking intellectuals and artists in the 1920s. He associated with known Socialist Party members in the US, and attacked the class system repeatedly. However he was afraid that any vocal support for socialist ideas, especially during the red scare that was driving US policy at the time, would have on his career and ability to make films.

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), began compiling a file on Chaplin’s activities in 1922, including his friendship with radicals such as Upton Sinclair, H. G. Wells, Hanns Eisner, Albert Einstein, Clare Sheridan and Harold Laski.

Throughout the depression and the rise of fascism, Chaplin continued to tilt at the windmills of patriotism (“the greatest insanity the world has ever suffered… the result is going to be another war.”), religion (“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion”), at the cost on human life of industry and the power of the rich over the poor.

Undoubtedly Chaplin had a naïve faith in such empty capitalist charades as the League of Nations, and he backed president Roosevelt’s New Deal – the closest the US has ever come to a state-imposed welfare state-type program. But his film continued to flag up suffering and the negative effects of capitalism, while dodging the difficult subject of what to do about them collectively.

In 1937 Chaplin decided to make a film on the dangers of fascism. As Chaplin pointed out in his autobiography, attempts were made to stop the film being made. Chaplin’s detractors now included  movie executives worried about film profits in fascist Europe, anti-semitic groups and nazi sympathisers, and rightwing isolationists. “Half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists. They had been advised by the Hays Office that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.” However, by the time The Great Dictator was finished, Britain was at war with Germany and it was used as propaganda against Adolf Hitler.

During the Second World War Chaplin played an active role in the American Committee for Russian War Relief. Others involved in this organization included Fiorello La Guardia, Vito Marcantonio, Wendell Willkie, Orson Welles, Rockwell Kent and Pearl Buck. Chaplin was also one of the major figures in the campaign during the summer of 1942 for the opening of a second-front in Europe.

After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to investigate people with left-wing views in the entertainment industry. In September 1947 Chaplin was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC but three times his meeting was postponed. Unknown to Chaplin, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI, now had a 1,900 page file on his political activities. Hoover advised the Attorney General that when Chaplin left the country he should not be allowed to return.

In 1952 Chaplin visited London for the premiere of Limelight. When he arrived back he discovered his entry permit revoked and had been denied the right to live in the United States. As Chaplin pointed out in his autobiography: “My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them.”
Chaplin, blacklisted from making films in Hollywood, responded by making A King in New York (1957). The film stars Chaplin as the deposed king of Estrovia who flees to America where he is tormented by McCarthy style investigations. Chaplin was once again accused of being pro-communist and the film was not released in the United States. In response to McCarthyism, of which he said:
“I was opposed to the Committee on Un-American Activities — a dishonest phrase to begin with, elastic enough to wrap around the throat and strangle the voice of any American citizen whose honest opinion is a minority of one.”

While in exile, Chaplin wrote his Autobiography (1964) and directed the movie, A Countess from Hong Kong (1966). Despite the objections of J. Edgar Hoover, in 1972 Chaplin was invited back to the United States to receive a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was also allowed to distribute his satire on McCarthyism, A King in New York.

Charles Chaplin died in Switzerland on 25th December, 1977.

Some interesting perspectives on Chaplin’s political views:

Chaplin and Social Commentary

Hollywood Left and Right

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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