Charlie Chaplin is the poster boy for the Golden Age of Hollywood – not just as one of the most popular stars on the big screen, but because he and his work embodied and reflected the social and economic order and political turmoil of inter-war America.
Chaplin was an immigrant, an innovator, and a rags to riches American Dream archetype, yet also used his comedy and platform to be a political rebel, to speak out metaphorically and sometimes literally about the state of American society, McCarthyism, Fascism and Capitalism.
Chaplin’s complex character – brilliant but a megalomaniac with a disturbing penchant for very young, sometimes underage actresses – later became the obsession of J Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI. Hoover was determined to get rid of him for his alleged communist sympathies, using Chaplin’s turbulent love life to file a case against him.
What prompted J Edgar Hoover to be so interested in this Hollywood icon?
Charlie Chaplin’s fame
Charlie Chaplin’s natural charisma, eye for business and innovative writing, acting, directing and composing talent had quickly led him to stardom. His rise to fame coincided with the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood‘ – a period of great growth, experimentation and change in the industry that brought international prestige to Hollywood and its movie stars. From the silent movie age to ‘talkie’ dramas and comedies, films became popular nationwide and soon, movie stars such as Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Tallulah Bankhead were adored everywhere.
While working with Keystone Studios, Chaplin developed his iconic character, the Tramp. With his instantly recognisable moustache and baggy trousers, the Tramp quickly became the most popular star, and Chaplin continued to play the character in numerous short films and feature-length productions.
In 1917, Chaplin became an independent producer, establishing his own Hollywood studio and gaining creative freedom. During World War One, he did a national tour on behalf of the war effort, and also made a hit comedy about war called Shoulder Arms (1918).
In 1919 Chaplin joined forces with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith to found the United Artists Corporation, and released a series of successful films including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1928) (earning Chaplin’s first Academy Award), and City Lights (1931).
Chaplin’s The Great Dictator speech
During the politically uncertain inter-war years, Charlie Chaplin faced criticism for his political sympathies, including advocating for an alliance with the Soviet Union and supporting New Deal Programs.
Chaplin was deeply troubled by the rise of fascism in Europe. By then, Chaplin was one of the world’s most famous performers, and in 1940, released his most famous film to date, political satire The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin plays both the central characters: a Jewish barber living in a ghetto, and Hynkel, the fascist dictator of Tomainia. The dictator is a clear attack on, and comical mimicry of, Adolf Hitler.
Despite receiving great support or rampant criticism, the film is widely considered to be the greatest satire ever made and often cited as one of the finest films ever produced.
Chaplin’s social commentary
Politically, it seems fairly clear that Chaplin sympathised with the Left, and much of his social commentary in public and private tackled things like rampant unemployment, poverty and the rise of the radical Right in America and around the world. His iconic character, The Tramp, symbolised the struggles of a downtrodden man in a capitalist society, reflecting his compassion for the working-class – a defining feature of his most famous silent films.
These views raised suspicion from the FBI, particularly due to Chaplin’s statements expressing admiration for the Communists’ rigid anti-fascist stance, exemplified in the Spanish Civil War or on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Despite not identifying as a Communist, his views on Communism were most directly outlined when he said in December 1942, “I am not a Communist, but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist” – sentiments further heightening the scrutiny he faced from authorities.
Monsieur Verdoux and communist accusations
During World War Two, Chaplin had campaigned for the opening of a Second Front to help the Soviet Union and supported various Soviet–American friendship groups. He maintained friendships with individuals suspected of being communists, and attended functions hosted by Soviet diplomats.
Chaplin remained steadfast in his refusal to compromise on his views, and never apologised for his associations, such as his friend the Austrian musician Hanns Eisler.
In his film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin openly criticised capitalism, and highlighted the destructive nature of wars and weapons of mass destruction. The film was met with controversy, and received calls for boycott, prompting Monsieur Verdoux to be the first Chaplin release that failed both critically and commercially in America (despite Chaplin’s screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards).
The Red Scare
During the Cold War, Charlie Chaplin’s progressive activities and alleged ties to communism made him a target of the era’s anti-communist fervour.
The FBI launched an investigation into Chaplin in 1947, following public accusations of his communist leanings and his involvement in political protests against the trials of Communist Party members and the House Un-American Activities Committee (which denounced him that year). Once saying “These days if you step off the curb with your left foot, they accuse you being a communist”, Chaplin denied the allegations, feeling that the government’s effort to suppress the ideology was an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties.
As early as 1922, the FBI had been interested in Chaplin, investigating his alleged connections to the American Communist Party. They closely monitored his personal life, exhaustively interviewing his associates and colleagues to find any connection between him and Communist ideology – leading to accusations of violating the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910 due to his financial support of his girlfriend’s travel across state lines.
Chaplin’s extensive FBI file, filled with slander and innuendo, spanned 1,900 pages, and his films Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) were interpreted as sympathetic to communist ideologies.
‘Exile’ and later life
In 1952, Charlie Chaplin released his film Limelight, a serious and semi-autobiographical work set in Edwardian London. Chaplin decided to hold the film’s premiere in London and boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth with his family to attend the event on 18 September 1952. However, the US Attorney General then revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit, demanding an interview about his political views and moral behaviour before allowing him back into the country.
Although the US government lacked concrete evidence to prevent Chaplin’s re-entry, Chaplin chose to sever his ties with America – effectively ending his Hollywood career. He only returned once, to attend the Oscars in 1972, where he was hailed as a returning hero.
Chaplin settled in Switzerland, and his final years were largely spent editing his old films for re-release. In 1975, he received a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. While he worked on new projects, a series of strokes and his declining health in the 1970s took its toll, and he died on Christmas Day in 1977, having left an enduring legacy in the world of cinema.