Charlie Chaplin in the news recently because M.I.5 failed to determine where the silent film star was born, does it really matter? He himself in his autobiography said 'he was born on 16th April 1889, at eight o'clock at night, in East Lane, Walworth, London but was also a self proclaimed 'citizen of the world' who did not pledge his allegiance to any specific Country or cause. The fact that nobody knows for certain where he was born certainly adds to his mystique.
He subsequently became the most well-known actor of the early 2oth century, becomming an iconic figure in his Little Tramp costume, which consisted of baggy pants, bamboo cane, bowler hat, and oversized shoes. His acting credits numbered 87 , starting of in 1914 in Making a Living and ending with Countess from Hong Kong in 1967. His many classic films include The tramp, (1915) The Kid (1916) A Days pleasure (1919) The Idle Class (1920) and The Gold Rush (1925).
It is known that had socialist ideas, informed by being bought up in extreme poverty, his younger days were spent living in workhouses, and he numbered many left wing friends as his friends and acquaintances. He generally held his tongue, but after the 1930' with the film City Lights (1931)
City Lights - intro monument
and Modern Times (1936) which was seen by many as an overt attack on the capitalist system, his films began carrying messages with explicit political statements, with the characters he played often taking sides with the downtrodden working class.
Chaplin's critique of Industrialization
first segmet in Modern Times.
Clip from Modern Times.
Chaplins father had died of drink by the time he was 10, and his mother unable to bear the poverty she endured, suffered from bouts of insanity, deep experiences that never left him. He himself was an voracious reader on economic theory and philosophical treatise.A strong humanitarian he was disturbed by the rise of nationalism and the social effects of the Depression, of unemployment and of automation, and hatred of the mechanisation of the world and even devised his own Economic Solution, based on a more equitable not just of wealth but of work.
His classic film The Great Dictator (1940) saw him taking on the nazis. Here he pitted his celebrity and humour against Hitlers own celebrity and evil. He played a dual role as a jewish barber who has lost his memory in a plane accident in the First World War, and spends time in hospital before being discharged into an anti-semitic country that he does not understand, and Hynkel (Hitler) the dictator leader of Ptomainia, whose armies are the forces of the Double Cross, and will do anything along the lines to increase his possibilitis for supreme power. It ends with Chaplin in his own words giving us a message full of humanitarianism, with a sense of great hope.
Chaplins final speach in the Great Dictator
However despite his pro-war effors, he uncritically supported the war effort, especially the Soviet Front, he was targetted by J Edgar Hoovers F.B.I who apparently saw him as a dangerous radical and subversive, and put it about that he was a communist.
His 1947 film Monsier Verdour saw him showing mass murder and the abuse of workers in an attempt to increase business profits. He was not afraid and for the times was quite daring. Though he atttended Communist Party meetings, he never actually admitted actual membership of the party. He was a principled man however because at the height of the McCarthy witchhunts he never betrayed any of his friends who he knew were, and continued to support and defend them, as they were forced to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committe ( HUAC), the tide of his popularity was turning against him mainly due to the propoganda aimed at him at the time. It is possible that his independent wealth saved him, being part owner of the United Artist Movie studio, and he himself never got an invitation to testify, the witchhunters possibly afraid of the damage a brilliant comedian like Chaplin could inflict.
HUAC in action
Humanitarian, Yes . Communist??
After this he was effectively hounded out of the U.S.A, by political persecution and paranoia, being accused of 'moral depravity', he was known for his fondness of women, and had numerous affairs. His imprints were removed from the Hollywood walk of fame, such were the authorities disdain for him and were subsequently lost to the mists of time. Because of being pilloried by the right-wing press and reactionary institutions like the American legion and all the subsequent propoganda unleashed against him he began to lose favour with the American public. Ironically in 1952 saw the release of Limelight , which could be seen as a semi-autobiographical story concerning a story about a once famous comedian who has lost his ability to command his audience, basing his performance on Frank Tinney (1877-1940) an American Black film comedian and the Spanish clown Marceline (1873 - 1927) for me personally a film of great pathos.
Charlie Chaplin in Limelight
In 1952, the United States Attorney General told him that his re-entry to the U.S would be challenged on charges of turpitude and political unreliabilty. He had never actually attained American citizenship, in the first place, he'd actually refused it, so he destoyed all his American possesions and escaped to Europe.
In 1957 he starred in The king of New York where he was the first film-maker to dare to expose, through satire and ridicule, the paranoia and political intolerance which overtook the United States in the Cold War period. It would be another 16 years untill it was actually screened in America, such was its daring. He stareed as the deposed kink of Estovia who flees to America where he is tormentd by a McCarthy style investigation.
Exiled, he settled at the Manir de Bar in Corsier Svr Vevey, Switzerland where he was to spend the rest of his days. He did return once more to the U.S.A in 1972. As well as acting, and being a father to many children his versatility extended to writing, composing music and sports. He was also a self-taught violinist and celloist which he played left handed.
He died in his sleep on Christmas day 1977, in his home in Switzerland.
His legacy lives on, as much for his great intellectual vision, but as a brilliant comic who has bought me much laughter over the years with the combination of his acrobatic agility and his ability to express through the medium of film, great depths of emotion and feeling. A little man, but big in my eyes.
" Like everyone else I am what I am: an individual,
unique and different,
with a lineal history of ancestral promptings
and urgings; a history of dreams,
desires, and of special experiences,
all of which I am the sum total."
- Charlie Chaplin