Alongside images of Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, the sight of Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp costume has become cultural shorthand for Hollywood magic. Even people who have never seen a silent film in their lives recognize the man with the unfortunate mustache wearing the baggy pants and the bowler hat. Strictly from an iconographic standpoint, Chaplin means “the movies” to most Americans. These same folks would probably be shocked to learn that not too long ago, the Little Tramp was one of the most despised celebrities in the country, spending the last decades of his life in Swiss exile after being denied permission to re-enter the United States in 1952 on specious grounds of moral turpitude. We’ve all seen footage of the 12-minute standing ovation that greeted Chaplin when he received an honorary Academy Award in 1972, but nobody these days seems to mention why he hadn’t been to the Oscars in 20 years.
Scott Eyman’s excellent new book Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided chronicles the Kafkaesque quagmire of grandstanding government officials, sleazy tabloid journalists, and fickle public opinion that sent Charlie packing for Switzerland. It’ll get your blood up. Making a case for Chaplin as the first victim of the Red Scare, Eyman painstakingly catalogs all the smear campaigns and expertly deployed innuendos that somehow convinced the masses that a notorious cheapskate with more than $30 million in business interests and Wall Street investments was a filthy socialist. J. Edgar Hoover and his boys amassed a 1,900 page file on Chaplin that couldn’t come up with a single connection to the Communist Party, but that didn’t matter. In show business, perception is everything. And you can ask any former celebrity, when the American people decide they’re done with someone, they’re finished.
“Charlie Chaplin had been canceled,” quips Eyman in the prologue. Indeed, it’s hard to read the book without seeing some scary parallels to our current hyper-censorious cultural climate, particularly with regard to the subject’s sexual peccadilloes, which would probably melt social media today. (It’s difficult not to giggle at jilted lover Louise Brooks’ description of Chaplin – justifiably paranoid about venereal disease – coating his genitals in iodine and lunging toward her with a red erection.) Fully aware that there already exist dozens of comprehensive Chaplin biographies, Eyman telescopes Charlie’s horrific childhood and early showbiz success to the first quarter of the book and doesn’t really bear down in detail until the star began raising eyebrows with the pointed politics of Modern Times in 1936. This is a gift to those of us who tend to get bored with biographies in the early going — I’m sometimes guilty of skipping ahead to when the subject starts getting into trouble — even though it can occasionally feel like you’re reading the second volume of a two-book set.
Eyman really bores into the filmmaker’s downfall following the triumph of The Great Dictator, an anti-fascist masterpiece that seemingly nobody besides FDR, Chaplin himself and legendary Nazi-hater Jack Warner thought he should make. The author concedes that Charlie may have gotten out a little over his skis politically, replicating the movie’s rousing climactic speech at Hollywood parties while calling for the U.S. Army to open a second front in Russia. Chaplin never bothered applying for U.S. citizenship after settling here in his teens, having seen enough during WWI to consider any form of nationalism a scourge. This became more and more of a talking point among the right wing media, however inane. It didn’t matter that Chaplin paid his fair share of U.S. taxes – and you’d better believe people were checking carefully. That still wasn’t enough to keep him from being branded an ingrate.
The collapse happened quickly. There was a trumped up Mann Act violation in which Chaplin was looking at serious jail time for bringing a 22-year-old girlfriend across state lines. (The young woman in question was also a frequent escort of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who for some reason didn’t face similar consequences.) He skated on the criminal charge but wound up losing a paternity case that followed. Crazily, even though blood tests proved he was medically incapable of being the father, the jury was so outraged by graphic testimony regarding Chaplin’s sexual conduct that he was nonetheless ordered to pay child support for the next 18 years, his reputation in ruins. The gossip columnists, especially Hedda Hopper (who hated Chaplin with the force of a thousand suns), had a feeding frenzy. But then Charlie was never very good at reading the room when it came to women. Right as the public embarrassment of the paternity case was really heating up, the 53-year-old Chaplin married Eugene O’Neill’s 18-year-old daughter, Oona.
That the two had eight children together and spent the rest of his life by all accounts rhapsodically in love didn’t mean much to the star’s furious former fans. (And even less to the author of The Iceman Cometh, who disinherited his daughter and never spoke to her again.) But what’s so fascinating about Eyman’s book is how little such career-ending transgressions seem to matter in the rearview. Long-forgotten politicians and newspaper writers made entire careers out of trashing Chaplin with endless factual inaccuracies and unfounded rumors. One paper even printed that he and Oona were going to adopt the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Adding insult to injury, it turns out that the order to keep Chaplin out of the country didn’t even have any legal merit. As he was never convicted of a crime, he could have challenged it and come back at any time. This was all posturing and empty grandstanding. And for what?
In 1952, only three of Chaplin’s Hollywood colleagues spoke out publicly about his ghastly, unfair treatment: Samuel Goldwyn, William Wyler, and Cary Grant. The rest waited out the storm and applauded at the Oscars.
“Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided” is now in bookstores.