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Scott Eyman’s Charlie Chaplin vs. America

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin bid farewell to the Tramp, sending him off along a road leading to an uncertain future—but arm in arm with Paulette Goddard—in his final (mostly) silent feature, Modern Times. The film is justifiably remembered first for the brilliantly conceived image of the little guy noodling through a mesh of giant factory gears, but anyone revisiting Modern Times may be surprised to be reminded that it’s a nearly arc-less stream of set pieces. Small triumphs are constantly thwarted by greater injustices as the Tramp pops in and out of jail and on and off the unemployment line.

At the height of the Great Depression, and down on his luck again in one sequence, the Tramp sees a flag fall off a passing truck, picks it up, and tries to hail the driver by waving the (presumably red) flag, unaware that behind him a crowd of protestors bearing signs with vague slogans in at least a couple of languages—“Unite,” “Libertad”—is swelling behind him. When the police arrive to put down the uprising, they take the Tramp for its leader. Modern Times “marks the first time that [Chaplin’s] private political awakening—his most costly transformation, born of his experiences of the previous decade—appears tangibly on the screen,” wrote Saul Austerlitz in the essay accompanying our 2010 release.

The cost is the subject of Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collidedby Scott Eyman, the author of several widely acclaimed books on Hollywood’s Golden Age, including biographies of Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, and Cary Grant. This new one is “basically a biography of Chaplin with an emphasis on the later and unhappier half of his career,” writes Louis Menand in this week’s New Yorker. “It’s fun to read and it adds detail to the story of Chaplin’s spectacular peripeteia. Eyman is completely sympathetic to Chaplin, and he makes the case that we should be, too. For an alternative take, see Kenneth Lynn’s Charlie Chaplin and His Times (1997). Eyman doesn’t discuss Lynn, but his book is plainly intended as a rebuttal.”

Charlie Chaplin vs. America will “get your blood up,” writes Sean Burns at Crooked Marquee. “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.”

Chaplin, whose late-nineteenth-century childhood in London can only be described as Dickensian, worked his way along the vaudeville circuit to Hollywood, and by the late 1910s, he was one of the world’s most beloved stars. Early in his career, he readily expressed his appreciation of—and seemingly sincere love for—America. He never joined a political party, though his views, devoid of doctrine and arguably borderline naive, took on an urgent conviction as fascism took hold of Europe. “I am an Internationalist,” he declared in a statement Eyman quotes in an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin vs. America in Vanity Fair, “which ideas I expressed in The Great Dictator.

That 1940 film—Chaplin called it his “anti-Nazi picture”—appeared before the attack on Pearl Harbor yanked the U.S. out of its deep-seated isolationism, and the release of The Great Dictator prompted a congressional subcommittee investigating “pro-war propaganda” to subpoena Chaplin. “While there are certainly more perfect films, there are very few as courageous,” writes Eyman in an excerpt at Literary Hub. Chaplin, who plays Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia, as well as a Jewish barber who ends up impersonating Hynkel, “was never more confident of his physical virtuosity—the scene of Hynkel dancing with the globe is immediately followed by the Jewish barber shaving a client to Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsody. First he shows you the dictator’s megalomania, then the barber’s unassuming expertise, both characters defined by movement set to music.”

President Roosevelt had encouraged Chaplin to make the film, and the war helped propel it to box-office success, but speaking in San Francisco in 1942, Chaplin took his anti-fascist stance further than most Americans were ready to go. He called for opening a second front in the war in order to support an ally, Russia. Facing criticism for proposing to stand between the fascists and communists while they were going after each other, Chaplin declared, “I am not a Communist, but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist.”

Widely read conservative newspaper columnists such as Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell campaigned to have Chaplin tossed out of the country. They colluded with J. Edgar Hoover, and as Chris Yogerst points out in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “of the FBI’s 1,900 pages on Chaplin, more space is given to Chaplin’s sex life than to his political beliefs.” Chaplin’s predilection for marrying women far younger than he was, combined with a trumped-up paternity suit and his progressive views, led the U.S. Attorney General to revoke Chaplin’s reentry permit in 1952 after he and his family had set sail for the London premiere of Limelight.

Chaplin moved to Switzerland and stayed there until 1972, when the Academy offered him an Honorary Award. He hesitated at first, but graciously accepted, and he was greeted with a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in Oscar history.

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