Never afraid to stand up

April 16, 2009

Scott Johnson celebrates the life of "The Little Tramp," Charlie Chaplin, on the anniversary of his birth 120 years ago.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN did much of his best work as an actor, director and even composer in films such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights.

Playing "The Little Tramp"--dressed in an ill-fitting suit with a toothbrush mustache, cane and bowler hat--he was not only a brilliant physical comedian, but also conveyed a great sense of pathos with moments of loneliness, heartbreak and failure. This Chaplin--who would have been 120 years old this month--is well worth remembering, and his films well worth discovering.

Chaplin also held socialist ideas and surrounded himself with a number of left-wing friends and acquaintances. Though he often held his tongue, after City Lights was released in 1931, Chaplin made a series of films with explicit political statements in them that eventually found him hounded out of the country by the rise of McCarthyism.

Several years into the Great Depression, which left millions unemployed, Chaplin made his film Modern Times (1936) between the great labor upsurges of 1934--which saw mass strikes in three cities--and the wave of sit-down strikes in 1937. Chaplin's Little Tramp, the most recognized impoverished character in all of American film, could not help but be affected by these events.

Chaplin dramatizes the demeaning life of industrial workers in the 1936 film Modern Times
Chaplin dramatizes the demeaning life of industrial workers in the 1936 film Modern Times

The movie begins with the Tramp slaving over a factory line, constantly struggling to keep up with the pace as the boss sits in a quiet office reading the comics in a newspaper. Chaplin's physical comedy is on full display as he works harder and faster to no end other than uncontrolled twitching due to a repetitive stress disorder.

He is eventually driven mad by the stress and finds himself accidentally leading a demonstration of Communist workers, who are beaten and imprisoned by the police.

Chaplin's wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, is his female co-star, playing a young woman in even worse poverty than the Tramp. The two meet and fall in love, spending the rest of the film searching for the American Dream. They move into their dream house--a typically Chaplin-esque run-down shack--and find work again, but they can't avoid either their past or the continuing turbulence in society. The two eventually walk off together, destitute but happily in love.

Modern Times doesn't convey a consistent political message about workers' struggle, other than to generally take sides with the downtrodden working class and their efforts to retain their dignity in the face of economic collapse.

This is a perfect theme for Chaplin, who had been telling this story for two decades, and it gave him the opportunity to sharpen the political issues confronted by the Little Tramp. The film is ultimately more about two people in love struggling to keep their heads above water than it is about challenging capitalism, but it succeeds on these terms.

CHAPLIN'S NEXT film was his most consistently and overtly political. After spending decades as the world's most popular silent comedian, The Great Dictator (1940) saw Chaplin create one of the classic vocal impersonations of American cinema.

Chaplin stars in two roles, most notoriously as "The Phooey" Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania--based explicitly on Adolph Hitler. Hynkel's hate-spewing speeches in mock German are so full of vile epithets that they can't be "translated." At times, he snorts and snarls his anger and desires, and, at other times, he performs a ballet with a beach ball-like globe that he tosses through the air, joyfully anticipating world domination.

But beyond the silliness, the story sharply examined at some of Hitler's most despicable practices. For example, while Hynkel openly discusses his desire to eliminate the entire Jewish race, his storm troopers engage in pogroms in the Jewish ghetto and paint "Jew" on their shop windows. This was not only before the U.S. had declared war against Germany--and still maintained diplomatic relations with the country--but also at a time when anti-Semitism was a regular part of American life.

Some of the residents of the ghetto express their desire to rebel against the fascist regime and eventually decide to organize a suicide mission to assassinate Hynkel. This leads to one of the funniest moments in the movie when Chaplin, in his second role playing the Little Tramp as a Jewish barber, does everything he can to avoid being chosen for the mission.

It's classic Chaplin--we can't help but laugh at the Little Tramp's selfish maneuvers to avoid his responsibility, while, at the same time, recognizing the great burden that he is about to carry. In this case, the burden involves ending up in a concentration camp.

The final scene--in which the Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel and giving a lengthy speech denouncing Nazism--is hotly contested among critics. Many consider it to be unnecessarily preachy, but that seems to be a tedious criticism considering what Hitler was engaged in at the time. It took great courage for Chaplin to have the Little Tramp, the most recognized character in all the movies, give a rousing speech against the spreading Nazi menace in his final screen appearance.

In the speech, the Jewish barber articulates a progressive worldview, denouncing the "greed" that "has poisoned men's souls...has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want." But all is not lost:

You the people have the power...then in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world, that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age security...Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance!

This moment is far more subtle and heartfelt than Chaplin is often given credit for. When the Jewish barber gives this speech, there is some confusion and it's unclear what effect it is having on the audience of Nazi soldiers. The barber worries that he is turning into an angry demagogue--exactly what the film's critics accuse him of--and so he speaks out directly to one of his Jewish friends, hoping to keep her spirit of resistance alive. The film ends with a sense of great hope for the future in spite of what must have been an incredibly bleak outlook.

What Chaplin does deserve criticism for is that he neither joined the Communist Party nor broke with its politics of Stalinism and the Popular Front--uncritically supporting liberal efforts, especially insofar as they supported Russia. As the U.S. entered the Second World War, he actively supported the Soviet front and encouraged American intervention, not to mention the New Deal programs that preceded it. But it never appears to have dawned on Chaplin that the police who brutally attacked workers in Modern Times very well could have been Roosevelt's National Guard.

NONETHELESS, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was not about to give Chaplin credit for his pro-war efforts. On the contrary, they continued to see him as a dangerous radical, and his FBI files are filled with half-truths and paranoid Cold War hysteria.

The two most famous gossip columnists at the time, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, both cooperated with the FBI to collect and distribute information that would be damaging to Chaplin. Another fierce anti-Communist, a pre-variety show Ed Sullivan, would spread the rumor that Chaplin was on the verge of defecting to Russia.

Rather than back down, Chaplin continued to defend and support his friends, giving his name to efforts to oppose the investigation of suspected Communists in Hollywood and supporting many who were forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

After being subpoenaed himself, Chaplin invited the Committee to see his latest film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947). A suspenseful comedy about a man who marries and then kills several women for their money, Verdoux ends with a harsh denunciation of Western imperialism. The title character, played by Chaplin, defends himself by saying,

As for being a mass murderer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and children to pieces, and done it scientifically? As a mass murderer, I am an amateur by comparison.

He later comments, "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."

Inviting HUAC to hear this commentary was a shot across the bow and an announcement that he was fully prepared to defend himself. Furthermore, Chaplin was independently wealthy and part owner of the United Artists movie studio, so blacklisting him would be essentially impossible. HUAC got the message, and his "invitation" to testify was quickly dropped, but he would later assert that he was prepared to appear dressed as the Little Tramp and make a mockery of the proceedings.

For several years, he would continue to be watched by the FBI and hounded by the press. Often there was a spotlight on his numerous affairs, occasionally with women who were far too young, leaving him open to charges of "moral depravity." Many asked aloud why the British-born Chaplin, who never expressed any interest in citizenship, should be allowed to remain a "guest" in the U.S. Increasingly, right-wing veterans groups like the American Legion and Catholic War Veterans picketed showings of his films and sometimes succeeded in getting them canceled.

In his next film, Limelight (1952), Chaplin starred as a washed up, aging stage comedian. This was not only one of his best films but also one of his least political. He also seems to have toned down his radical rhetoric in the years preceding its release. But once again, he would get no credit for taming his politics.

Immediately after heading on a world tour to promote Limelight, his re-entry visa was revoked by Truman's attorney general. After living in the U.S. for most of his life, he would not be allowed to return for another two decades when the political atmosphere had cooled.

Chaplin was a contradictory figure--a Communist sympathizer who was both a studio owner and a notorious womanizer--and leaves an inconsistent political legacy tinged by Stalinism and his own personal foibles. At times, he shook his fist at the system and at others he hid behind the slogan of being "an artist, not a politician." Nonetheless, this is a legacy worth remembering and, at its best, worth defending. His films, however, need no qualification and deserve to be seen and treasured for generations to come.

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