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Posted on 28 Mar 2024 in Non-Fiction |

SCOTT EYMAN Charlie Chaplin vs America. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Cancel culture is nothing new: Scott Eyman’s biography shows how Charlie Chaplin’s fame was no protection when the tide turned against him.

I flip-flopped into success from being a frightened, lonely person … Success brought life into focus and showed me the hollowness of men who run the world and of their solemn pronouncements.

– Charlie Chaplin

Scott Eyman says that it took him slightly less than 60 years to write this book on Charlie Chaplin. When he was 12 he bought a print of Chaplin’s two-reeler Easy Street (1917)  – the Tramp reforms himself, becomes a policeman and saves a beautiful girl from a drug addict – in a failed attempt to understand how Chaplin ‘transitioned from one expression to another, one emotion to another’. A journalist who has spent his career writing about Hollywood, Eyman always wanted to write a book on Chaplin, ‘but bookshelves groan under the weight of books about Charlie Chaplin, and I didn’t have an approach’. Then it hit him. He would focus on the revoking of Chaplin’s re-entry permit to the United States in 1952. Eyman refers to this as how Chaplin ‘segued from the status of beloved icon to despised ingrate’.

Charlie Chaplin was born in England in 1889. Both his parents worked in music hall. His father was a drunkard and died, aged 37, in 1901. His mother was committed to a mental asylum. Charlie spent his early years living in poverty and was twice sent to a workhouse before he was nine. He had the equivalent of a ‘haphazardly acquired’ fourth-grade education. He had a number of jobs before his older brother Sydney (1885-1965), who was working with Fred Karno’s ‘legendary comedy troupe’, talked Karno into employing his younger brother in 1908. The troupe toured America in 1910 and in 1913 Charlie started making movies for Mack Sennett of Keystone Cops fame.

Chaplin quickly became a sensation, one of the first global stars of cinema. His character The Tramp, the little guy who struggles against authority and privilege but somehow wins and gets the girl, struck a chord with audiences across the globe. Eyman continually refers to Chaplin’s innate shyness and his difficulties overcoming his impoverished past:

The life of Charlie Chaplin has much to do with courage, or, if you prefer, perseverance taken to the edge of obsession. All of his life he demonstrated traits closely related to parental disruption – basically isolated while simultaneously pursuing love and affection, a need that went unfulfilled until his final marriage, when he received the affection he had always craved. His work was the only means by which he could control, not just others, but himself. Acting emotions meant that he could control them instead of letting them control him. Therefore the work always came first.

Chaplin was an obsessive perfectionist. From the very beginning of his time with Mack Sennett, he began arguing with directors and pressed Sennett to allow him to direct his own movies. As a director, he would order retake after retake until he was happy with a scene. This was a constant throughout his career.

In 1919, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and DW Griffith, he formed United Artists, which gave him complete control over the making and distribution of his films. He built his own studio and found joy in the creative process of filmmaking. He would act out the parts for the actors, demonstrating how he wanted them to perform. If he could, he would have been both in front and behind the camera at the same time. He involved himself in everything to do with the making of his films. He taught himself, became artistically creative and intellectually stimulated as he intuitively learnt how to make movies on the job.

An innately shy man, as his career took off and his fame grew, he found it easier to attract women. He had two early marriages that ended in divorce, and developed a reputation as a ladies’ man; he was especially attracted to younger women.

Eyman portrays Chaplin as an individualist who was only ever interested in making films. He never belonged to a political party or any organisation not related to his work. He naturally sided with the less well-off, as is demonstrated by his alter ego The Tramp. Scarred by the poverty of his youth, he chased money and accumulated a large portfolio of investments and shares.

During the 1930s, Chaplin watched a number of newsreels about Adolf Hitler, and did not like what he saw. Eyman says, ‘It is hard to overstate the level of free-floating anti-Semitism permeating all levels of the American body in these years.’ Chaplin decided he would make a movie lampooning dictatorship. ‘If there is one thing I know it is that power can always be made ridiculous. The bigger that fellow gets, the harder my laughter will hit him.’

The Great Dictator (1940) was criticised by America Firsters and isolationists who wanted to keep America out of World War II, and by some who felt it was unnecessarily upsetting Germany. These criticisms became muted once America entered the war following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Chaplin’s real problems began when he made a series of speeches in 1942 supporting the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and advocating that America should open up a second front against Germany to lessen the burden on Russia. Even though America and the Soviets were allies against Nazi Germany, Eyman comments that the right wing in America rejected Chaplin’s stance: it ‘never believed in the Soviet Union as an ally, only as an enemy in waiting’.

Things worsened for Chaplin when, at the age of 53, he became involved in a paternity suit brought by a woman in her early twenties. He was also charged with transporting the woman across state lines for immoral purposes (The Mann, or White Slave Act). On this charge he was found not guilty; he was not so fortunate with the paternity suit. Blood tests confirmed that he was not the child’s father, however the presiding judge refused to accept this evidence on the basis that legislation had not been passed to sanction the acceptance of blood tests in paternity cases (the legislation was later enacted).

In court evidence was paraded of his numerous affairs. He was portrayed as a serial seducer and spoiler of young women; of moral turpitude. His trial was a media circus, a gift for the morality police to wax lyrical on the decline of American morals. Having lost the paternity suit, Chaplin had to pay maintenance for a child he had not fathered until she was 21.

He then seemingly dug himself deeper into a hole when, in 1943, aged 54, he married the 18-year-old actress Oona O’Neill. She turned out to be the love of his life, and they had eight children.

For the next ten years Chaplin was hounded by what Eyman describes as the ‘jackals’ of the press in cahoots with J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), various government officers and members of Congress. America after World War II became caught up in a red scare about so-called un-American activities and the witch hunts of McCarthyism. The FBI accumulated an almost 2000-page file on Chaplin. Even though there was no evidence to indicate he was a Communist, he was suspected of being one.

Chaplin had worked and lived in America since the early 1910s, but had never taken out American citizenship. He saw himself as a citizen of the world and believed that nationalism led to wars and misunderstandings between people. Consequently he was pilloried by the press and politicians as being un-American, with serious thought given to his deportation.

When the chance came to keep Chaplin out of America following his trip to Europe to promote his film Limelight in 1952, the combination of his alleged un-Americanness, the associated belief that he was a crypto Communist, and his lecherous behaviour, provided the rationale for revoking his re-entry permit. Chaplin was one of the most prominent victims of the red scare of this period of American history. Eyman comments that revoking his re-entry permit:

… was the culmination of years of a concerted campaign targeting the private sexual behavior and public political sympathies of the most dangerous brand of dissident – a beloved popular artist.

Eyman points out that in all probability Chaplin could have successfully challenged the revoking of his permit, but he had had enough and took up residence in Switzerland, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Eyman gives an essentially chronological account of the life and times of Charlie Chaplin. It skirts over his films of the silent period other than Modern Times (1936) but provides extensive information on his talking films, especially The Great Dictator (1940), and his later life in Switzerland. He provides a clear explanation of the forces that drove Chaplin’s art and successfully locates him in the broader milieus of filmmaking, Hollywood, and political developments in both America and globally.

Possibly the most surprising item from his FBI file is the claim that, despite his reputation as a serial womaniser, Chaplin must be a homosexual, as only homosexuals had artistic temperaments!

Scott Eyman has provided a compelling and interesting account of one of the original geniuses of movie making who, despite his world-wide popularity, fell out with the dominant political and cultural elites of America in the 1940 and 1950s.

Scott Eyman Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When art, sex, and politics collided Simon & Schuster 2023 HB 416pp $49.90

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. He is a big fan of the Marx Brothers, especially Groucho.

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