Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided by Scott Eyman

In early September 1952, Charlie Chaplin was feeling pretty good about America. A screening of his new film, Limelight, had drawn a standing ovation from a crowd of Hollywood bigwigs, and he was looking forward to a trip to London for the film’s world premiere. “I could never have found such success in England,” he mused to a friend. “This is really the land of opportunity.”

Very soon, however, it would become the land of retribution. Shortly after setting sail with his family for England, Chaplin got word that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had revoked his re-entry permit, meaning that in order to return, Chaplin (who had never become a U.S. citizen since emigrating from England in 1910) would have to prove that he was not a moral or political threat to the nation. He didn’t see America again for 20 years.

Chaplin with the actress Claire Bloom during the filming of his 1952 movie, Limelight.

Horror stories from the blacklist era of the 1940s and 1950s never grow tiresome, but Chaplin’s was something special. He was not a journeyman screenwriter or actor who lost work after being branded a Communist during the Red Scare. He was arguably the greatest of all movie stars, a film pioneer acclaimed around the world, a wealthy man who owned his own studio. Yet his vaguely left-wing political views and scandalous private life made him the target of one of the most vicious harassment campaigns of that whole frightful era.

Horror stories from the blacklist era of the 1940s and 1950s never grow tiresome, but Charlie Chaplin’s was something special.

That is the chilling story recounted by Scott Eyman in Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided. A biographer of John Wayne, Cary Grant, and other Hollywood luminaries, Eyman skips fairly quickly through Chaplin’s early life and career—a poverty-stricken London childhood, formative years on the English stage, his move to America, and rapid success in silent-film comedies—and concentrates on the years when Chaplin’s political views began to inform his films.

Chaplin and Oona O’Neill in Switzerland, where they decamped after leaving the U.S., with their first six children. (The couple would go on to have two more.)

The first was Modern Times, his 1936 satire of the dehumanizing machine age that could be a Marxist recruitment film if it weren’t so breathtakingly funny. Even more daring was his next film, The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin played a dual role, as a Hitler-like dictator and a look-alike Jewish barber. Released in 1940—a year before Pearl Harbor, when isolationist sentiment in the U.S. was still strong—the film was a surprising box-office hit, a creative triumph, and, in Eyman’s words, “the high-water mark of Chaplin’s political and social relevance.”

Once the U.S. was in the war, the film looked prescient. Yet Chaplin pushed his luck with a series of speeches in 1942 in which he argued for opening a “second front” in support of the Soviet Union battling Hitler’s troops in the east—prompting charges that he was a Communist sympathizer. In truth, Chaplin’s political views were too unformed to fall into any neat category. He called himself, at various times, a pacifist, a libertarian, and an anarchist. “I have no political convictions,” he said in 1952. “I am an individual and a believer in liberty.”

If his politics were controversial, his private life was even more so. Chaplin’s taste for younger women was well known: both his first and second wives were teenagers when he wed them; and in 1943, at age 54, he married Oona O’Neill, the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (and former girlfriend of J. D. Salinger), with whom he went on to have eight children.

Chaplin celebrates his 77th birthday with a young Melanie Griffith, Sophia Loren, and a giant cake in 1966.

That same year he was the target of a paternity suit brought by Joan Barry, an aspiring actress he had been involved with three years earlier. With gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper stoking public outrage, Chaplin lost in court—even though three blood tests (which at the time were not considered conclusive) determined he could not have been the father.

In truth, Chaplin’s political views were too unformed to fall into any neat category. “I have no political convictions,” he said. “I am an individual and a believer in liberty.”

The tide had turned against him. His next film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a dark comedy in which Chaplin plays a suave Bluebeard who marries and murders rich widows, was a critical and commercial failure. Worse, the film’s subversive message—on his way to the gallows, Verdoux insists that his crimes pale in comparison to the mass killings of nations at war—was deemed “anti-capitalist propaganda” by the F.B.I.

“I’d like to run every one of those rats out of the country,” Hopper wrote to J. Edgar Hoover at the time, “and start with Charlie Chaplin. In no other country in the world would he be allowed to be doing what he’s doing.” Soon, he wasn’t.

Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in a publicity still for his 1936 film, Modern Times.

Despite years of investigation, the F.B.I. never found any evidence of Communist ties—and, thus, Eyman points out, Chaplin almost certainly would have been allowed to re-enter the country, if he had tried. Yet he washed his hands of his adopted country, settling in Switzerland, directing two more underwhelming films (A King in New York, 1957, and A Countess from Hong Kong, 1967), and returning to the U.S. one final time, in 1972, to accept an honorary Oscar.

For all the piquant detail of Chaplin’s ordeal, he remains an elusive central figure. Eyman quotes liberally from Chaplin’s friends and colleagues, but their amateur psychologizing is often hard to evaluate. The leftist writer Max Eastman called Chaplin “a baffling combination of cool and high judgment with total submersion to blind emotional drives.” To the fellow film comedian Stan Laurel, he was “a very unhappy man, & mentally troubled.” His admiring son Sydney notes dryly, “He wasn’t that interested in the social aspect of what was going on around him.”

The picture is not made any clearer by Chaplin’s own posturing, in letters and public comments. “I am so glad to be out of that stink-pot country of yours,” he exclaimed in a 1953 letter to the writer James Agee. And in 1955, he groused to a film critic, “All this talk about being grateful to America or any other country for opportunity is nonsense.”

Is this how he really felt? Did he have any regrets? Hard to know. All that’s clear is that what happened to him, in an era that rivaled our own for sheer political insanity, really did stink.

Richard Zoglin is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America