WHAT MADE CHARLIE RUN?
FROM DESTITUTION TO GLOBAL ACCLAIM: A LOOK AT CHAPLIN ON THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS BIRTH
Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1989
By STEPHEN M. WEISSMAN MD, Weissman is a practicing psychiatrist and
psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C. He is currently writing a psychological
biography of Charlie Chaplin. This article
reflects Weissman's research on Chaplin's life and his interpretation of the
politics of the comedian's times. In addition to being an associate clinical
professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School and an Adjunct
Professor at The American University School of Public Affairs, Weissman
was recently a visiting lecturer at the USC School of Cinema and Television. He
has written biographical studies of Frederick Douglass and Samuel Taylor
No one was more shocked than Charlie Chaplin himself by his Little Tramp
character's meteoric rise to fame in this country in 1915.
Having arrived on a vaudeville tour just five years earlier, the shy and
reserved former British music hall comedian confided: "I can't understand all
this stuff. I am just a little nickel comedian trying to make people laugh. They
act as though I were the king of England."
It was precisely because admission to Chaplin's films at nickelodeons
across the country was so affordable -- just a nickel -- that the quiet little
Englishman was so rapidly crowned America's King of Comedy.
Viewed in retrospect, Chaplin's decision to concentrate upon developing his
own psychological sentimental slapstick could not have come at a more opportune
time. As far as the World-War-I-weary world was concerned, it was welcome
By spring of 1915, he had created "The Tramp," his first bittersweet comedy
with a signature ending in which -- plucky and resilient after losing in love --
his homeless comic hero waddles down life's highway, desolate and utterly alone.
That distinctive Chaplin touch of sentimental pathos coupled with the
recurrent theme of going it alone stemmed from a deeply painful boyhood. By
transforming his real-life experiences as a Cockney ragamuffin into his screen
character, Chaplin was able to catapult from poverty to wealth and from
obscurity into fame.
Homelessness -- as pressing an issue in post-Dickensian England as it is in
modern America -- was integral to Chaplin's childhood and would become a
haunting motif in the poignant social commentary of his later feature films as
well. On a few rare but nightmarishly unforgettable occasions as a very young
child, Chaplin had been forced to sleep on the streets of London and to forage
for food in garbage pails. He knew painfully, as well, what life was like in the
orphanages and poorhouses of Edwardian London. Chaplin's fictional film
character both drew upon and comically depicted those agonizing early encounters
with urban dislocation.
Chaplin's father was an alcoholic who died when Charlie was 12, and his
mother became a chronically psychotic woman who was in and out of mental
Lives like Chaplin's are now being systematically studied by social
scientists. They are finding that all children subjected to homelessness and
severe stress don't turn out the same way. While many become severely disturbed
adults, others, like Chaplin, surprisingly turn out to be smart, resourceful,
streetwise, superkids (the psychological term to describe them is
As adults they may go on to lead paradoxically high-achieving and remarkable
lives as valued members of society. Chaplin was such a person, and his famous
film character and alter-ego "Charlie" was as well.
Chaplin's first feature-length comedy and masterpiece, "The Kid" (1921),
was a remarkable film in which the Little Tramp found, adopted and raised a lost
child. While "The Kid" derived its immediate inspiration from 30-year-old
Chaplin's personal bereavement (his first-born son had died a few days after
birth, only 2 1/2 weeks before Chaplin began shooting the film), its twin
themes of emotional loss and homelessness resonated with contemporary social
concerns. On everyone's minds were the displaced refugee children of World War
I, as well as for those persons grieving for loved ones killed in that war.
And among intellectuals, Charlie's cinematic lost child spoke to a lost
generation. No movie maker and no other movie (with the exception of Griffith's
"Birth of a Nation") had done as much in one single stroke to earn instant
recognition for the cinema as a legitimate art form.
During the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s, Chaplin attempted to
place the grim problems of society into a comic perspective through the running
satiric commentary of "Modern Times."
Stationing his Little Tramp squarely in the middle of the mess by casting him
as a black-sheep factory worker who was no more a conscientious member in good
standing of the organized masses than he was among those in the ruling classes,
Chaplin poked good-natured fun at both sides. Kidding profit-conscious
management for its indifference to the welfare of workers, he ribbed
strike-happy, organized labor for its equally myopic unwillingness to let big
business get back on its feet by making less aggressive wage demands. Steering
clear of collective utopian solutions, his comedy ended with his own signature
exit, wandering down life's highway. "Charlie" shuffled off into the dawn of a
new day, arm in arm with an equally scruffy female companion (Paulette Goddard).
"Buck up -- never say die! We'll get along," are his final comforting words
to her and his Depression-conscious audience.
It was his next picture, "The Great Dictator" (1940), that got Chaplin into
the political hot water that ultimately led to his being barred from the United
States. While he was on a visit to England in 1952, his reentry permit would be
revoked as retribution for his so-called communist sympathies and dubious
moral character. It was an ironic twist that Chaplin himself had forecast in a
famous gag sequence in "Modern Times."
Wandering down the street, minding his own business, a naive but helpful
Charlie sees a red danger flag fall from the end of a passing truck and picks it
up. While running along and waving that red flag in an innocent attempt to catch
the driver's eye, the Little Tramp is entirely unaware, as he rounds a street
corner, that he has just been joined from the rear by an angry mob of striking
demonstrators. Rallying behind his unfurled banner, they begin chanting the
Communist "Internationale" until they are dispersed by the cops, who bop Charlie
the Red over the head and throw him in jail.
Just four years later it would be in a remarkably similar situation involving
rapidly changing political contexts that Chaplin the film maker earned the
enmity of isolationist America's political establishment for "The Great
Dictator." Abandoning traditional pantomime technique and his classic tramp
character in order to play two talking parts -- Adolph Hitler and a little
Jewish barber -- Chaplin spoke for the first time on film.
His closing speech, an artistically flawed but emotionally eloquent plea for
concerted international intervention against Hitler's persecution of the Jews,
instantly earned Chaplin a subpoena to appear before a hastily formed,
isolationist, anti-war Senate subcommittee on war propaganda in September of
And Chaplin's popular, financially successful film -- which helped shape
American public opinion in favor of the war -- also helped earn him (in the
files of the FBI), the quaint political epithet of "premature anti-fascist." (In
the terminology of the day, it was a political euphemism for someone with strong
left-wing leanings who was not officially a member of the Communist Party.)
As Talleyrand remarked, "treason is a matter of dates." Chaplin's
passionately anti-Nazi views, about which he was outspoken from the late 1930s
to war's end, would never change. But our relationship to Russia and Germany
would. During the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, America's official position
was isolationist, and Chaplin's speech in "The Great Dictator" was seen as
inciting to war. By the time the United States was involved in World War II, new
alliances were forming. Politics during this period made strange bedfellows. The
American Communist Party and the right-wing America First Committee were unified
in their adamant opposition to this country entering the war against Germany.
And it was precisely during this period that Chaplin filmed and premiered "The
Great Dictator," which openly urged Americans to wage war against the Nazis
regardless of whether that war harmed or benefited the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union and America later became allies in a life-and-death
struggle against the Axis powers, Chaplin continued voicing his vehement
anti-Nazi attitudes. But now, he also championed Soviet interests as identical
with our own. Throughout 1942, he campaigned vigorously on behalf of Russian War
Relief and a Second Front.
Because of Chaplin's worldwide stature as an artist and the ability of a
Chaplin satire to tickle funny bones on such a mass scale, those who disagreed
with his politics viewed him as a formidable adversary. But if his ability to
influence were to be effectively neutralized, Chaplin's popular image had to
be taken down several notches.
The backlash against Chaplin began gathering momentum in late 1942.
Westbrook Pegler, a conservative journalist whose syndicated column ran in
hundreds of newspapers (including The Times), kicked off the campaign with two
scathing diatribes. Equating Chaplin's activities in support of our military
alliance with the Soviets as pro-Communist and therefore anti-American, he
recommended his deportation. And with even more vehemence, Pegler also made the
suggestion that the actor's three previous divorces were clear proof of his
unpatriotic contempt "for the standard American relationship of marriage, family
The last charge proved to be the one that stuck most easily. The average
American newspaper reader was in no mood for any political polemics which could
weaken the war effort. But as a younger man, Chaplin had a reputation as a
ladies' man. And a juicy sex scandal involving a famous movie star made good
In June of 1943, an unmarried woman with whom Chaplin had been intimate
filed a paternity suit, claiming he was the father of her unborn child.
Independently administered blood tests would conclusively prove that he was not
the child's father. But before those results could ever be made known, Chaplin
was well on his way to becoming publicly branded a "moral leper."
Daily front-page coverage of a sensational trial on lurid charges of white
slavery, unflattering photos of him being fingerprinted like a common criminal
and a running series of hostile articles by politically conservative Hollywood
columnists (led by Hedda Hopper) all contributed to the precipitous decline in
Chaplin's public image, as did behind-the-scenes activities of the FBI.
Careful analysis of that agency's security files on Chaplin suggests he was
frivolously charged with the antiquated Mann Act in spite of abundant evidence
of his innocence (which he eventually proved); it also suggests that the FBI
supplied gossip columnists with information from those files and that the bureau
even suppressed (and physically hid) indications of judicial impropriety that,
if known, would have forced the federal judge hearing the case to disqualify
himself on ethical grounds.
Because of newspaper coverage of a protracted series of paternity hearings
and trials that did not end until a month after Germany's surrender, Chaplin's
political influence was effectively curtailed. But he fervently remained
committed to an idealistic, postwar crusade against all forms of domestic
political repression. Like many American liberals in those days, he was quicker
to identify and protest the encroachments on civil liberties in the United
States than he was prepared to immediately recognize and condemn the excesses of
With his image tarnished as a result of the negative publicity campaign, the
political strategy for containing Chaplin became the reverse of what it
earlier had been. Keeping Chaplin off the witness stand was now the single
most effective way to further damage his reputation and to impugn his loyalties.
He was, in effect, labeled a communist in a campaign of rumors and innuendoes.
For as the House Un-American Activities Committee and FBI well knew (and the
files of the latter indicate), he never had been a member of the Communist
Party. Had he been allowed to testify under oath, he could have set the record
straight. (Subpoenaed by HUAC in 1947, his hearing was postponed three times and
Chaplin fought back with the pugnacious tenacity of the true childhood
invulnerable. He obliged his attackers by responding to their inflammatory
rhetoric with passionate indignation. Goaded into defending himself, he rapidly
became a convenient symbol of dangerous leftist leanings.
He was determined -- no matter what the personal cost -- not to be
intimidated. That characteristic sign of the true childhood invulnerable -- a
deep and abiding faith in his ability to overcome any and all obstacles -- had
always been the personal credo by which he lived:
Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to
find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest
actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter
confidence in yourself. Without that you go down in defeat.
That same survival characteristic had endeared his Little Tramp to moviegoers
around the world for over 40 years. It was natural that the invulnerable child
in Charlie would assume that the same psychological defense mechanism would
serve him equally well in his struggles with HUAC and the FBI.
"Proceed with the butchery . . . fire ahead at this old gray head," were his
opening words to the reporters who gathered at the press conference after the
opening of "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947. Distinctly disinterested in discussing
his film, they were there to report on his politics. They bombarded him with
questions about his patriotism. The Cold War was heating up. His good-natured
attempt to humorously deflect their hostility by describing himself as a "peace
monger" did not go over.
Afterward, when conservative political pressure groups demonstrated their
ability to induce Americans to boycott his film as an act of patriotism,
Chaplin began to fully appreciate the extent to which he had underestimated
"Limelight," the last film he made before leaving this country in the fall of
1952, suffered an even more drastic fate. Right-wing lobbyists were able to
bring so much political pressure to bear on major exhibitors that bookings were
canceled at hundreds of theaters. By the following spring, Chaplin was living
in permanent political exile in Switzerland -- a decision he announced
symbolically by turning in his American reentry permit.
Although he would not set foot in this country for another 20 years, daily
reminders of his absence were a regular occurrence in the subliminal
consciousness of millions of Americans during that summer of 1953. Chaplin's
theme song from "Limelight" (which he composed) became a popular hit. The
haunting refrain of his sentimental swan song drifted over America's airwaves.
Through an odd twist of fate and technicality in the rules of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, his theme song would also win Chaplin and his
arrangers an Academy Award in 1972 when "Limelight" had been re-released. (In
order to have been considered back in 1952, the film would have had to play for
a minimum of one week in Los Angeles. So successful had the "Limelight" boycott
been, his film had never lasted that long in one single theater that year.)
Times had changed by the time Charlie came back to collect his Oscar.
Chaplin the former firebrand was now a politically harmless old man in his
80s. And the 37th President of the United States -- a former HUAC member and the
most prominent domestic anti-Communist of the day at the time of Chaplin's
departure -- was too busy with his own political issues to comment on Charlie's
return visit. Within a few months he would be attempting to explain a break-in
that had recently taken place at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.
Given the passion with which Chaplin immersed himself -- both wittingly and
unwittingly -- in the partisan struggles and ideological controversies of an era
still charged with emotion, perhaps it is not surprising that the 100th
anniversary is receiving no official attention in this country.
What, if any, public recognition the American government will give his memory
in the future -- as one of this country's greatest artists -- remains to be
seen. That Chaplin, through his films, has surpassed and outlived his
detractors is clear. The invulnerable "Charlie" seems well on his way to
THE WORLD CELEBRATES THE LITTLE TRAMP
By STEPHEN M. WEISSMAN
In London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and other world capitals, official ceremonies
and informal celebrations commemorate the 100th anniversary today of the birth
of the most famous film actor the United States has ever produced. But there are
no fireworks along the Potomac. Official Washington has no plans to mark Charlie
Unofficially, in Los Angeles today a local organization of film buffs and
preservationists -- the Silent Society -- is throwing a party at Chaplin's
old studio on La Brea Avenue.
In London, the Princess of Wales is sponsoring a gala in Chaplin's honor,
featuring a screening of his masterpiece, "City Lights." In France, Minister of
Culture Jack Lang climaxes a three-day International Chaplin Symposium (47
papers were discussed by scholars from nine different nations) by presenting a
posthumous award, which will be accepted by Chaplin's daughter, film actress
And two weeks ago, at the opening ceremonies of a Moscow film festival, Raisa
Gorbachev helped launch the festivities by personally sponsoring the first-ever
public screening there of Chaplin's "The Great Dictator."
CLICK HERE TO GO BACK