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Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Banned in the USA: Charles Chaplin

It was a Wednesday in 1952, September 17th to be exact when Charles Chaplin, his wife and four of his children left America to sail to the UK for the London premiere of Limelight. Chaplin had only been at sea  for two days when the US Attorney General announced in Washington that an inquiry had been ordered as to whether Chaplin should be allowed to return to the US. it was decided that Chaplin would be held by the immigration authorities should be try to reenter the states until his fate could be decided in a court of law.

On September 30th charges were brought against Chaplin -  'He has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist party, and with grave moral charges and with making statements that would indicate a sneering, leering attitude towards a country whose hospitality has enriched him.' Attorney General, James McGrannery.

Once the most loved man in America Chaplin now found himself an exile, detested by the American public in a time of widespread paranoia and bigotry fueled by the red under the bed warnings that were pumped out from Washington. The New York Times ran an article that read, 'No one can deny that he (Chaplin) is a good actor, but that doesn't give him the right to go against our customs, to abhor everything we stand for and throw our hospitality back in our faces. Good riddance to bad company.'

Chaplin a Red(?)    
Chaplin had become a superstar at the age of 25 and the handsome young actor found himself desired by women and by his own admission his sex drive was immense. A string of scandals dogged the actor over the years - indeed in 1944 Chaplin had been indicted under the Mann Act for allegedly transporting young girls over the state border for sexual purposes. Chaplin was said to have transported 25 year old Joan Barry from LA to New York. The Mann Act had originally been set up to stop the transportation of women to work as prostitutes and Chaplin was eventually found not guilty of all charges. However Chaplin's image would take more dents when Barry's mother filed a paternity suit in support of her daughter, whom she alleged was carrying Chaplin's child. However when the child was born blood tests proved that Chaplin was not the father. The damage was done though and when Chaplin was latter accused of being a communist he found little support amongst the American public.

The Barry family then brought another law suit against Chaplin, claiming that the validity of the blood tests could not be trusted and in 1944 a jury found Chaplin guilty of fathering the child that the scientific tests had proved otherwise. And it was after this trial that Chaplin's political ideals started to be debated - films like Modern Times seemed to point to Chaplin's socialist views. The fact that Chaplin had appeared at a benefit for Russian War Relief in San Fransisco during the Second World War and had addressed those present as, Comrades was thought proof positive that the little tramp was a communist. And the fact that Chaplin had never adopted American citizenship despite being eligible was held against him.

'I am a citizen of the world,' Chaplin protested.

With his faith in the American Justice system shaken by the Joan Barry affair Chaplin decided not to re-enter the USA and took up residence in Switzerland in April 1953. It was not until 1972 that Chaplin, now a frail old man, returned to America. This was to collect an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards. Chaplin felt that this was a guilt ridden attempt to make amends by his friends in the film business, who had decided not to stand besides him during the years of McCarthyism. Chaplin wrote that he was touched by the gesture but found it deeply ironic.

Charlie Chaplin was without a doubt one of the early geniuses of cinema and even today there is much to admire in his films. Was he a Communist? Most certainly not but  he held leftwing, progressive, liberal and egalitarian political views and during the period these were enough to damn him.

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