Was Charlie Chaplin a communist?

We take an in-depth look at the chance meetings and conspiracies that led to one of the world’s greatest ever comedians being exiled from America.

October 19, 2014

A tramp idles through a city thronged with people. Trousers too big, jacket too small, toothbrush moustache and beat-up bowler hat... The reclining walk, the twirling cane – raising his eyebrows, tipping his hat.

He stops bowlegged on the street corner, the shop window behind him as well-dressed as the people rushing by it. Women with dresses falling below their knees. Men and their double-breasted suits. Everyone in hats.

With feet turned out at ten and two – shoes so big they’re worn on the wrong feet to stop them falling off – the tramp spots beneath him a piece of wood trapped lengthways in a sidewalk air vent. He begins to play with the wood: gently jabbing at one end, then the other, spinning it with his cane. His attempts at dislodging the wood fail; he tries to stamp it free, fails, stumbles.

He regains his balance – composes himself, adjusts the hat – and steps away from the vent. But something about the wood draws him back and he redoubles his efforts with stick and foot until finally the whole street is compelled to stop what it’s doing and watch on: a newsboy, the window dresser, a couple of shop assistants, every single passerby and eventually a policeman – all engrossed as the tramp goes about his game.

Not just any tramp, of course: The Tramp. Charlie Chaplin’s everyman, recognisable in silhouette, is arguably the most enduring character in the history of cinema. Charlie Chaplin. This seven-minute scene is one deleted from Chaplin’s final cut ofCity Lights (1931). Mark Cousins – director of the 15-hour masterpieceThe Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) – describes it as, “A lovely little poem about daydreaming and street corners.”

It’s 100 years since the Tramp first appeared on a movie screen inKid Auto Races at Venice (1914). Chaplin a man whose London childhood was one of crippling poverty, who toured music halls as a child, who at 19 signed a deal which took him to America and brought him global fame. In the very truest sense, a rags to riches story.

“The Soviets thought of him as a Marxist,” Cousins says. “But Chaplin was almost a Jungian, too: a believer in play, inspiration, finding ideas within yourself... No-one else in the story of film combines entertainment, ideas, movement, improvisation and politics like Chaplin.”

The second front

Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in the history of warfare, saw troops from Nazi Germany invade the USSR along a 2,000- mile front. The pre-dawn offensive took place on June 22, 1941. US-Soviet relations had long since soured following leader Joseph Stalin’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany two years previously.

But by October president Franklin Roosevelt conceded he “would hold hands with the devil” and, along with Great Britain, the US agreed to send supplies to the Soviet war effort. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on Sunday December 7, 1941. The war, the most widespread ever, was fully realised as the Second World War. Charlie Chaplin. The American Committee for the Russian War Relief asked Chaplin to speak at its May 1942 event in place of the US ambassador to the Soviet Union. The ambassador – apparently suffering with laryngitis – had lost his voice.

“The political agenda for this activity,” author Simon Louvish writes in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, “was the call for the Allies to open a ‘second front’ in the east, to relieve the Russians, who were taking a massive pounding by Hitler’s divisions and whose civilian population were perishing in vast numbers by starvation and massacre.”

The committee asked Chaplin to talk for an hour, he writes in My Autobiography. He said four minutes was his limit. However, after “listening to such weak palaver” from the speakers before, his “indignation was aroused”. He called his audience comrades. He said, “I am not a communist but a human being.” He grew into his speech and declared: “the communist mother is the same as any other mother. When she receives the tragic news her sons will not return, she weeps as other mothers weep.” He spoke with gusto and eloquence for some 40 minutes – only stopping when interrupted by seven non-stop minutes of applauding, stamping and hats thrown into the air.

Chaplin had recently released the Great Dictator (1940), playing merciless dictator Adenoid Hynkel, a character unmistakably ridiculing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. At the time of the film’s release the US was not formally at war with Germany. Chaplin was sure his “anti-Nazi picture had powerful enemies, even in America”. Still, he gave equally rousing speeches at several similar events.

At home, back in Beverly Hills, it was business as usual, his days “halcyon”. That was until friend Tim Durant invited him to meet a woman by the name of Joan Barry. It was the beginning of a chain of events which would lead to an incessant smear campaign in the country that once held him so dearly, his demonisation and ultimately his exile. It would be not a fall, but a flailing plummet from grace, unparalleled before and perhaps since. Charlie Chaplin.

The "obstreperous" starlet

Gun in hand, on the night of December 3, 1943, Barry climbed a ladder and broke into Chaplin’s Beverly Hills home. His sons – Sydney and Charles Junior – watched on as the intruder threatened first their father and then to commit suicide.

Chaplin, at the height of his fame, first met Barry in 1941. She was a 22-year-old aspiring actress, born in Detroit and brought up in New York City. She had a taste for the highlife, having previously dated the soon-to-be richest living American Jean Paul Getty. Chaplin’s relationship with third wife Paulette was by now irretrievable and he’d been linked to a string of young starlets. At Barry’s request, mutual friend Durant introduced the two.

Chaplin records that after their first date alone together, Barry said she’d not return to New York as planned and would “give up everything” if he gave her the word. Chaplin told her not to stay on his account. She stayed, regardless, and eventually the pair began seeing each other more frequently. “The days that followed were not unpleasant,” he writes, “but there was something queer and not quite right about them.”

Barry would show up late and unannounced at his house; then he wouldn’t hear from her for whole weeks at a time. But he was willing to forget her erratic behaviour after auditioning her for the female lead in Shadows and Substance, a film he’d never finish. He thought he’d discovered the next big thing and sent her for formal training at Max Reinhardt’s acting school.

Chaplin worked on a script for Shadows and Substance and Barry was busy at school. He says he seldom saw her during this time, but she drove her Cadillac at all hours of the night, very drunk, one time smashing it into the driveway. As Barry had signed to Chaplin Studios he was worried that were she picked up for drink-driving, it “would create a scandal”. It was not the driving while drunk he needed to worry about. Charlie Chaplin. Barry became too “obstreperous” so Chaplin wouldn’t open his door when she visited or answer his phone when she called. He found out she’d been missing lessons at Reinhardt’s, confronted her: she no longer wanted to be an actress and for $5,000 she and her mother would return to New York and tear up her contract. “I happily agreed to her demands,” Chaplin writes, “paid their fair and the $5,000 and was glad to be rid of her.”

Chaplin in court

“She broke into my house,” Chaplin says of the incident in 1943, “smashed windows, threatened my life and demanded money.” Barry had been blowing in and out of Chaplin’s life for some time leading up to the incident. But it’s on this night she claims they conceived a child.

He called police knowing that doing so offered a “gala opportunity for the press.” The police agreed to charge Barry with vagrancy, if she was seen in the area again, on the condition Chaplin once more paid her fare back to New York.

Not long after the break-in, Barry called his butler to announce she was homeless and three months pregnant. Chaplin, who insisted the baby wasn’t his, says she “made no accusation or hint as to who was responsible”. Barry again turned up at his home knowing she’d be arrested and the media maelstrom that would follow.

Chaplin’s records show how the more politically active he became, the fewer social events he was invited to. During this time he met Oona O’Neill – 17, then – whom he quickly married. Certainly the press – or whoever pulled the strings at certain publications – relished such scandals, an assault widely regarded as a smear campaign. Indeed, his friend Justice Murphy of the United States Supreme Court had already informed him that, at a dinner with senior politicians, one had remarked how they were out ‘to get Chaplin.’ It’s since come to light that the FBI had been keeping tabs on him from as far back as 1922. Charlie Chaplin. Barry claimed the baby to be Chaplin’s and agreed both she and her child would take blood tests to prove who was the child’s father, as long as Chaplin paid her $25,000 to do so.

Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the paternity suit that followed and indicted Chaplin on a string of charges, the most serious relating to the archaic Mann Act. The act dated back to the days of designated areas of prostitution – which most American cities once had – and made it a felony to transport a women from one state to another for “the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Chaplin, if found guilty, faced 23 years in prison.

The language used in and around both cases was hyperbolic verging on hysterical. Louvish in his book quotes counsel for the plaintiff in the paternity case, one Joseph Scott, as punctuating passages from the bible with such doggerel as “cheap cockney cad” and “master mechanic in the art of seduction” – both in reference to Charlie Chaplin. Barry, on the other hand, was “a wretched girl, aflame with the glamour of Hollywood” - one of “limited intelligence.”

Three of four charges quickly fell apart, but the Mann Act trial took two weeks to find Chaplin not guilty. The paternity case continued. Days in court were tense occasions; Chaplin says the cases crippled his creativity. But he tells a wonderful story about proceedings in the paternity suit: while the jury had left to reach a verdict, the attorneys and judge to their chambers, only he, the audience and a photographer remained in the courtroom. Each time Chaplin put on his glasses the photographer reached for his camera, but before the photographer could take his picture, Chaplin snatched the glasses from his face.

Back and forth this little improvised set piece went, each time Chaplin drawing a bigger laugh from the audience. Ever the showman. Ever the poet. The blood test eventually proved Chaplin was not the father – as did two blood tests after that. Even so, Chaplin lost on an 11-1 verdict. The jury before was deadlocked – but seven-five in Chaplin’s favour. Chaplin press conference 1952 On the jury which went against Chaplin sat 11 women and one man – the foreman. Louvish writes: “The only holdout was Mrs Mary H. James, housewife, who said: ‘I came into court wanting to uphold American womanhood, but after hearing the evidence here, I changed my mind ... I’d hate to have it on my conscience that I perhaps named and innocent man.’”

Chaplin paid child support until the baby, Carol Ann, turned 21. Barry remarried but ultimately and mysteriously disappeared without trace. Not long before her disappearance she was found walking the streets barefooted, carrying a pair of babies’ sandals and muttering: “This is magic”.

Decline and redemption

One of Chaplin’s later films, Limelight (1952), told the story of a faded vaudeville comedian. He held the premiere in London – where the film is set – leaving New York on the RMS Queen Elizabeth on September 18, 1952. While aboard US attorney general James P. McGranery revoked his reentry permit. To return home, he’d have to sit before an immigration enquiry board, be interrogated about his political leanings, answer for his decline into “moral turpitude”.

He wouldn’t return for 20 years: “Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me,” he later wrote. “I was fed up of America’s insults and moral pomposity.” But he bit his tongue, fearing his assets would be ceased.

He settled on Switzerland as the setting for his stint in exile, moving into a 37-acre estate on Lake Geneva, Manoir de Ban. He eventually sold his Beverley Hills home, his stocks, his studio and lived happily with O’Neill until his death. Chaplin points out South London The Tramp was last seen onscreen in the masterpiece Modern Times (1936). Subsequent films – not without their merits – failed to recreate the magic of Chaplin in his pomp, though they were hamstrung by his tarnished reputation. In A King in New York (1957) he served up a satire on McCarthyism: he plays the royal exiled in America. A gifted multi-instrumentalist, he spent much of his later years on new soundtracks to his older movies, readying them for re-release. He worked on his memoirs, offered subpar swan song A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

His greatest late triumph was his invitation to receive an Honorary Academy Award in 1972, it was his long-awaited return to America. The 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in the Academy’s history – that saw the most esteemed of American institutions on bended knee went some way to make amends for the mistreatment meted out by its countrymen. Sir Charles Chaplin died aged 88 on Christmas Day 1977.

Chaplin was no saint. He was guilty of abusing his fame and power – particularly where young starlets were concerned. He is accused of being irascible on set and elsewhere, a pedant and perfectionist. His downfall, however, was in refusing to take America’s outstretched arm, to accept its citizenship.

Why would anyone not take gladly such a gift? What an insult. He must be a subversive. It was in refusing to nail his colours to one mast or the other. It was in standing up when he should have sat down and shut up. He was less vocal on Stalin, Soviet and communism’s greatest and gravest failings. But if it, in its purest form, without the benefit of hindsight, communism belongs to the idealist and the dreamer, we should not be surprised Chaplin was so drawn to it. Charlie Chaplin. He stressed, however, he was not and never was a communist – the FBI never did find evidence to prove otherwise. “Friends have asked,” he wrote, “how I came to engender this American antagonism. My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a non-conformist.” Chaplin, in his own words, was a peace monger.

In closing his book, Louvish paints him as: “a man born of the nineteenth century, who still cherished what we now consider an old-fashioned belief in the pursuit of beauty in art.” This is nowhere more evident than in the deleted scene from City Lights; the culmination of which sees Chaplin forced off his street corner by a policeman, though not before finally freeing the wood from the vent: the reclining walk, the twirling cane – raising his eyebrows, tipping his hat... He leaves but the crowd remains, enthralled by the Tramp, his lovely little poem, his daydreams.