A Man Without a Country: On Scott Eyman’s “Charlie Chaplin vs. America”
By Chris YogerstOctober 26, 2023
Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided by Scott Eyman
Granted, Chaplin was not a great husband, maybe not a great father, but he was, most certainly, a great artist, and now the once universally beloved immigrant movie star had become a man without a country. The collective appeal of Chaplin’s Tramp—cherished in films like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and Modern Times (1936)—eroded as soon as the artist began to clap back at the political insanity of postwar America. Agnostic about the idea of national pride, Chaplin became a victim of patriotic correctness. After the war, anyone who didn’t properly drape themselves in the flag was a suspected subversive (sound familiar?). Chaplin grew up with an alcoholic father, insane mother, and devoted brother, to ultimately survive as what psychologists refer to as an “invulnerable.” This resilience would serve the artist well in the second half of his life when the social and political winds blew against him.
Having finished his 16th book on Hollywood, Eyman understands that a large part of chronicling the Golden Age in the 21st century means addressing decades of lore and mythology, and he makes clear, as a fan, that he wants to rescue Chaplin from any unfair accusations. Charlie Chaplin vs. America features each of Chaplin’s major works and production history in how they fit into the filmmaker’s life, but the through line is how Chaplin was received as a person, and, as Eyman argues, mistreated throughout the years.
I am reminded of Claire Dederer’s essential musings on whether we need to separate art from artists. In her new, aptly titled book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Dederer writes that “[t]here is no longer any escaping biography. […] Biography used to be something you sought out, yearned for, actively pursued. Now it falls on your head all day long.” Her book defines problematic popular culture icons like Woody Allen as those “whose behavior disrupts our ability to apprehend the work on its own terms.” Dederer concludes: “[W]e tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts when really what we’re having are moral feelings.”
There are artists who capture our hearts and imagination and then, after learning something about them, we wish they hadn’t. Some people feel this way about John Wayne, though it should be noted that Eyman has written a fabulous biography on the actor that cuts through the myriad lies surrounding Wayne’s mythology. Of course, Wayne was never canceled in his lifetime and enjoyed a fruitful career up to the end.
In his day, Chaplin was faced with not only a new industry with the advent of sound film but also a completely new culture in which he didn’t seem to fit. Eyman understands the moral misgivings of Chaplin that contrasted with his era and argues that such issues, however we may interpret them, should not continue to get in the way of the artist’s films. The problem in Chaplin’s lifetime was twofold—both his agnostic political non-leaning and his interest in younger women. Of course, nobody would cancel Chaplin today over the dubious claims that he was a communist. What remains problematic is the artist’s interest in teenagers (legal, yes, but uncomfortably younger than he was).
Those who knew Chaplin confirmed that, in his political life, he was never nefarious but was, at worst, ignorant of the ramifications of his actions. He was too much of a free spirit to recognize that he was bucking social norms. When the Allies were celebrating the victory of World War II, Chaplin wept for all deaths, even the Russian mothers crying for their sons. Chaplin saw this as a cry for more humanity, but to many others, this was a clear signal of support for Russia. “Patriotism is the greatest insanity the world has ever suffered,” according to Chaplin. “I have been all over Europe […] Patriotism is rampant everywhere and the result is going to be another war.”
Chaplin was open-minded to a fault, boorishly giving communism and Stalin the benefit of the doubt. He saw that each country was fighting for itself, so why shame Russia for doing the same? When the Russians were defeated, he didn’t see victory for the Allies. He saw only more suffering. This worried columnists who felt that Chaplin was “more pro-Communist than he was anti-Fascist.” Some of this stemmed from an FBI informant inside Hollywood that Eyman believes was Cecil B. DeMille, another one of Hollywood’s walking contradictions. (Eyman published an excellent biography in 2010 titled Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille.)
Many of Chaplin’s friends, including writer and political activist Max Eastman, agreed that the artist was a consistent pacifist and any of his comments should not be taken as a line drawn in the sand. After all, as a successful immigrant, Chaplin said, “[s]omehow I feel that in America lies the hope of the whole world.” However, being friends with a radical like Eastman was suspect enough for many as soon as the Red Scare swept the United States. The attacks were increasingly nasty, such as Hopper’s angry diatribes to Hoover. Chaplin was frequently mentioned by both the US Senate in 1941 (who went after anti-fascist films) and the US House in 1947 (who went after communists, and who subpoenaed him that year).
After his reentry permit was revoked in 1952, Chaplin decided never to return to the United States (though he would, many years later, for an honorary Oscar). Hedda Hopper spread numerous false claims to add insult to injury, such as that he fled so he didn’t have to pay back taxes. To friends in the United States like California-based novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, Chaplin wrote, “It is so wonderful to be away from that creepy cancer of hate where one speaks in whispers, and to abide in a political temperature where everything is normal and contrasted to that torrid, dried-up, prune-souled desert of a country you live in.”
Chaplin saw lives destroyed in the wake of the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Careers were ended, especially if you weren’t a household name and couldn’t coast comfortably on previous notoriety. Even famous writers like Dalton Trumbo went to jail for contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with the investigation. If he had been called to testify, Chaplin likely would have pushed back and suffered a similar fate.
Many who knew Chaplin saw him as a socially conscious liberal (some said “red”) who, at heart, looked down at the world from the top. Actress Georgia Hale called him a snob with a privately conservative worldview. Chaplin’s politics were just vague enough to be seen as heroic or villainous, depending on the viewer’s political stripes, which made him a convenient punching bag. Eyman notes the two opposing personalities of Chaplin: the man and the artist. Referencing 1936’s Modern Times, Eyman admires “Chaplin’s instinctive understanding of a world in which society carries its devotion to tools beyond the edge of sanity.” Such a sentiment bears even more truth in today’s social media–drenched and –obsessed culture. One could easily imagine Chaplin mocking the forced teary-eyed celebrity apologies of recent weeks ranging from Hollywood (almost) scabs Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher to the stoic rapist-defenders Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.
Of course, many of Chaplin’s blacklist-worthy actions had less to do with politics and more to do with sex. As early as 1922, the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) opened a file on Chaplin. Word on the street was that Chaplin’s ex-wife, Mildred Harris, spoke with a bureau agent and offered complaints about Chaplin’s attitudes and sexual proclivities. Eyman notes that, of the FBI’s 1,900 pages on Chaplin, more space is given to Chaplin’s sex life than to his political beliefs. Chaplin was the David Wooderson of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Like his colleague Errol Flynn, Chaplin enjoyed the company of, arguably, too-young girls. After several marriages, Chaplin found the love of his life, Oona O’Neill. She was 18 to his 54. Chaplin regularly received the midcentury version of a Twitter pile-on, and Eyman argues that the FBI likely tracked Chaplin’s sex life to hold it against him once they could finally “prove” that he was a communist.
Joan Barry, Chaplin’s former muse, was prominently featured in the hundreds of pages the FBI compiled on Chaplin’s sex life. Barry, who was also involved with John Paul Getty at the same time, told the Feds that Chaplin was very proud of his persuasive nature that helped him bed women. His multiple marriages and paid abortions only fanned the conservative, anti-Chaplin flames. Following a paternity suit that he ultimately lost, Chaplin took on another wife, O’Neill, his last and most faithful relationship. Eyman uses lengthy quotes from Eastman, who seemed to understand better than anyone his friend’s numerous contradictions. Chaplin loved money but hated having it; he wanted to be philanthropic but hated spending money; he was an assured artist suffering from a short man’s inferiority complex.
Esteemed journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns went after Chaplin for flaunting his “good taste,” grabbing headlines with a “runaway marriage to Oona O’Neill, debutante of the Stork Club set.” The problem, Eyman argues, was the “moral ecology of postwar America” that was at war with Chaplin. Influential journalists like Hopper were leaking info to the FBI and getting info back, much of it untrustworthy. Chaplin was also up against violations of the Mann Act, which states that it is a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Hollywood super-attorney Jerry Giesler was tapped to successfully defend Chaplin.
Ultimately, we all must answer our own questions about separating an artist from their biography. Was Chaplin wrongfully painted as a dangerous subversive? Of course. Is Chaplin’s taste in young women cringeworthy or worse under our evolved understanding of consent? Also yes. Should this view affect how we see his art? The answer here can only be subjective. If someone can’t get past Chaplin’s technically legal but seemingly predatory nature, we shouldn’t judge them for ignoring his art. However, as Eyman and Dederer point out in their own ways, one’s fandom of an artist cannot be deemed an endorsement of an artist’s personal actions.
Anyone who follows popular culture has been faced with this dilemma. And some celebrities are easier to write off than others, especially when we knew they were bad news from the start (for me, this was Russell Brand). Chaplin’s case may not be as extreme, but the questions remain the same—to separate or not to separate art from artist? The other night, I watched a favorite film of mine, Chinatown (1974), directed by the one of the greatest, and most divisive, living filmmakers, Roman Polanski. I can love the film, hate the rape crime, and feel sympathy for what happened to his wife, unborn child, and friends on that dark night on Cielo Drive in 1969. I choose to hold all these opposing feelings and still enjoy the film—not for anyone’s sake but my own.
Our favorite artists may not be our favorite people—and that’s okay. For Chaplin, Eyman outlines a respectable argument for separating art from artist, while also carefully separating fact from fiction.
Chris Yogerst is a film historian, professor, and author, most recently, of The Warner Brothers (2023). His work can also be found in The Hollywood Reporter and The Washington Post.
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