What Made Charlie Run? : From destitution to global acclaim: A look at Chaplin on the 100th anniversary of his birth


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 relief.


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 institutions.


Lives like Chaplin’s are now being systematically studied by social scientists. They are finding that all children subjected to homelessness and severe stess 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 “invulnerables”).

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 1941.

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 and home.”


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 reading.

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 Stalinism.


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 finally canceled.)

Chaplin fought back with the pugnacious tenacity of the true childhool invulnerable. He obliged his attackers by responding to their inflamatory rhetoric with passionate indignation. Goaded into defending himself, he rapidly became a convienent 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 his opponents.



“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 immortallity.