Images © Bubbles Incorporated SA.
As the world experiences a massive migration crisis, a major movie museum has opened honoring arguably the most famous persona non grata ever banished from America. British-born filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, who sympathetically depicted immigrants and refugees, was forced into exile by Washington during the McCarthy era witch hunts.
The museum, Chaplin’s World, is located in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where Charlie, his wife, Oona (the daughter of Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill), and their children found refuge in 1952.
Chaplin’s World, which opened April 16 on Charlie’s 127th birthday, consists of several sections, including the nineteenth-century Manoir de Ban—the thirty-two-room, four-level mansion where Charlie lived from 1952 until his death in 1977.
Chaplin's World has restored to its former glory the nineteenth-century Manoir de Ban, the mansion where Chaplin lived from 1952 to 1977. Photo by Author.
“They’ve tried to recreate the atmosphere and spirit of family life there,” says Michael Chaplin, Charlie’s seventy-year-old eldest son. He describes the mansion:
“Photographs line the walls, along with screens that show clips of home movies—sixteen-millimeter family films my mother used to shoot when we were kids. There’s the sitting room and the piano where he composed his music. There’s the library and terrace where my father worked in the summer, and the dining room, with the table set as if for the next family meal.”
Chaplin’s role in movie history and his legacy of dissent are presented in the museum’s studio section.
Museumgoers begin self-guided tours in a theater where a short film places Chaplin in the context of his times, ending with a city scene from 1917’s Easy Street. When the curtain lifts, the silent film’s set, depicting Chaplin’s childhood neighborhood in London, is revealed. This is the first of many sets from Chaplin pictures that have been reconstructed using the original blueprints.
Among the restored sets is the Yukon cabin from The Gold Rush. Visitors can lie down inside the Modern Times assembly line machinery, beside an uncannily lifelike waxen Paulette Goddard. In The Great Dictator’s barbershop, “customers” can sit in a barber’s chair to be shaved by a waxworks Chaplin, with the underlined word “JEW” scrawled across its boarded-up window.
Image © Bubbles Incorporated SA.
The thirty-four-acre estate is well preserved, with gardens, sequoias, and cherry trees overlooking Lake Geneva in the Alps. Chaplin’s World also includes a restaurant and boutique selling Chaplinesque memorabilia and books, including Pierre Smolik’s The Freak and Paul Duncan’s lavishly illustrated The Charlie Chaplin Archives.
Chaplin’s World forthrightly presents Chaplin’s own impoverished childhood, his advocacy for “the great unwashed,” and the humanist, anti-fascist philosophy which intensified his persecution during the Cold War’s Reds-under-the-beds hysteria.
From his first appearance in producer Mack Sennett’s 1914 silent short Kid Auto Races at Venice, in the popular persona of “the Little Tramp,” Chaplin identified with the downtrodden. Wearing baggy pants, a tight waistcoat, and derby and twirling a cane, the mustachioed Tramp character was often a poor-but-scrappy vagabond, usually one of the urban masses—many of them foreign-born—who flocked to theaters, making Charlie a superstar.
Chaplin rose in Hollywood’s firmament, becoming an independent, Oscar-winning auteur who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and even composed the music for his films. But Chaplin never forgot the extreme poverty he experienced in his childhood. “He was driven at a young age to look elsewhere for a better life,” says Michael.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was the son of London vaudevillians who, unable to care for him, gave him up shortly after his birth. Charlie was sent to the workhouse at age six. His father died of alcoholism. His mother was institutionalized.
Chaplin became a comedian. A comedian, he insisted, must comment on his times. His entire body of work, over more than half a century, forms a sympathetic portrait of the down-and-out. According to Yves Durand, Chaplin’s World co-founder, the film that first put Charlie on future FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s radar was The Immigrant, which was shot in 1917, a few years after Chaplin crossed the Atlantic. While the silent two-reeler compassionately depicted “the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” coming to America, “many people didn’t like the way he was treating the immigration service’s civil servants,” notes Durand.
As the Little Tramp evolved, grappling with the Great Depression, Nazism, capitalism, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chaplin’s full-length masterpieces guaranteed his stature as a cinematic genius. In his 1936 satire of industrialism, Modern Times, Chaplin plays a factory worker driven mad by speed-up on a conveyor belt. Jumping on the assembly line to tighten a bolt, he’s symbolically swallowed up by the machinery’s whirring gears and cogs.
After being hospitalized, the Tramp walks down a city street when a red flag falls off a construction truck. Trying to return it to the drivers, he waves the flag, just as proletarian demonstrators turn the corner. The police mistakenly believe Charlie is the protest’s leader, and arrest him in the ensuing clash. Later, Chaplin pairs up with a gamine (played by his then-wife Paulette Goddard), and they struggle to survive the Depression.
A tour of the studio section of Chaplin's World starts with a reconstruction of the urban set from 1917's Easy Street, which Chaplin went on to use in twenty-one movies, including 1918's A Dog's Life. Image © Bubbles Incorporated SA.
Chaplin and Goddard teamed up again in 1940 in The Great Dictator, a satire ridiculing Hitler and Mussolini (an oafish Jack Oakie as “Napaloni”), released when fascism had conquered most of Europe. The United States was then neutral, the U.S.S.R. had signed a nonaggression pact with Germany, and European Jews faced the Holocaust.
In a double role Chaplin portrays the Tramp-like Jewish Barber and the führer-like Adenoid Hynkel, Tomania’s dictator. Goddard plays Charlie’s love interest, Hannah, a Jew who flees the Nazis and becomes a refugee. In a case of mistaken identity, the Jewish barber is believed to be tyrannical Hynkel at a Nuremberg-type rally. In his first all-talking picture, the longtime silent screen star makes what’s arguably Hollywood’s greatest political speech: “Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
“. . . I say ‘Do not despair.’ . . . Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! . . . “Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts! . . . Soldiers, don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty. “. . . Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate, and intolerance . . . for a world of reason . . . where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. “Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
As Québécois museographer Durand insightfully pointed out, when shooting this scene, “Chaplin wore little makeup. He was revealing himself onscreen—it isn’t the barber or Hynkel making that speech, but Charlie himself.”
An artist touches up an effigy of Charlie for one of the Chaplin's World exhibits.Image © Bubbles Incorporated SA.
According to Michael, “The Great Dictator was the only film at that time that showed what was happening to the Jews in Germany . . . . Although he used to say that if he knew what was to come . . . what really happened in the camps, he couldn’t have made that film.”
With his immigrant background and his send-up of Hitler, many people assumed Charlie Chaplin was Jewish himself. His then-wife, Goddard, was Jewish. But Charlie had Roma roots, says Michael, “his two grandmothers were Gypsy.”
During World War II, years before D-Day, Chaplin publicly spoke out offscreen, urging the Allies to open a second front to alleviate the Soviets’ suffering. In his first postwar movie, the 1947 anti-war, anti-capitalist black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin depicts a serial killer who weds wealthy women then murders them for their money. Verdoux cynically declares:
“Wars, conflict—it’s all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify. . . . As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.”
Tax troubles, tabloid scandals (including Chaplin’s 1943 marriage, at age fifty-four, to eighteen-year-old Oona), and, primarily, Chaplin’s “premature anti-fascism” set him on a collision course with Washington once the Cold War started.
“Hoover was very upset, especially with the way Charlie was talking about American society,” says Durand. Because he was “always taking the part of the poor people, of the workers,” Durand adds, “many said he was a communist, a socialist, a man of the left.”
In 1952, as Chaplin sailed with his family to London for the premiere of his movie Limelight, the British citizen was notified that the U.S. attorney general had revoked his reentry permit. As far as Uncle Sam was concerned, the world’s most famous movie star became, like The Great Dictator’s Hannah, an undocumented alien. (Prophetically, in Limelight, Charlie portrayed a vaudevillian losing his audience.)
Michael, who was on that voyage, remembers when his father learned he couldn’t return to America. “He hadn’t planned at all to suddenly have to find a place in Europe. I think he thought he was probably going to finish his life in Hollywood. But suddenly he had to find somewhere.” The family traveled around Europe, looking for a place to live. Chaplin settled in Switzerland, which had traditionally sheltered political refugees.
Chaplin never applied for U.S. citizenship because “he was fiercely anti-patriotic—he felt that was absurd. He felt he was a citizen of the world,” says his son. “Maybe that was his Gypsy blood talking there. He didn’t believe in patriotism, in borders, and people having to have passports.”
Chaplin shot two more features. Both had lead roles for refugee characters. In 1957’s A King in New York, Chaplin plays exiled monarch King Shahdov, who runs afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee after encountering ten-year-old Rupert Macabee (young Michael Chaplin), whose parents are communists.
Upon meeting Rupert, Shahdov asks: “And what’s that you are reading?”
Rupert: “Karl Marx.”
Shahdov: “Surely you are not a communist!”
Rupert: “Do I have to be a communist to read Karl Marx?”
Shahdov: “That’s a valid answer.”
Did Chaplin read Marx? Michael is sure he did. “I don’t remember seeing a copy of Das Kapital anywhere in our house, but he had a lot of socialist and communist friends: H.G. Wells, [George] Bernard Shaw, Ivor Montagu.”
Chaplin had very little formal schooling. “He really had to educate himself,” says Michael. “He read a lot of Dickens, which was probably closer to him than Das Kapital. He loved Dickens because it talked of the world he’d grown up in.”
In A King in New York, little Rupert is broken and forced by the state to confess. When Shahdov is subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, through slapstick Chaplin shows his contempt for Congress by spraying his inquisitors with a hose. A King in New York is, significantly, the only English-language feature made during the McCarthy era to explicitly critique the blacklist’s Torquemadas.
Chaplin’s World documents that among the numerous notables visiting Charlie’s mansion was Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. But was Charlie Chaplin a card-carrying member of the Communist Party? Michael insists he was not. “He was never a party man. It’s absurd to think that he could ever join a party.”
A wax effigy of Paulette Goddard as the Gamine, holding a bunch of bananas, stands in front of the machinery that swallows Chaplin in Modern Times. A scene from that 1936 satire of industrialism appears on a screen in the background of the recreated factory set in Chaplin's World's studio section. Image © Bubbles Incorporated SA.
In Chaplin’s last feature, 1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong, Sophia Loren portrays an undocumented immigrant who stows away in Marlon Brando’s cruise ship cabin.
Although U.S.-born, Michael had his own brush with U.S. immigration troubles.
“When I was eighteen, I was offered a job in New York. And I took an American passport. At that time you couldn’t have dual nationality. To go back to America I had to take up an American passport,” he recalls. “But it was right at the height of the Vietnam War and of course, as soon as they gave me the passport a letter came, and said, ‘Can you sign up for the draft?’ . . . I just didn’t answer and gave up the idea of the job in New York. Then I got a letter stating, ‘You’re liable for prosecution under the delinquency act. You’ve jeopardized your American citizenship.’ So for a long time I couldn’t go back.” And he didn’t, until the early 2000s.
During our candid conversation, Michael said of his father: “I can’t speak for him. He’s dead now and it’s very hard to say what he would have done or what his reactions would have been.” Nevertheless, Michael believes his father “would have been very much in sympathy” with democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“One can say that without much doubt, because he is expressing things my father expressed in his own time.” And when Donald Trump was compared to Jack Oakie as the buffoonish, Mussolini-like Napaloni in The Great Dictator, Michael laughed, “Yes! Definitely, yeah, yeah, yeah—there’s a big resemblance there.”
What would Chaplin think about Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric? “The Islamophobia that you hear now in Europe and America, the extreme right, is becoming more and more popular,” Michael notes. “He obviously would have seen a parallel with what had happened in the 1930s. And he was against it—he positioned himself very clearly there.”
“If you take the speech from The Great Dictator, that’s as relevant today as it was when it was written,” says Michael. “The world hasn’t changed. There are still people running away from wars, displaced with nowhere to go—he knew all about that. He had lived it himself.”
Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s “man in Hollywood.” For more information on Chaplin’s World see http://www.chaplinsworld.com/en.