Book Review from the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Charlie Chaplin', by Peter Ackroyd. Vintage £7.99.
Charlie Chaplin was born in a South London slum in 1889. His childhood was extremely impoverished, including spells in a workhouse, and his first show-business job was as a clog dancer at the age of nine. He became an actor and stage performer, joined Fred Karno’s company and travelled to the US, where he made his first film in 1914. He survived the birth of talkies and became a director and independent film-maker. Already by 1915, according to Ackroyd, he was the most famous man in the world.
Chaplin was best known for his screen persona as the Tramp, the ‘little fellow’ who became a kind of universal symbol of failure and hopelessness. Some of his films were overtly political, such as The Great Dictator (1940), where he played Adenoid Hynkel. This applied in particular to Modern Times (1936), about factory life and the repetitive and dehumanising nature of the production line.
In the First World War, he decided to stay in the US rather than return to the UK and risk being conscripted; people sent him envelopes with white feathers in, and some British cinemas stopped showing his films. During the Second World War, he made remarks supporting the ‘Soviet Union’ as a wartime ally, and also expressed some admiration for Stalin. Together with the implied message of Modern Times, this led in the late 1940s to trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some thought it suspicious that he had lived in the US for thirty years without becoming a US citizen, and in 1952, as he and his family sailed to Britain, his permit to re-enter the US was withdrawn (though he was later allowed to visit). For some discussion of his political views, see www.cartoonresearch.com/gerstein/chaplin/commie.html.
Ackroyd describes Chaplin as ‘a libertarian with tendencies towards anarchism’. But this is hardly compatible with his authoritarian approach to directing, his support for President Roosevelt, and his chauvinistic attitude to women. He also accepted a knighthood and was very concerned to protect his US-based property and investments. Though he was hardly consistent, he is perhaps best seen as someone who, looking back at his impoverished childhood, identified with the poor and downtrodden, but had no ideas about restructuring or even reforming society. Claims about him being a ‘Communist’ say more about the hysteria prevalent in some circles in the US than about Chaplin himself.