“Modern Times © Roy Export SAS”
Charlie Chaplin, without question, was one of the most polarizing figures in American history. Born into a creative but mostly poverty-stricken family in South London in 1889, he parlayed early vaudevillian success into a lucrative contract with the New York Motion Picture Company in 1913. As history has it, he went on to become one of the few most influential performers and filmmakers of the 20th Century. And just as a new museum, Chaplin’s World, opens in Switzerland, his career seems to have some fascinating parallels with the current political situation in America.
He was at the height of his powers as America was plunged into the Great Depression—and his immensely successful 1931 film City Lights, with its unique, poignant mix of comedy and pathos, resonated deeply with a public living through such disconcerting times. By the time the groundbreaking industrial parody Modern Times was released in 1936, he had become a so-called “left-wing” activist…and thusly caught the suspicion of the sinister, crusading FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as something of an agitator. In other words, Chaplin turned out to be on the wrong side of the socio-political zeitgeist.
“Modern Times © Roy Export SAS”
“The Great Dictator © Roy Export SAS”
“Monsieur Verdoux © Roy Export SAS”
But perhaps most shockingly, especially with such hindsight as we now have at our disposal, his brilliant, incisive 1940 Nazi satire The Great Dictator actually won him the ire of the American establishment. The US was still considered “at peace” with Germany, and Chaplin’s stingingly sardonic mockery of hard-right fascism was somehow taken as sure evidence of his communist sympathies (treason, as they say, is often just a matter of bad timing). Ironically, the Soviet Union would, of course, ally with America to defeat Hitler—only for the two to become superpower enemies again after the war. As for Charlie, the bad press from a paternity suit with actress Joan Barry, as well as his poorly received capitalist critique Monsieur Verdoux, ultimately made him persona non grata in his adopted home.
And so as he boarded the HMS Queen Elizabeth with his family on September 18, 1952, bound for the London premier of his magnificent, semi-autobiographical film Limelight, his re-entry permit was revoked by US Attorney General James McGranery. Chaplin, wife Oona O’Neill and their children then settled into the small but picturesque Swiss town of Corsier-sur-Vevey, never to return to America.
A museum dedicated to the legendary filmmaker, Chaplin’s World, opened last month at his renovated Swiss estate, Manoir Le Bain. It features fascinating personal effects, film set re-creations, interactive exhibits and enough career-spanning photos to keep fans and admirers riveted for hours.
Above images courtesy of Chaplin’s World
But the timing of the opening could not have come with greater social and political puissance. We have a Republican presidential frontrunner whose hate-filled rhetoric sounds an awful lot like that of the fascist upstarts of the 1930s that had so alarmed Chaplin (who was said to have kept his Jewish identity a secret for realpolitik reasons); another current presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, has been effectively marginalized as a “socialist” merely for shining a light on the terrible inequities wrought by the vagaries of unchecked global capital markets.
Further fueling the tension, Jodie Foster’s much buzzed about, Wall-Street-castigating film Money Monster arrives in theaters this weekend. Its star, George Clooney, has arguably followed a Chaplin-like trajectory, devoting his later career not to syrupy romcoms, but to more weighty films that face down the many and sundry systemic corruptions of our 21st Century reality.
Chaplin, above all, wanted to make people laugh, and to offer them a bit of ephemeral escape. But he also passionately hoped his films would make us think about our shared humanity, and perhaps then just be that much more vigilant as to its vulnerability to the forces of venality and greed.
As a crucial American presidential election unfolds, then, what better time to revisit the unparalleled cinematic legacy of Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin?
“City Lights © Roy Export SAS”