Saturday, 16 April 2011

Happy Birthday Mr Chaplin

As Google has reminded everyone today, it is Charlie Chaplin's birthday - he would be 122 if he was still with us.

He is remembered as the clowning Tramp for his many silent movies along that ilk. Like many stars of the silent era, he struggled once the "talkies" came along, although he continued in films until his final commercial venture in 1967, "A Countess from Hong Kong" (which he also directed).

As well as the talkies, he had to contend with the political bigotry of the McCarthyite era in the USA, forcing him to leave the ever-dubious "land of the free" and settle in Switzerland until his death on Christmas Day 1977. McCarthy had assailed Chaplin for his left-wing political views, and leaving Hollywood was in effect the death knell for his acting career.

Yet it was his politics and his concern for things far removed from the slapstick comedy he is famed for that forged what many consider to be his finest work, "The Great Dictator" made in Hollywood in 1940 as the Battle of Britain was raging. In this (talkie) satire, written and direced by Chaplin, and in which he played on his mustachioed similarity to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (who was born just 4 days after Chaplin), he used the medium to demonstrate the illusory allure of fascism to those without hope and to expose its ultimate naked brutality, culminating in a powerful call to arms for a better, fairer, democratic world. It was controversial not least in that the USA was still at peace with Germany when it was released and there was a powerful lobby in American politics to ensure that remained the case right up until the attack on Pearl harbour over a year later.

Rightwing hostility towards him grew with the release of Chaplin's first post-war film, "Monsieur Verdoux", a dark comedy, satirising capitalism as essentially pyschpathic.In due course, it was all apparent grist to Senator McCarthy's view of Chaplin as a man too dangerous to remain in the United States of America.

The FBI had kept him under constant surveillance and even a degree of harassment during the war, identifying him as a possible communist. In due course he was accused of "un-American activities" in the late 1940s, although the Senatorial Committee baulked from calling him to testify, fearing he might lampoon them. Another way was found when he went on a business trip to his home country of Britain in 1953 and FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover seized the opportunity to have Chaplin's right to live in the USA revoked (after 39 years). He was never to return, writing soon after that:

"I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States."

Chaplin's message in The Great Dictator remains as clear and vital today; while the intolerance and paranoia of McCarthyism remain as constant a threat as ever in its new forms of Islamophobia and a crushing consensus around state surveillance and restriction of individual liberty.

So it is all the more worth watching again the nemesis of the Great Dictator. And being thankful for Charlie Chaplin, the clown who made the world think.

SMILE (composed by Charles Chaplin)

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