Saturday, February 2, 2013


It was 1934 and Charlie Chaplin, the world's most beloved movie star, was in a quandary. "Talkies" were all the rage and everyone was waiting for his new movie so they could finally hear the "Tramp" speak. The thought of another silent film was anachronistic.  But Chaplin worried that the universal appeal of his alter ego would be lost if he spoke.

Chaplin was deeply troubled by the Great Depression. "Something is wrong when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world." After a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi who lamented "machinery with only consideration of profit," an idea took hold in Chaplin's head. He would make a satire on modern industrial life.

The resulting film was Modern Times. The "Tramp" plays a factory worker literally gobbled up by the grinding gears of industry. He struggles to keep up with the ever-accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts onto pieces of machinery. (This scene is later copied in I Love Lucy in the famous chocolate factory episode.) The industrial work overwhelms the "Tramp" and he suffers a nervous breakdown. Chaplin does finally speak in Modern Times in the form of a hilarious song, a mishmash of French-Italian gibberish that pokes fun at "talkies" while still giving audiences a taste of Chaplin's voice.

Today, Modern Times is viewed as a classic but upon it's release it received only mixed reviews and average box office. People did not appreciate Chaplin's politicizing. He was a foreigner after all and the public felt he had no right to speak ill of America which had made him rich and famous. Chaplin couldn't help himself. He'd been raised in poverty in England and he felt a kinship with the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden. He truly believed that capitalism and modern technology was displacing the American worker. If he didn't speak out, who would?

During World War II, Chaplin supported various Soviet-American friendship groups. His social circle included German emigres like Bertolt Brecht who professed pro-Communist views. In 1947, the FBI launched an investigation into Chaplin viewing him as a potential threat to national security. The FBI also leaked stories to gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper who defamed Chaplin in her columns. Based on Modern Times, the House Un-American Activities Committee was convinced that Chaplin was a Communist. Chaplin denied the charges but the political atmosphere was toxic.

In 1952, Chaplin traveled to London with his new wife Oona (the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill) to promote his latest film Limelight. A day after his departure, the US Government revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit. Rather than fight the government, Chaplin cut his ties with the United States. He later wrote, "The sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better." Chaplin and Oona moved into an 18th Century mansion in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva. They had eight children and spent the rest of their lives together.

In 1972, the Academy gave Chaplin an honorary award for his contribution to film. He returned to the US for the first time in 20 years and was given a 12-minute standing ovation at the Oscars. Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. He died in his sleep from a stroke in 1977 at age 88. A year after his death, Chaplin's coffin was dug up and stolen by two unemployed immigrants. Chaplin's body was held for ransom but Oona refused to be extorted. The immigrants were captured and Chaplin's coffin was found in a field in a nearby village. He was reburied in a cemetery in Vevey, Switzerland. (6" x 6", black ink print)

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