Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Right, the Left, and Charlie

If you're the least bit interested in the history of the U.S. and the ramp up to WWII, you might pick up a copy of "The Sphinx," by Nicholas Wapshott. Complete title: "The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and The Road to World War II." Yes, a lengthy title, but a fascinating read. The cast of characters includes FDR, Churchill, Lindbergh, Joe Kennedy, Father Coughlin, William Randolph Hearst, and even a mention of Charlie Chaplin.

I was curious about the manner in which the news media described Chaplin during that era. Among the many magazines and papers in my collection is Time Magazine of January 2, 1978. Under "Cinema," and the article titled, "Exit the Tramp, Smiling," there are a couple of paragraphs that connected to "The Sphinx." They were written by 
Stefan Kanfer. Here it is.

"Let a man rise in show business, even to so stratospheric a level as The Tramp's, and there comes an evening of the Long Knives. For Chaplin, night came early and stayed late. He became embroiled in a series of affairs. He married and divorced two teen-agers and earned a reputation as Hollywood's outstanding satyr. His dalliances shocked the nation and nearly ruined his career. But Chaplin always managed to rescue himself with new apologies and fresh performances.

"In 1940 he was attacked by right-wingers for his satire of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in The Great Dictator. Again he was rescued, this time by history. But after the war he could no longer be saved from his enemies. In the palmy days, a Hollywood story made the rounds. Actor: 'How should I play this scene, Mr. Chaplin?' The reply: 'Behind me and to the left.' It was more than a critique of the star's egomania; it was also a comment on his politics. Chaplin had, in fact, become a backer of Soviet-American friendship meetings - provided, of course, that he could fellow-travel in first class. That, plus his continual womanizing, was enough to earn him ad hominem attacks in the Congress. In 1952 Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona - the daughter of Eugene O'Neill - whom he had married in 1943 when he was 54 and she was 18, learned that he would be detained if they reentered the U.S. His new film, Limelight,  was boycotted on the West Coast; the Saturday evening Post announced that Charlie was a 'pink Pierrot.'"

How complex celebrity and genius can become. How conflict can add or detract from the creations and the legacy. What would Chaplin had accomplished if he had distanced himself from politics, if he had spent the rest of his days in the U.S. Of course we'll never know. Still, it makes me wonder.

Here are final words of that article:
"The classic fadeout of the great Chaplin films still stays longest in the mind's screen: the crumpled harlequin, twitching his little shoulders, setting his head forward and skipping hopefully off on the unimproved road to Better Times. Chaplin may have thought a great deal about death, but he will be remembered longest for his jaunty, indomitable celebration of life."