in the now dusty formats of vaudeville and silent film, the world’s premiere movie star remains an important voice speaking to us on key issues involving political power and our common humanity.
Chaplin’s films explored societal problems and possible remedies that spoke to his time and still speak to ours. Chaplin’s iconoclastic, controversial, and tumultuous work provides an important backdrop for appreciating his legacy as one of history’s most effective users of mass media to shape political and cultural messages.
Like most of us, Chaplin didn’t always have a clear answer to the thorny problems of modern life, as the sometimes quiet comic could be vague and uncertain about his films’ messages. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin’s political messages and life experiences could be a maze of conflicting viewpoints. But deciphering the man and his work is part of what makes it so interesting.
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Despite his film’s emphasis on social and political themes, there is no record that Chaplin ever voted in his native Britain, and that he never sought American citizenship for nearly four decades of residence in California. Chaplin was troubled by the expansion of government power, but he enthusiastically supported the New Deal to counter the Great Depression.
His friends ranged from John Steinbeck, the radical author of “Grapes of Wrathto Winston Churchill, the wartime Conservative British Prime Minister who adored Chaplin as an artist and reveled in how Chaplin’s anti-Nazi cinema had helped inflame the British public against Hitler.
Deep down, Chaplin expressed a strong belief in “The People” and in the potential for human collectives to work together to solve difficult problems. He had great contempt for the elites causing these problems, which he blamed in large part on political authorities who abused their power and sought to govern by intensifying the fear and hatred of one group against another.
Chaplin hated war, but he hated dictators even more. In his impassioned finale to “The Great Dictator,” for example, Chaplin tried to impress on viewers his personal belief in collective human potential: “We don’t want to hate or despise each other.” His expansive mockery of Hitler in this film far exceeds the parody of political figures offered in the years that followed in cinema or in the political comedy of late-night television.
For Chaplin, even his star character, The Tramp, knew that human beings were smarter, kinder and better than being fooled for a long time by the charlatans who often find themselves in positions of power. Unlike many more cautious filmmakers of his time, Chaplin took risks when he challenged political authority and power, and scoffed at the absurdity of political braggarts who might talk about making things better but rarely delivered.
Chaplin could sometimes be an angry populist, prone in his films to kicking an abusive policeman in the back when he wasn’t looking and ridiculing an ignorant wealthy person. For FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, however, these often comical and sometimes bitter critiques of capitalism and governmental authority added up to dangerous subversive anti-American messages. Hoover had agents watch him for years, just waiting for the chance to pounce on one of America’s most visible noncitizens. When Chaplin left the United States for a European promotional tour deep in the McCarthy era, the US government revoked his US visa and thus blocked his return. Rather than challenge the decision, which was made without any hearing, Chaplin instead moved to Switzerland.
In his battles with the J. Edgar Hoovers, however, Chaplin had the last laugh, briefly returning to Hollywood in triumph in 1972 to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar – and what remains the longest standing ovation in history. history of the Oscars.
Chaplin’s oldest films are now seen by the great-great-grandchildren of their original viewers, and its extraordinary blend of politics, social comedy and slapstick humor makes us think of politics – and laugh at those with money and power – to this day.
Stephen Farnsworth is a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and author or co-author of seven books, including the most recent “Late Night with Trump: Political humor and the American presidency.” He will speak about Chaplin as part of UMW’s Crawley Great Lives series on Tuesday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m. The talk will be broadcast live and accessible via the program’s website: umw.edu/greatlives.