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One of the fascinating things about studying American history is that it’s so full of contradictions. In order for a country of our size and variety to cohere at all, we require a group acceptance of some pretty romantic mythology. And often, the real story is a lot uglier than the prettified conventional wisdom we’re brought up to enjoy.
Take Charlie Chaplin, whom now we view with the warm glow of reverence. I was in London last week, and on a visit to the British Film Institute, I bought a DVD copy of restored shorts from the Keystone Studios in the late teens, when he was still in his 20s. Here’s a guy who seems to embody the American spirit. Born English, he showed up in America when he was about 21, and for the next thirty years, he helped shape and define the American spirit as no other person has.
Chaplin was a brilliant entrepreneur. He assumed control over his own movies as early as 1918, and like Walt Disney would two decades later, he took the audacious step of expanding film shorts into full-length motion pictures. He was one of four performers who founded United Artists, taking ownership of his work from distributors and money men and pretty much establishing what we know as modern Hollywood.
He was, to the letter, the astounding success that all good American immigrants aspire to be, and he was adored for it. Few personalities can captivate international culture for a quarter century, but he did. He built his own studio, which today is the home of Jim Henson Studios on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles. Chaplin not only navigated the 1927 transition from silents to talkies, which was career homicide for many worthy performers such as Buster Keaton, but he even managed to successfully buck the dialogue trend for nearly a decade more, culminating with a mostly dialogue-free Modern Times in 1936.
Chaplin had all-American courage. In 1940, while America was still dithering about what to do about World War Two, Chaplin released his long-awaited The Great Dictator, the scathing comic indictment of Adolf Hitler (who was born four days after Chaplin). In the late 1930s, when it was shot, the world didn’t even know what Hitler was truly up to. Chaplin predicted it perfectly, and he got the message out.
His richest character, The Little Tramp, was born after the spiritual devastation of the first World War. The Tramp, a low-class vagrant who struggles to keep up with the machinations the world around him, was like the pioneer American spirit personified: outsider, playful, indefatigable, high-spirited in the face of rejection and failure, and ultimately measuring up through sheer pluck and good humor. Like an immigrant, the Tramp blended into city streets without words. Like so many characters created by immigrants such as Billy Wilder and Frank Capra, the Tramp was both an outsider and an insider who saw society with a jaundiced eye. That persona first appeared at Keystone and 1914 and was an international emblem for nearly a quarter century, appearing in its last film in 1936.
While The Little Tramp appeared for the last time, the indefatigable American spirit was being crushed by the Great Depression. Fear of communism largely eradicated the famous American pioneer spirit that had dominated for at least four generations, and World War Two had solidified the social expectation of a unified front.
A new conformity squashed the true American individualism of the West and of the immigrant waves, and despite the fact he gave America an industry and an identity, Chaplin proudly professed liberal politics that made him a target. It was a turning point in American history, when “liberal” was painted as a dirty word, which conservatives still believe is true today. After the economic slide, any powerful person who saw things with a jaundiced eye became suspect in the eyes of the establishment.
Just as Hitler rose from the ashes of the Great War, the malaise of McCarthyism rose from the ashes of Great Depression disillusionment, and the American government discounted any contribution Charles Chaplin had made. Instantly, he was an outsider once again. One of the cherished myths of American culture is that it welcomes all with open arms, but in fact, even minor transgressions are rewarded with banishment.
In 1952, Chaplin went to London to promote his movie Limelight, and while he was gone, the FBI jockeyed to revoke his entry visa. He was 63. He had helped build Hollywood since the teens. He created an American industry.
Evidence against him crumbled, and no one would testify against him, but the damage was done. America had betrayed him. Outraged, he didn’t return to his home.
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