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On Chaplin's first night in New York in September 1910, he walked around the theater district, dazzled by its lights and movement. "This is it!" he told himself. "This is where I belong!" Yet he never became a U.S. citizen. An internationalist by temperament and fame, he considered patriotism "the greatest insanity that the world has ever suffered." As the Depression gave way to World War II and the cold war, the increasingly politicized message of his films, his expressed sympathies with pacifists, communists and Soviet supporters, became suspect. It didn't help that Chaplin, a bafflingly complex and private man, had a weakness for young girls. His first two wives were 16 when he married them; his last, Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill, was 18. In 1943 he was the defendant in a public, protracted paternity suit. Denouncing his "leering, sneering attitude" toward the U.S. and his "unsavory" morals, various public officials, citizen groups and gossip columnists led a boycott of his pictures.
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI put together a dossier on Chaplin that reached almost 2,000 pages. Wrongly identifying him as "Israel Thonstein," a Jew passing for a gentile, the FBI found no evidence that he had ever belonged to the Communist Party or engaged in treasonous activity. In 1952, however, two days after Chaplin sailed for England to promote Limelight, Attorney General James McGranery revoked his re-entry permit. Loathing the witch-hunts and "moral pomposity" of the cold war U.S., and believing he had "lost the affections" of the American public, Chaplin settled with Oona and their family in Switzerland (where he died in 1977).
With the advent of the '60s and the Vietnam War, Chaplin's American fortunes turned. He orchestrated a festival of his films in New York in 1963. Amid the loudest and longest ovation in its history, he accepted a special Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1972. There were dissenters. Governor Ronald Reagan, for one, believed the government did the right thing in 1952. During the 1972 visit, Chaplin, at 83, said he'd long ago given up radical politics, a welcome remark in a nation where popular favor has often been synonymous with depoliticization. But the ravishing charm and brilliance of his films are inseparable from his convictions.
At the end of City Lights, when the heroine at last sees the man who has delivered her from blindness, we watch her romantic dreams die. "You?" she asks, incredulous. "Yes," the Tramp nods, his face, caught in extreme close-up, a map of pride, shame and devotion. It's the oldest story in show business--the last shall yet be, if not first, at least recognized, and perhaps even loved.
Ann Douglas is the author of Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
How We Came To Think "They've Killed Kenny!" Is Funny
As humor became the culture's biggest currency, the jester used his free pass to become society's truth teller not only by questioning authority but also by sharing his most intimate neuroses.
GROUCHO MARX Media: Vaudeville, film, TV Trademark: A trickster who mixed fast, irreverent, smart-ass banter with broad physical comedy. Classic Routine: The "Why a duck?" bit with brother Chico from Cocoanuts.
BOB HOPE Media: Stage, radio, film, TV Trademark: Lovable chicken-heart in films; dapper wiseacre in stand-up. Classic Routine: Cascade of topical one-liners ribbing Presidents, celebrities and Ann-Margret's physique.
LENNY BRUCE Medium: Stand-up Trademark: Blue material led to arrests which provided lots of material about the First Amendment. Classic Routine: Yiddish-trained cops nailing him for using the word schmuck.
WOODY ALLEN Media: Stand-up, fiction, film Trademark: A stammering nerd obsessing over his neuroses. Classic Routine: Whining to his therapist that he's not having enough sex while his lover says just the opposite in Annie Hall.
RICHARD PRYOR Media: Stand-up, film Trademark: Angry, highly personal, profanity-drenched tirades about race. Classic Routine: Mudbone, an old wino savant, talks about how stupid white people are.
MONTY PYTHON Media: TV, film Trademark: Absurdist, erudite, antiauthoritarian sketches. Classic Routine: The dead-parrot sketch, in which John Cleese tries to return a bird sold to him already deceased.