Cinema: Exit the Tramp, Smiling

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In 1940 he was attacked by right-wingers for his satire of Adolf 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."

Injured in soul and pocketbook, Chaplin tried to fling a cinematic custard pie from his base in England. A King in New York was a gross satire on America's obsession with political loyalty as well as the star's only humorless film. By the time of Chaplin's benign, name-dropping autobiography in 1964, much of the anger and pain had subsided. But so had much of the inspiration.

Charlie Chaplin retired quietly to Switzerland, surrounded by his wife and their eight children, awaiting signs of nonbelligerency from old enemies. They came at last in 1972, when the cold war was mere scraps of snow, when Hollywood was able to recall that the "disloyal" clown had paid millions in American taxes, helped to found United Artists, and provided the aesthetic foundation for every film comedian since 1920. The evidence was an Academy Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century."

The lionizing had just begun. The once wiry actor had become a fleshy, white-haired grandfather, but his films, shown in festivals around the world, retained their perpetual youth and comic energy. In recognition of their undiminished ability to entertain, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed knighthood on Chaplin in 1975. Afterward, Sir Charles commented, "Life is a marvelous, a wonderful thing, but as you get on, you always think of moments past—and you always think of death."

But in a sense, Chaplin had always thought of the past: it was the poignancy of his childhood that furnished the comedies with their melancholy undertow. And he had always thought about death: his on-screen romances and adventures were forever guttering in a gothic twilight. Yet it is not the end of things that obsessed the producer-director-actor-writer-composer Charlie Chaplin, but their beginning. 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.

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