I watched a documentary last night – “Charlie Chaplin, The Forgotten Years” – and it made me realize what a royal screwing one of our most notable screen icons got courtesy of the U.S. government.
The film was about Chaplin’s life from 1952 on, when J. Edgar Hoover closed the door to his re-entry to the U.S. based on perceived “un-American activities”. I guess it was conveniently forgotten how Chaplin had helped raise over 18 billion dollars during war bond tours during WWI, or how the U.S. had been happy to help themselves to their share of his success with income tax rates that were as high as 56% on anything over $200,000 (my brief research indicates that Chaplin was hauling in $1.25 million in 1920’s dollars – imagine the squealing today if we had anything close to these rates!)
It is hard to imagine how a man who’s only weapon was a bowler hat and a cane could be perceived as a threat to the world’s most dominant power, but there you have it. Chaplin made the best of it, but the film gave me the impression he would have preferred to be at the epicenter of an industry he helped create, not exiled to a genteel existence when he felt he still had something to contribute.
Having lived in L. A., and having spent considerable time mucking about Hollywood and other areas searching out remnants of the past, I have always been amazed at how much has just been erased. And while everyone was happy to cash in on Chaplin’s image as a symbol of the golden age of silent films, he didn’t even get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame until 1970 after a 12 year battle by fans.
When Chaplin was allowed back into the country in 1972 to accept an honorary award at the Oscars, he was only allowed a 10 day visa. This is how a grateful nation celebrates someone who helped create not only a uniquely American art form, but a good deal of prosperity for the city of Los Angeles.
I don’t remember where, but somewhere in the past I read a story about Chaplin’s 1972 trip to accept that particular award – in which he was give a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history. Chaplin was 83. He wasn’t able to get around to see much of the place he’d been instrumental in creating, but he did get a brief tour in the back of a limo.
He got to see his old studio for the first time in years, as well as other places that still existed then but are now long gone – the old Keystone locations, the United Artists offices he new as a founder, and who knows what else.
I’d have liked to have gone on that ride.
We like to think that this type of political witch hunt is part of our history. Black and white footage of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy seem dated and part of our unenlightened past.
It’s not. It can all happen again. Each generation, there are new boogeymen and new tyrants ready to whip us into a frenzy to suit their own agendas.
If we let them.