Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

While Charles Chaplin and his family were traveling to London by ocean liner for the world premiere of his film Limelight, the U.S. attorney general issued a public order that Chaplin’s reentry into the United States would not be allowed without satisfying immigration officials that the filmmaker was morally and politically “fit.” After years of harassment by the FBI, the American Legion, and the press, Chaplin, a British citizen who had lived, worked, and paid taxes in the United States for decades, moved to Vevey, Switzerland.

Summary of Event

In the years following World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating film actor and comedian Charles Chaplin. The agency looked into his sex life, ethnic origins, citizenship, political views, and the content of his films during a time of growing political paranoia in the United States. The hostility toward the once-beloved comedian-entertainer culminated in his banishment from the United States in 1952. [kw]Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States (Sept. 19, 1952) [kw]Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States, Actor Charles (Sept. 19, 1952) Chaplin, Charles Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Immigration;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Oona O’Neill Hoover, J. Edgar;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Hoover, J. Edgar Chaplin, Charles Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Immigration;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Oona O’Neill Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] [g]United States;Sept. 19, 1952: Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States[00930] [c]Politics;Sept. 19, 1952: Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States[00930] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 19, 1952: Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States[00930] [c]Government;Sept. 19, 1952: Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States[00930] [c]International relations;Sept. 19, 1952: Actor Charles Chaplin Cannot Reenter the United States[00930] Barry, Joan

Even in the permissive world of Hollywood, Chaplin’s sex life raised eyebrows. Mildred Harris and Lita Gray—his first two wives—were only sixteen years old when they married Chaplin. His fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, with whom he had a lasting and deeply satisfying Marriage;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] marriage, had just turned eighteen years old when she and the fifty-four-year-old Chaplin married in 1943. (Oona’s father, playwright Eugene O’Neill, disowned his daughter for marrying Chaplin.) Also in 1943, a former lover of Chaplin, Joan Barry, sued Paternity suits;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin for paternity. Though a blood test demonstrated that Chaplin was not the infant’s father, the evidence was not allowed in court. After a first trial at which Chaplin had the support of the majority of jurors, he was retried and found guilty. The verdict flamed public opinion against him.

When Chaplin’s FBI file, which amounted to more than two thousand pages of documents, was later made public through the Freedom of Information Act of Freedom of Information Act of 1966 1966, it became clear that these records erroneously listed Chaplin as a Jew. He was not Jewish but, in solidarity with Jews, especially after the Holocaust, he refused to contradict those who claimed he was Jewish. Although Chaplin had resided in the United States for thirty-eight years before he was exiled in 1952, he had never applied for U.S. Citizenship citizenship. Consequently, the American Legion and other groups questioned the filmmaker’s loyalty to the United States. Chaplin claimed to be an apolitical citizen of the world, proud that he had never joined a political party or voted. He described himself as an internationalist and a peace monger, which only intensified hostility toward the performer.

Because of Chaplin’s fame, his public appearances attracted press attention. During the early 1940’s, during which time the United States and Soviet Union were World War II allies, Chaplin delivered a series of speeches—in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago—in support of Soviet war relief. He appeared at Second Front rallies, and in 1943 he recorded a speech at the Soviet consul’s office to be sent to the Soviet Union. After the war, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union became increasingly antagonistic, Chaplin Communist Party;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] bravely refused to disassociate himself from friends such as composer Eisler, Hanns Hanns Eisler, who were linked to communist organizations; Eisler was blacklisted and deported.

In April, 1947, Chaplin described the atomic bomb as “the most horrible invention of mankind.” Roman Catholic war veterans urged the U.S. State and Justice Departments to arrange for Chaplin’s deportation. Later that year he accepted a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), but was never called to appear, leading to speculation that HUAC feared Chaplin would arrive dressed as The Tramp (his best-known character) and make a mockery of the proceedings.

Long before the Cold War period, anticommunist rhetoric was part of U.S. political life and assessments of popular culture. Although usually present and sometimes noted, the class antagonism in Chaplin’s silent narratives was overshadowed by the films’ sentimentality and the tremendous popularity of The Tramp character. When Chaplin released Modern Times Modern Times (film) (1936), deep into the Depression, the film’s satiric view of the machine age registered as anticapitalist to some. Such audiences took special notice of the scene in which Chaplin, playing an assembly line worker, waves the red flag in a labor parade.

In 1941, two isolationist senators who called for hearings to investigate Hollywood propaganda that urged the United States into the war named Chaplin’s The Great Dictator Great Dictator, The (film) (1940) as a propaganda picture. Chaplin’s satire on Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] marked the start of a six-year creative dry period for Chaplin, who did not release his next film, Monsieur Verdoux, Monsieur Verdoux (film) until 1947. During this period the United States had entered, and helped win, what was widely considered the good war; the Cold War had begun. Monsieur Verdoux, a bitter (and brilliant) satire about a wife killer who claims that the world encourages mass killings but punishes small-time murderers, shocked many who expected sentimental optimism from Chaplin. His critics argued that the unflinching critique of the moral contradictions of capitalism in Monsieur Verdoux proved that Chaplin was procommunist. In contrast, film critic and writer James Agee applauded the chilling satire and defended Chaplin’s right to free speech at a press conference the day after the film’s American opening.

Chaplin’s next film, Limelight Limelight (film) (1952), was politically benign, but its very existence and its release in the United States shortly after Chaplin’s exile to Europe caused American Legion members to picket its screenings and to influence three theater chains—Fox, Loews, and RKO—to withdraw the film soon after its opening. Various political action groups successfully pressured distributors to withdraw all of Chaplin’s films from exhibition in the United States.

The FBI files demonstrate that its director, J. Edgar Hoover, had negotiated with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to revoke Chaplin’s reentry permit so that he would not be allowed back in the United States after his trip to London for the world premiere of Limelight. U.S. attorney general James P. McGranery clearly had the support of other government officials when he issued his order on September 19 to keep Chaplin out of the United States.

For two decades Chaplin lived quietly in Switzerland with Oona and their children (eventually numbering eight). In April, 1972, Chaplin finally returned to the United States to accept an award from the Lincoln Center Film Society in New York and an honorary Oscar (his second) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. He was issued a one-time entry visa valid for two months. At the Los Angeles award ceremony, the eighty-three-year-old filmmaker responded emotionally to a standing ovation by saying “I’m being born again.”

In 1975, British queen Elizabeth II knighted Chaplin. Two years later he died in his sleep at his villa in Vevey.

Impact

Although Chaplin produced and directed two films after his exile from the United States, his creative life was greatly diminished. A King in New York King in New York, A (film) (1957) clearly reflected the filmmaker’s bitterness toward the United States. The controversial film was popular abroad but was not seen in the United States until 1976, shortly before Chaplin’s death. Even with stars such as Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong Countess from Hong Kong, A (film) (1967) was a disappointment and an anachronism amid the robust cinematic innovation of the late 1960’s.

Chaplin’s life demonstrates the startling reversal of fortune that can await celebrity, for the most beloved silent-film star in the world moved from darling to pariah in the United States to become the most famous victim of the infamous Red Scare Red Scare. One positive outcome of this sad story, however, is that the notorious and unjust decision against Chaplin in the Barry paternity case led to the admissibility of blood tests in paternity trials in California and elsewhere. Chaplin, Charles Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Immigration;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Oona O’Neill Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964. In this detailed account of his life, Chaplin reveals that his “prodigious sin was being a nonconformist.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Charlie Chaplin Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Includes a transcript of the infamous press conference after the opening of Monsieur Verdoux in 1947.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maland, Charles J. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Four particularly relevant chapters focus on Joan Barry and the press, the Cold War atmosphere, Chaplin’s politics, and his banishment from the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Written with access to the Chaplin archives, this work includes scores of illustrations and photographs, a thirty-four-page chronology, a detailed filmography, and rare appendix material, including a summary of the FBI file on Chaplin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sbardellati, John, and Tony Shaw. “Booting a Tramp: Charlie Chaplin, the FBI, and the Construction of the Subversive Image in Red Scare America.” Pacific Historical Review 72, no. 4 (November, 2003): 495-530. Examines popular culture in the McCarthy era, focusing on the “booting” of Chaplin from the United States. Argues that the campaign against him failed to convince the public that Chaplin was a threat to U.S. security.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown, 1998. A detailed history of McCarthyism and an analysis of its impact upon American politics and culture.

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