Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Charles Chaplin was one of the world’s best-known actors when the mother of actor Joan Barry, on behalf of Barry’s unborn child, filed a paternity suit against him. The FBI followed by charging Chaplin with violation of the Mann Act. He was acquitted of the latter but had to pay child support after two highly publicized trials, and he was forced to leave the United States. It took decades to rehabilitate his reputation.

Summary of Event

Charles Chaplin’s success in silent films began in 1914 with his first appearance in a Keystone Studios comedy, and he had attained legendary stature by 1940, the year he made his first dialogue film, The Great Dictator. The rumors of his affairs with teenage girls had not lessened his popularity, nor had the lurid details made public in 1927 when he was divorced by Lita Grey Chaplin, the mother of his first two children. However, from the 1920’s on, J. Communist Party;and J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover] Edgar Hoover, Communist Party;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had been collecting information about Chaplin, whom he suspected of being a communist. [kw]Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity (June 4, 1943) [kw]Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity, Actor Charles (June 4, 1943) [kw]Paternity, Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for (June 4, 1943) Paternity suits;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Charles [p]Chaplin, Charles;paternity suit Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Paternity suits;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Charles [p]Chaplin, Charles;paternity suit Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] [g]United States;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] [c]Law and the courts;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] [c]Families and children;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] [c]Government;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] [c]Popular culture;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] [c]Hollywood;June 4, 1943: Actor Charles Chaplin Is Sued for Paternity[00730] Barry, Joan Chaplin, Oona O’Neill

Charles Chaplin, left, being fingerprinted at the U.S. Marshal’s office in Los Angeles after surrendering on charges of violating the Mann Act.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Hoover found it suspicious that Chaplin often voiced his admiration for the Soviet Union and his sympathy for the working classes and that despite his long residence in the United States, Chaplin had never become a citizen. Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator, voicing his abhorrence of nationalism, seemed to prove that the actor was, in Hoover’s terms, “un-American.” What Hoover needed now was evidence that the actor was immoral as well. The Joan Barry case was his answer.

In 1940, the twenty-one-year-old Joan Barry (or Berry, as her name was occasionally spelled), left Brooklyn, New York, for Hollywood, where she planned to become a famous film actor, even though she had no acting experience. Like so many other hopefuls, she took a job as a waitress, expecting to be discovered by a talent scout. As it turned out, millionaire Getty, J. Paul J. Paul Getty noticed Barry and took her with him to Mexico. A film executive she met there arranged for her to meet Chaplin’s friend, Tim Durant, after she returned to Hollywood, and Durant introduced her to the famous actor. Chaplin found the tall, big-breasted girl attractive, and since Barry clearly welcomed Chaplin’s advances, the two were soon involved in an affair. However, Chaplin also believed that Barry had promise as an actor. He had her read the part of Brigid in the play Shadow and Substance, which he planned to adapt for the screen. Chaplin was so impressed that he arranged a screen test for Barry, and at the end of June, 1941, he signed her to a one-year contract and sent her to drama school.

By the spring of 1942, however, it was evident that Chaplin’s protegée was mentally unstable. She began driving up to Chaplin’s house late at night, drunk and verbally abusive. When he would not let her in the house, she broke his windows. After he discovered that she had long since abandoned her lessons, Chaplin wanted only to get Barry out of his life. In return for her agreeing to cancel her contract two months early, Chaplin paid off her debts and bought two one-way train tickets to New York, one for Barry and one for her mother, Gertrude Barry. They left Los Angeles on October 5.

On October 15, Chaplin arrived in New York to speak at a rally in Carnegie Hall that was sponsored by a leftist organization, the Artists’ Front to Win the War[Artists Front to Win the War] Artists’ Front to Win the War. Later that night Barry came to see Chaplin, asking for money. Wisely, Chaplin had Durant stay with them throughout the visit. A month later, Barry was back in Hollywood. Chaplin ignored her telephone calls, but she was not discouraged. On December 23, she broke into Chaplin’s house, waving a gun. After she was somewhat calmer, he put her into a bedroom. That night, Barry said later, they were intimate, but Chaplin insisted that he had locked his door to keep her away from him. The following morning, he again gave her money, and she left.

Barry returned to Chaplin’s house a few days later, and this time he called the police. She was arrested, charged, given a suspended sentence, and told to leave Los Angeles. In May, 1943, she was back. Again, she was arrested; this time she had to serve a thirty-day sentence for vagrancy. She also was six months pregnant. From this time forward her every move would be orchestrated by some powerful people, notably the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Hoover’s FBI.

On June 4, Barry informed the press that Chaplin was the father of her unborn child. That same day her mother, who had been named guardian of the child, filed a paternity suit against Chaplin. Though he denied that he was the father, Chaplin was ordered by the court to support both mother and child until four months after its birth, when blood tests could be used to determine paternity. On October 2, Barry gave birth to a girl, and she was named Carol Ann.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had married Oona O’Neill, who proved to be his chief support in the months to come. On February 10, 1944, Chaplin was indicted by a federal grand jury, which charged that by buying Barry her ticket to New York, he had violated the Mann Act Mann Act of 1910 of 1910, which forbade transporting women across state lines for sexual purposes. Chaplin also was charged, with six others, with depriving Barry of her civil rights by having her arrested as a vagrant, but it was the Mann Act trial that was the real threat. After a month of testimony by scores of witnesses, Chaplin was acquitted.

Meanwhile, blood tests had proven that Chaplin was not Carol Ann Barry’s father. However, the court in Los Angeles took over guardianship of the child and sued on her behalf. The attorney for the prosecution ignored the facts, resorting instead to emotional appeals, and the result was a hung jury. A retrial was held in April, and this time the verdict was guilty. Chaplin was ordered to pay child support until Carol Ann was twenty-one years old. In June, 1945, his request for a new trial was denied.


Barry disappeared from Chaplin’s life. She married, had other children, and later lived in a mental institution. Her scandalous accusations had seriously damaged Chaplin’s reputation as an actor and entertainer. Moreover, he continued to be a subject of suspicion because of his political outspokenness and his loyalty to friends who were under attack by the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities. He would never again experience the popularity he had once known.

In 1952, Chaplin decided to take his family to London on the passenger ship Queen Elizabeth for the world premiere of his new film Limelight. Two days out, he learned that the U.S. attorney general had rescinded his reentry visa. Chaplin spent the rest of his life in Switzerland. He returned to the United States only once, in April, 1972, when he received special awards in both New York and Hollywood. Ironically, time has tarnished the reputation of Chaplin’s bitterest enemy, Hoover, while Chaplin himself is now generally considered one of the greatest film actors and producers of all time.

The Barry case did have one significant impact beyond celebrity and career status: It encouraged the use of blood tests to prove or disprove paternity. Undoubtedly, the unjust verdict in Chaplin’s case prompted California in 1953 to pass legislation that made blood tests the final authority in paternity cases. Paternity suits;Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] Chaplin, Charles [p]Chaplin, Charles;paternity suit Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Charles Chaplin[Chaplin] 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. Despite some inaccuracies, this is a valuable volume, especially for its portrayal of the actor’s early life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Twenty-four interviews, dated from 1915 to 1967. Includes an introduction by the editor, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
  • 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. Particularly relevant chapters focus on Joan Barry, 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. An encyclopedic work, with ten appendixes, including a chronology, a “Chaplin Who’s Who,” and the section “The FBI v. Chaplin.” Includes illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Mirror of Opinion. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983. Traces the rise and fall of Chaplin’s career and reputation, outlined decade by decade. Includes illustrations, a filmography and bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. New York: Abrams, 2003. As David Robinson points out in his introduction, the primary purpose of this impressive volume was to make available some five hundred photographs of Chaplin at work. Includes chapters on the Barry scandal and Oona O’Neill Chaplin. Notes, bibliography, filmography, index.

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Categories: History