The silent film era, which took off in the 1920s paved the way to what Hollywood is today. The filmmakers and stars in these pictures transformed filmmaking technology into an art form.
When you think of the silent film legends, who comes to mind? Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Sergei Eisenstein were terrific, but really, one man dominated the industry: Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin exploded onto the movie scene with his character of The Tramp. The character was a happy-go-lucky but continually down on his luck vagrant. He repeatedly played this role in his films.
Chaplin made over 80 films in his career. Among them are such greats as The Kid, City Lights, Gold Rush, and Modern Times.
With these successes, Chaplin became of the most famous people in America.
However, while you may know his films, you may not know about some of Chaplin’s other history. One of the most shocking stories is how Charlie Chaplin was banned from the U.S. by the FBI.
Keep watching as this video examines Charlie Chaplin’s curious and criminal past that caught the attention of the Bureau.
The Red Scare Sweeps Through Hollywood
In the wake of World War II, there was an overwhelming paranoia that communist influences were seeping into America. This notion was known as “The Red Scare”
Investigations into these allegations were headed up by Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Their crusade gained steam in the early 1920s and swelled in the years to come.
There was also an overwhelming belief that communist propaganda was being pushed through the entertainment industry, specifically films.
Going to the movies was a hugely popular activity and the messages that could potentially be sent to the public through this medium were a major red flag.
As relations with Russia became rockier, the powers that be believed strict enforcement needed to be placed on the film industry to snuff out subversive content.
If a film was regarded as inflammatory, it could be canceled. Worse still, if you were a writer of a filmmaker who was thought to be sending red propaganda through your work, you could wind up on the blacklist.
If you were blacklisted, you were effectively barred from the film industry.
The filmmakers that were the most popular had the ability to brainwash the most people so major stars were under the most scrutiny.
Charlie Chaplin, possibly the brightest star in America, found himself under this microscope.
Charlie Chaplin Becomes a Person of Interest
So, how did Charlie Caplin end up in the crosshairs of the FBI? Well, the definition for what constituted un-American activities was very wide-ranging.
Just by being a cultural superstar, Chaplin was already on the radar as a potential threat. What’s more, J. Edgar Hoover took an early and personal interest in the silent film master.
Hoover was already collecting intel on Chaplin as early as 1922. Pro-communist intent was measured in many ways. One of the first eyebrow-raising issues for the FBI was the fact that Chaplin never became an official U.S citizen.
Beyond that Chaplin had a controversial and widely publicized sex life. This behavior was commonly considered not-normal during the red scare.
A final knock against Chaplin were some of his films. His productions if seen in the right light were considered to be communist propaganda. Ultimately, Hoover, the FBI, and the American public grew disenchanted with Charlie Chaplin.
Before we take a look at the rest of the Charlie Chaplin story, take a moment. If you are enjoying this video so far, hit the like button. Also, if you want a line on similar pop culture stories, consider subscribing to the Facts Verse page.
What was Chaplin’s Real Name?
As noted, Chaplin’s citizenship was a point of contention for the FBI. He was a British citizen working in the US. This developed into an investigation of his true identity.
Keep in mind that his investigation into Chaplin’s life and political beliefs continued for many years.
There were rumors that Chaplin’s real name was actually Israel Thorstein and he was born in France. The FBI, working with MI5 looked into this idea.
They discovered that Chaplin had no birth records in the UK. As such, he must have originally had a different name or was born elsewhere. Furthermore, the notion that Chaplin was Jewish did not give the FBI any comfort. There was some potential anti-Semitism regarding people of interest. Many people on the Hollywood blacklist were Jewish.
The mystery of his birth, identity, and religion all played a factor in the snowball effect against Charlie Chaplin’s character.
Capabilities of Propaganda in Film
J. Edgar Hoover claimed that Hollywood films were “one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, influence upon the minds and culture.” Additionally, Hoover agreed that the communist beliefs were among the greatest threats to the American nation.
Put those together and the head of the FBI had Hollywood pegged as a massive threat.
Chaplin’s films almost always topped the box office. For example, City Lights, in which Chaplin plays a variation of his Tramp character, was the 3rd highest-grossing film of 1931.
If the FBI’s suspicions about Chaplin were correct, he would have access to the biggest stage and the largest audience possible to allegedly spread his untoward messages.
So, the FBI put the hard press on Chaplin.
Investigating Charlie Chaplin
The FBI began bugging Chaplin. After a scandal focusing on Chaplin’s affair with the young actress Joan Barry, listening devices were planted in Chaplin’s hotel rooms. They wanted to keep track of the lurid behavior of this suspected communist sympathizer.
Other outlets the FBI used to keep tabs on Chaplin were the gossip rags. The tabloids were seen as a viable resource for Chaplin’s behaviors.
Hoover needed an eyewitness who could directly link Charlie Chaplin to communist dealings. As such, the FBI had a network of informants in the film industry gathering intel.
The reports of these informants were not always reliable. However, their details led to many people landing on the blacklist.
When brought up in the House of Un-American Activities Committee, information came to light that was an indictment on Charlie Chaplin.
In 1947, The House of Un-American Activities denounced Chaplin and considered him responsible for spreading a pro-communist agenda and well as many other scandals.
The smearing of his name was a huge blow to Chaplin’s career. His latest film Monsieur Verdoux, which was released later that year was both a critical and commercial disaster.
It seemed Chaplin, once the most popular person in the country, had fallen out of favor with the public. Instead of asking about the movie in press conferences, reporters lambasted Chaplin about his scandals.
Whether justified or not, the FBI succeeded in tearing down Chaplin’s reputation.
Banned From the US
Charlie Chaplin’s next film Limelight released in 1952. The story has a bit of metafiction as it follows a comedian who has fallen from grace.
Chaplin went to London to promote the film. His intention was to market this film on a European tour.
However, this trip gave the FBI the window they were waiting for. J. Edgar Hoover requested the attorney general pull Chaplin’s re-entry visa to the U.S. He insisted that Chaplin was still under scrutiny for his pro-communist agenda and citizenship scandal.
The AG agreed and if Chaplin wanted to return to the US he would have to reapply. If he did this, Chaplin would have to have to officially answer these allegations.
It seemed this was the final straw for Charlie Chaplin. After fighting these accusations to his reputation for decades, he finally vowed to never return to the US again. He and his family moved to Switzerland.
Yet, the film star did not stop making movies.
Chaplin Responds with a Film
In 1957, Chaplin made his next film. It was called A King in New York. However, the film was produced and premiered in England.
Moreover, because of the communist scandal surrounding Chaplin in the US, he was still seen as a controversial figure. Therefore, despite the title, the film never aired in America.
This film contained more autobiographical elements. The plot focuses on a deposed monarch who seeks refuge in New York.
Because most Americans never watched it, they figured the film was a dig at their country because of how Chaplin was treated.
However, the film is instead a satire not necessarily of the American way but of Hollywood and the House of Un-American activities.
It is only fitting that Charlie Chaplin’s response to this decades-long controversy would come in the form of a film.
In the end, Chaplin did receive a cathartic moment. He returned to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Oscar. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. The lifelong funnyman finally had to quiet the cheers after several minutes.
Charlie Chaplin was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. At his height, everyone knew the man, his mustache, and his movies. He is easily one of the most influential people to ever play a role in Hollywood.
However, the truth about how Chaplin was banned from the US by the FBI is a bit of history some film buffs might not realize.
So, what did you think? Is Chaplin the greatest silent film star ever? What is his best film? Sound off in the comments below.
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