When millions of people held “Je Suis Charlie” signs in memory of the cartoonists killed in Paris this past January, a different Charlie came to mind. Charlie Chaplin who made his first screen appearance, 100 years ago, as the Tramp.
Why did I think of this other Charlie?
Chaplin knew a thing or two about satire. And when it came to racism and oppression he knew exactly which side he was on. Charlie mocked the mighty and was adored by millions. Governments despised his radical politics and banned his films.
From starting life destitute in a London workhouse, Charlie became the most famous film star in the world at a time when cinema was the most popular art form.
The Tramp, despite being broke and downtrodden, was spirited and resilient. Hilarious and heart breaking, Charlie’s films were about the lives of the oppressed and exploited, as seen by the titles The Vagabond, The Kid and The Immigrant. In The Immigrant, Charlie endures a challenging voyage and gets into trouble as soon as he arrives in the USA.
Modern Times (1936), was made at the height of industrial unrest in the USA and saw Charlie the Tramp become a factory worker. He is literally caught up in the grinding machinery of capitalism, experiences street fighting between the unemployed and the police and, holding a red flag, inadvertently leads a march of militant workers. Hitler and Mussolini banned Modern Times labeling him a “pseudo-Jew”.
The Great Dictator (1940) was a massively popular film that tore into Hitler and his persecution of the Jews. In 1938 when the western governments were appeasing Nazi Germany and Charlie was planning the production, the British Board of Film Censors tried to get Hollywood to prevent the film being made fearing it would upset Nazi Germany.
In the film Charlie becomes both the dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber living in the ghetto — both with their little toothbrush mustaches. Towards the end of the movie the Jewish barber is mistaken for the Dictator and called to make a speech. Coming out of character and speaking as Chaplin himself, he denounces not just fascism but all governments, “Don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty,” he declares, as Europe is about to be launched into carnage.
Chaplin was warned that including the speech would damage the film’s reception and reduce his profits by a million dollars. He responded, “I don’t care if it is five million dollars.” Far right groups attempted to disrupt the opening. The speech was reprinted as a pamphlet by the Communist Party and has been watched by over 10 million people on YouTube.
When the film was released the war had started but the USA was staying out of it. Charlie addressed an anti-Nazi rally with a forty minute speech addressing the crowd as “Comrades”.
Long disliked by the US establishment for his left wing sympathies, Charlie was chucked out of the country in 1952.
He lived out his life in Switzerland and continued to be a radical comic and satirist. As he said in his autobiography late in life, “My films have always been for the underdog.”
Je suis Charlie Chaplin.