delanceyplace.com 6/23/09 - charlie chaplin exiled

In today's excerpt - Charlie Chaplin in exile (1889-1977). Chaplin's Little Tramp character had catapulted him to fame and fortune not exceeded even to this day. However, late in his career, his political views—though moderate by some contemporary standards—were seen by many as communistic and J. Edgar Hoover instructed the FBI to keep extensive secret files on him. This coupled with the controversy associated with his attraction to younger women (at fifty-four, for example, he married eighteen-year-old Oona O'Neill) led to his departure and exile from the United States. To add to this sorrow he began to feel trapped by the Little Tramp character he had created:

"Thanks to the combined scandals of his 'un-American' politics and his underage bedfellows, Chaplin had been exiled [by the FBI in 1952] from the country whose most popular art form he helped to define. Decamping to a villa in Switzerland he lived out the next twenty years with his devoted fourth wife Oona at his side returning to the US in 1972 for 'the great American recantation' when Hollywood offered him an honorary Oscar and the opportunity for some preening. He died five years later at the age of eighty-eight, widely considered cinema's greatest genius.

"Although the international adoration The Tramp inspired was gratifying at first, Chaplin came to resent the 'mask' he had assumed: 'There are days when I am filled with disgust at the character that circumstances forced me to create' he said late in life: 'That dreadful suit of clothes.' This seems less a rejection of the suit itself than of a career defined by—or as—a suit of clothes the lingering horror of a costume that became both straitjacket and carapace. But as James Agee pointed out Chaplin's genius was precisely for finding 'inflections' for ranging across human nature while remaining within this one apparently fixed identity.

"Nonetheless, becoming a living legend is by all accounts not much fun. Like Marilyn Monroe after him, Chaplin felt imprisoned by his own creation, as his audiences refused to let him play anyone else. Unlike Monroe, however, Chaplin had the wealth and the creative control to make the attempt. After dozens of shorts and a handful of classic features starring the Tramp including, The Gold Rush and City Lights, Chaplin set about killing him off, first turning him into Hitler in The Great Dictator, and then into Monsieur Verdoux, the sociopathic serial killer who justifies murdering a string of wives by means of the atomic bomb. Monsieur Verdoux was greeted with a mixture of incomprehension and hostility; although it was nominated for best screenplay of 1947 it lost to that beloved masterpiece The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, starring Cary Grant and Shirley Temple. Chaplin made only one more film in Hollywood the mawkish and self-pitying Limelight before the House Un-American Activities Committee drove him into exile."


author:

Sarah Churchwell

title:

'The Tramp and the sort-of-lady'

publisher:

The Times Literary Supplement

date:

June 12, 2009

pages:

7
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