The Friday Report: That little tramp
March 14, 2013
America, reeling through the Great Depression of the 1930s, was proof to many that capitalism was crumbling and communism was the future.
In 1935, the Russian leader, Josef Stalin, immediately recognized the persuasive power of the media and sent operatives to America to start a Hollywood branch of the Communist Party. In the backdrop of joblessness and dismal economic times, Communist organizers began recruiting producers, scriptwriters and even whole unions in the movie industry. The recruits were “artists in uniform” whose sole job was to promote Communist ideals; otherwise movies were nothing more than capitalist decadence.
Vaudeville was the Saturday Night Live of its time, with comedians playing in and out and moving on to bigger things. By the time he was 21 years old, in 1910, Londoner Charlie Chaplin was an established mimic comedian, veteran of several burlesque traveling troupes. On tour in North America during 1912, he was noticed by the New York Motion Picture Company and went to work for Mac Sennett in the Keystone Studios. By 1915 he was so world-famous that he could command anything he wanted. His new contract with Mutual Film Corporation not only gave him total control of his films, but also paid him $670,000 annually at a time when the average yearly wage was less than $700.
Pictures of the time show Chaplin as an exceedingly handsome man who cast incredibly beautiful women in the lead roles in his films. His affairs with them were legendary and he wound up marrying four of them. His first wife Mildred Harris was 16 in 1918, when she came to Chaplin claiming to be pregnant. It turned out she was not and the marriage ended less than two years later.
His second wife was Lita Grey. Chaplin cast her in the leading role in “The Gold Rush” but this star really was pregnant and in 1924 the couple wed quietly in Mexico. Chaplin was 36 by this time and his new bride Lita had just turned 16. In 1926 the couple divorced in a long, ugly, and very public court battle.
In 1932, Charlie married again to his leading lady in “Modern Times,” a woman named Paulette Goddard, a divorcee in her early 20s. This marriage drifted apart slowly; Chaplin wanted a wife and Goddard wanted a career. They divorced in Mexico in 1942.
His fourth wife, in 1943, was Oona O’Neill, daughter of American Playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was furious at the news of the impending nuptials. He flatly refused to give permission for his underage 17-year old daughter to marry the 56-year old Chaplin. Despite the age gap, their marriage endured to the ends of both their long lifetimes.
Chaplin’s happy marriage ushered in turbulent times for the couple. His movies and public appearances had become stridently anti-fascist, a twist that unsettled viewers who had come to be entertained. His movie, “The Great Dictator” ends with a poorly received and quite curious four-minute passionate speech calling for an end to tyranny. The moment marked the downturn in his popularity. Odder still, people unfavorably linked Hitler’s mustache to the tooth-brush mustache of Chaplin’s movie persona, “The Little Tramp.”
Happily married to Oona, Chaplin was named as the father in a lurid paternity suit from would-be actress Joan Barry. Chaplin freely admitted to the relationship that had occurred a year prior to his recent marriage. Barry falsely claimed Chaplin was her own father. She was arrested several times for vagrancy and acting erratically. She was also pregnant and claimed Chaplin was the father, hiring attorneys to press the charge. The federal government, intent in stomping out communism in Hollywood, weighed in with charges of their own that fell apart when blood tests proved Chaplin was not the father at all.
But blood testing was still new science. Barry’s attorneys were able to get the results suppressed at the paternity trial and Chaplin was falsely convicted of fathering Barry’s child. Press coverage painted Chaplin in a most unfavorable light despite knowing his innocence. His next two films were pointedly political and commercial failures as well. His association with known Communists in Hollywood and refusal to take American citizenship were called into question.
Two days on a trip to England, Chaplin received the news that the U.S. had revoked his re-entry permit as a danger to the moral fabric of America. The couple stayed away, settling in Switzerland.
In the 1960s Chaplin’s films saw resurgence and in 1972, the Motion Picture Academy offered him their most prestigious honor. Chaplin returned to America for the first time in 20 years, receiving a 12-minute standing ovation at the Academy Awards.
Chaplin died on Christmas day in 1977 but an extraordinary life wouldn’t be fit without an extraordinary ending. In March 1978, two Polish auto mechanics looking for ransom stole Chaplin’s coffin, offering to return it to the grieving widow for $600,000. Oona laughed and said, “Charlie would find this ridiculous.” The grave-robbers were apprehended in a few months and the coffin returned.
Shows you can’t keep a good man down.