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  • Charlie Chaplin vs America: When Art, Sex and Politics Collided by Scott Eyman
  • Kevin Brianton
Scott Eyman
Charlie Chaplin vs America: When Art, Sex and Politics Collided
Simon & Schuster, 2023

Scott Eyman is a prolific and highly successful writer of Hollywood history. He has written biographies of John Wayne, Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, and other Hollywood identities. He combines popular appeal with some extensive primary research. In his latest book, Eyman sets himself the task of writing a social, political, and cultural history of the banishment of Charlie Chaplin from the United States. Of course, as Eyman points out, Chaplin was never formally expelled from the country. The Attorney General used a deeply suspect piece of legal trickery to rescind a re-entry permit in 1952. It is doubtful that it could have even worked if Chaplin had just returned to the United States. Chaplin never lived in the United States again and only visited once. Eyman stated that he wanted to focus on “the process by which Chaplin segued from the status of beloved icon to despised ingrate.” (362)

Chaplin’s exile has already been well covered in a biography by David Robinson in 1985. Charles Maland also looked at the reputational impacts in his book on Chaplin’s star image in 1989. Still, these books are more than 30 years old, and we can now look at Chaplin’s exile through the lens of resurgent popular conservatism, so it is time to revisit the issues involved. Eyman opens with a biographical sketch of the life and work of Chaplin during the silent period and the 1930s. It is a fascinating start to the book, particularly the details about his relationship with his mother and brother. He laces the account with anecdotes demonstrating his extensive research. However, given the book’s stated focus, the section has an aimless quality. For example, an extended discussion is made of an exchange of letters between Chaplin and his leading lady, Edna Purviance. It is a thought-provoking glimpse into Chaplin’s private life. After some time, Eyman then dips into Chaplin’s political life, such as the visit of the labor organizer and communist politician William Z. Foster, which drew the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the FBI. However, the book then meanders on to other topics, such as how Chaplin and David Raksin worked on the musical score for Modern Times. This material is always interesting, but the book’s focus is often lost.

Part two opens with the work behind The Great Dictator (1940). The film satirized Adolf Hitler, who had strange visual links to the tramp character, particularly with the tiny mustache. The film would be his last with his tramp-like figure. Chaplin capped off the film with a speech from the tramp calling for peace. It was not a communist message, and even Joseph Breen, who worked assiduously to stop anti-fascist messages, could not object to the speech as it represented a call for peace. With Europe dominated by the Nazis, the central diplomatic issue of the time was whether America should intervene in the war. Roosevelt had committed America to the Lend-Lease program, and the isolationists feared it would slowly drag the United States into the conflict. On 1 August 1941, Senator Gerald Nye attacked Hollywood for plunging America into war fever, and Chaplin’s film was a target. Nye reasoned that the Roosevelt administration wanted to glorify war, and British actors and directors like Chaplin wanted to lure America into the European conflict. Chaplin was called before a Senate investigation. However, the investigation would eventually fall apart when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and Nazi Germany declared war in December 1941. In Eyman’s book, Nye’s investigation is permitted a cursory glance when it did open up Chaplin to political scrutiny from conservatives. He only concludes that Chaplin’s film ‘succeeded in its purpose’. (126) While the conservatives were thwarted in 1941, they would return in 1947 with a vengeance.

Eyman is far better with his coverage of the Second World War period when Chaplin made speeches calling for a second front [End...