Life & Culture

Charlie Chaplin: The Silent star who stood up to Hitler

Charlie Chaplin was the first global celebrity — and he used his fame to speak up for Jews


The Little Tramp is back. The Real Charlie Chaplin, the new documentary by British filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton, invites viewers to reconsider the silent movie star. A compelling cradle-to-the-grave portrait, using archive footage, unique audio recordings and dramatisations, and narration from former Doctor Who star Pearl Mackie, it’s a film that doesn’t flinch from Chaplin’s more troublesome side, just as it doesn’t stop short of appreciating his significance —particularly to Jewish people.

A far cry from Spinney and Middleton’s previous doc, 2016’s Notes on Blindness, the story of writer John Hull losing his sight, the film is a remarkable primer for those only dimly aware of Chaplin and his output. As the title suggests, it attempts to go behind the Tramp, the bowler hat-wearing vagrant with that all-too-familiar moustache that became his on-screen persona. “His Tramp character is really a vehicle for him to journey back into his past,” suggests Spinney. “Freud said about Chaplin, he’s destined to revisit the humiliations of his childhood.”

Tracing his path from his poverty-stricken upbringing in London’s Lambeth, the film posits that Chaplin became the world’s first global celebrity. “He first stepped onto the screen in 1914,” says Spinney. “But this is really just a shadow of the fame that he experienced during his lifetime. And a type of fame that really began with him. Before Chaplin, people had never been famous in that particular way. When he first steps on screen, films are just beginning to spread across the world. By 1916, his films are regularly being watched by hundreds of millions of people across different continents.”

As Middleton notes, Chaplin’s rise has been dubbed “the greatest rags to riches story of all time”, and it’s hard to argue against it. “We were kind of interested in, I suppose, just how that mythology that surrounds him was cultivated and the impact on him.” He cites the day, in 1921, when Chaplin returned to London, and he’s greeted by tens of thousands of well-wishers. “The papers were estimating, it would be more people coming out in the streets to greet him than on Armistice Day. The psychological disconnect that [he must have felt] is really striking.”

By now, Chaplin had co-founded Hollywood studio United Artists, giving him complete control over beloved films such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925). Yet this is just part of The Real Charlie Chaplin, which does a fine job of showing how Chaplin’s life ran in parallel to some of the biggest events in 20th Century world history. The Great Depression, for example, is commented upon in Modern Times (1935), a film about increased mechanisation. But it was the Second World War that, perhaps, came to define him.

For years, Chaplin had been thought of as Jewish, either by antisemites or Jews themselves. “Chaplin was reluctant to correct the popular assumption that he was Jewish, because he thought that to do so would play into the hands of antisemitism,” explains Spinney. “When he finally did, he said ‘I don’t have that honour.’” As Holocaust survivor and philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, Chaplin’s Tramp tapped into the idea of “the Jew as a pariah”. “He’s a wandering outcast, always being forced out of employment, hounded by the authorities, uprooted and exiled,” adds Spinney.

It all made the final incarnation of the Little Tramp in 1940’s The Great Dictator all the more poignant. A film that satirised Adolf Hitler, Chaplin famously played both a fascist leader, Adenoid Henkel and a Jewish barber. “The thing that struck us in our research, I think, is just the external courage it took for Chaplin to make that film,” says Middleton. “A lot of Hollywood throughout the 1930s were sort of looking the other way. They were re-cutting films, they didn’t want to lose the German market. And Chaplin was calling Hitler out from very, very early on and stood to lose quite a lot with that film.”

Finishing the script on the day Britain declared war on Germany, Chaplin was under huge pressure not to make it. “In terms of an act of artistic, political courage, it is quite striking,” continues Middleton. “There are a few other works, I think, that are quite comparable from that period in history and that is to his great credit.” Adds Spinney, “It’s also a beautiful show of solidarity, especially considering America was yet to join the war when he began making the film.”

As anyone who has seen The Great Dictator will know, it was also the moment Chaplin finally spoke on screen. Resisting the rise of talking pictures throughout the 1930s, when he finally opened his mouth, as the Barber impersonates Henkel, it’s to deliver a storming speech in favour of unity and democracy. “He articulates the anti-establishment, anti-nationalist themes that had been present in his work for much of his career,” says Spinney. “But there’s a sense that by saying them out loud, he’s putting his character on the altar. It’s the Tramp’s swan-song.”

As Middleton puts it, The Great Dictator showed Chaplin as “an undeniably important cultural figure from the 20th century…and so relevant, even today.” He was a hero to so many, he adds. “Audiences all over the world, of all faiths, and backgrounds and creeds...they saw in Chaplin a character who stood up against authority, who always sort of punched upwards, and, of course, most emphatically sided with, at the time, a persecuted minority who, of course, were facing extermination.”

While it also dips into Chaplin’s Communist sympathies, which saw him ousted from Hollywood in the 1950s, the film also doesn’t shy away from his troubled private life. “It’s very difficult to get away from the more controversial aspects of his biography,” says Middleton. Married four times, his proclivity for teenage brides is particularly disturbing. Even more so, his abusive, controlling behaviour, as reported by Lita Grey, his second spouse. “Their relationship started when she was under the age of 16,” adds Middleton. “Even the press at the time were remarking on this as an uncomfortable relationship. Chaplin was in his 30s.”

Middleton and Spinney spoke to several of his children, including actress Geraldine Chaplin, but there was no sense of trying to shape their father’s narrative, as he quietly slips away to Switzerland to live out his final days. “At no stage did the Chaplin family or estate try and exert any kind of editorial control or pressure over the film,” says Spinney. “They were very trusting and very generous and opening up their archives, and not withholding any material. We were very much given free rein.”

While the film also uses unique audio from a revealing interview Chaplin gave to Life reporter Richard Merryman in the 1960s, perhaps the best material comes from Effie Wisdom, who grew up near Chaplin. In 1983, film historian Kevin Brownlow interviewed her — then aged 92 —in her Norfolk kitchen, as she recounted not just their childhood but two subsequent encounters, in the 1920s, when he returned to London as the world’s most famous person, and the 1970s, on one of his final trips to back home. “There was this sense of how far they’d both travelled,” smiles Spinney. In the case of Chaplin, it was a journey unlike any other.

The Real Charlie Chaplin is released today.

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