After Charlie’s widow died in 1991, their daughter, Victoria Chaplin, inherited the office belonging to her father. There she found a letter from Jack Hill, who in 1970 informed Charlie that he was not born in London as he thought, but in the Black Patch in Smethwick, Birmingham, in a caravan belonging to the so-called “Gypsy Queen”.
Chaplin’s birth certificate was never found because his mother Hannah, whose maiden name was Hill, originated from the traveling family.
Charlie’s oldest surviving son, Michael, is convinced of his father’s Roma origin and claims that Jack Hill’s letter must have meant a lot to him since he had kept it for so long in the drawer. Though there is no official record of his birth and we will never be completely sure of his origin, it can be said with great certainty that it is a Romani.
He was born in 1889 and his childhood in London was extremely difficult and poor. He scarcely knew his father, and his mother failed to make enough money to feed the kids, so Charlie performed comedy acts on tours from an early age. At the age of nineteen he moved to the United States, and in 1914 he signed a contract with the famous Keystone Studios and began making pictures. He directed his own movies from the very beginning and, with his recognisable character of The Tramp, became famous already in 1918.
His first full-length film is The Kid (1921), in which, as in most Chaplin’s films, he emphasised social topics.
It is said that if we watch few Chaplin’s films one after the other, we will see the panorama of all the possible human accidents that stalk the modern man. Chaplin’s art makes us consider the fate of modern capitalist culture and the unavailability of human happiness. There are no catharses in his films and his art was considered to be extremely cruel. In spite of a whole range of alogisms and other comic tropes, they are just there to cover the misery haunting The Tramp in the film.
In one of Chaplin’s most famous films Modern Times (1932), the mechanics of movements provoking comic effects is emphasised, but at the same time it clearly shows the man captivated in the world reigned by the machines, that is, people who own them. Chaplin’s character in this movie is subjected to all the possible options of a modern times pauper – unemployment, exploitation, madness and imprisonment. He prefers imprisonment because they feed him there and does not have to work as much as in factories so he begs the prison chief to stay there.
Just as Chaplin’s character got caught in the wheels of modern industry, so Charlie, in the late 40s and early 50s, got caught in the machine of the so-called McCarthyism.
Authorities can tolerate artists who by depicting poverty provoke sympathy in the eyes of the viewer, but not when they call for political engagement through art. Charlie Chaplin is one of the most prominent American artists who transformed the scenes of heavy life from artistic abstraction into a real political struggle.
The FBI, headed by the President Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, tried to accuse him of communist and other left groups symphaties, but failed to find a clear link. Chaplin was associating with political radicals such as Labor Party leader Harry Bridges, as well as Hollywood leftists such as Paul Jarricko, Herbert Biberman, and Dalton Trumbo. Not only did he maintain these friendships in the political climate of the Cold War that forced many to distance themselves, but he actively supported and defended them from attacks and accusations by the FBI.
Chaplin became interested in the economy during his trip to Europe in 1931, and he regularly explained to the famous how to get rid of the economic crisis, the so-called Great Depression, which weighted heavily on the United States. He wanted to abolish the gold standard, reduce working hours and control the price of the product by planning. At the same time he wanted to abolish laws on minimum wage and reduce government power. He had more anarchist, decentralising views than Bolshevist, which require a strong state and bureaucratic apparatus.
Despite this, Chaplin’s film Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was proclaimed Soviet propaganda. Additionally, when he received a subpoena to appear before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) to testify against his friends who were active in politically left-oriented parties, he refused to do so and sent each of the committee members invitations to Monsieur Verdoux.
The main character of this movie is a fraudster that deceives, punishes and kills women. Prior to the Great Depression, he was a banker and worked honestly, but when the system rejected him, he found his call in fraudulent waters. He looked through a veil of social contract and saw power as the only principle of achieving success. With its intelligence and charisma, it destroys the lives of naive people and thus confirms what the United States and Europe are doing globally. When Verdoux is accused of exploiting and killing innocent people in the court, he equates his acts with the production of weapons of mass destruction and notes that his guilt lies only in the fact that he killed too few people, because if he had killed millions he would have been a famous imperial force like a country whose citizen he was.
Except being considered a political enemy of the US government because of his leftist attitudes and friends, Chaplin was also attacked as a sexual pervert.
His relationship with Joan Barry was the worst for Chaplin’s reputation. Twenty-two-year-old Barry had a history of mental illness, so she used to attack him with arms by the end of their relationship and threatened suicide. Charlie tried to break up with her, but Barry refused to stop. Finally, she decided to file a lawsuit against him and reported to the journalists of yellow pages. This big scandal served as proof to President Hoover to further attack Chaplin’s reputation.
Although Monsieur Verdoux was his most controversial film, the US government got rid of him only in 1952 when Chaplin went to Europe touring his biography film Limelight, which has nothing to do with politics. Namely, he was forbidden to return to the US unless he comes to an official hearing about his political views and immoral sexual behaviour. He decided to stay in Switzerland and never returned to the country where he built his career. He made three more films in Europe, and his last film A Countess From Hong Kong (1967) was a major financial failure, the fact that devastated him. Chaplin experienced several minor strokes at the end of the 60’s and had spent the last ten years in privacy, not filming any movie. He died in 1977.
This great actor and director, who grew up in intense poverty, remained loyal to himself and to his roots, constantly defending the weaker, offering the world their perspective on the big screen. Early life circumstances led him to see the structural violence of one group against the other, realising that the people around him were not lazy or incompetent, but victims of a specific economic policy. This sentiment follows him from the very beginning, whether in the films, in public speech or political action.