Born 126 years ago this month, Charlie Chaplin is unique among Hollywood legends for being awarded both an honorary Oscar and the International Peace Prize — the latter being an honor of the World Peace Council, a Communist-led organization. The first award was given to him for being a pioneer of motion pictures, but he was no less the pioneer in his politics. His support for Communist dictators while preaching free speech and tolerance was a sign of what was to come for Hollywood.
In his lifetime he repeatedly denied being a Communist, saying he was too wealthy to ever want to be one. Instead, he labeled himself “a peace-monger” and supporter of individual rights. Whatever sympathies he had for the Soviets, he asserted, were confined to the war years when Russia was helping defend U.S. democracy against Hitler — a period when even rock-ribbed types such as Henry Luce saluted “Uncle Joe” Stalin.
This is not the whole truth.
Take Chaplin’s view of Stalin’s murderous Purge Trials. Few save for American Communists — and certainly no supporters of individual rights — endorsed them as “wonderful” since they got rid of fifth columnists. Nor did others praise the Soviet Union as “a brave new world.”
What of Chaplin’s wealth and love of the stock market? Then, as now, wealth did not disqualify leftists from radical politics. In his time, Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, was a vociferous Stalinist, as was Frederick Vanderbilt Field, heir to the Vanderbilt railroad empire. They too played the market.
Nor were Chaplin’s Communist enthusiasms confined to the time of America’s alliance with Stalin. In the 1930s, when Stalin was starving Kulaks and murdering his opposition, Chaplin refused to label him a dictator. (He passed on playing Napoleon because he “didn’t like dictators”; but when asked if he considered Stalin one, he equivocated, stating that “it hasn’t been settled what that word means.”) He failed to use his satire on Hitler, The Great Dictator (1940), to condemn the Hitler-Stalin military partnership that was then in full force as the two carved up Poland. Instead, when the Tramp finally spoke at the film’s conclusion, he condemned only capitalist greed — small wonder that the American Communist Party, which was defending the pact, chose to distribute copies of the speech.
George Orwell once wrote of how the far Left could not separate art from politics: If an artist held the correct views, then the art had to be good. Orwell believed an artist could hold detestable opinions — as in the case of Ezra Pound — and still produce great art.
Chaplin’s films, in my opinion, come across today as mawkish and cheaply sentimental. But perhaps he is an example of what Orwell was talking about: a great artist and holder of detestable political opinions.
— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.