Charlie Chaplin is unique among Hollywood legends for being awarded both an honorary Oscar and the Communist International Peace Prize. The first award was given to him for being a pioneer of motion pictures, but he is no less the pioneer in his politics. His support for communist dictators while preaching free speech and tolerance was a forerunner of Left Coast Hollywood today.
In his lifetime he repeatedly denied being a communist, stating that 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 US democracy against Hitler.
While airing some of Chaplin’s notorious pro-Soviet comments, such as his view that Stalin’s Purge Trials “were wonderful” since they got rid of fifth columnists, Peter Ackroyd channels Chaplin when dealing with politics. He plays the same rigged game. He too confines Chaplin’s pro-Soviet comments to the war years, when the US and Russia were military partners and even Republicans praised Stalin. But this attempt to mainstream him falters. Few, apart from authentic Hollywood Communists, praised the Purge Trials (although Warner Brothers did produce a film supporting them); nor was it in the mainstream to declare, as Chaplin did, the Soviet Union “a brave new world,” and hoped “communism was the wave of the future.”
He echoes Chaplin when he says it was impossible for such a wealthy man who played the stock market to have been a communist (here he forgets other wealthy members of the American Communist Party such as Dalton Trumbo, at the time the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood as well as Frederick Vanderbilt Field, heir to the Vanderbilt railroad tycoon, both of whom were enthusiastic stock players and Stalinists). But he goes further, declaring Chaplin to be a libertarian based on his willingness to speak out, and his absolute control over his life. Ackroyd clearly misunderstands this concept, which is based on the belief in individual rights for all, even one’s enemies. His support of the Purge Trials, with its behind-the-scenes torturing of witnesses both before they took the stand but especially during, when they didn’t comply with the rigged charges, negates any victim’s rights libertarianism. Unmentioned in his catalouge of Chaplin’s pro-Soviet wartime enthusiasms was his desire to muzzle anti-communist publications since the Soviets had banned any anti-American literature.
By claiming that Chaplin was just more enthusiastic than most about an American ally, and that this merely lasted the duration of the war, he shortchanges the reader. For the filmmaker supported the Soviet Union well before it became a US ally. 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 equivicated, statling that “it hasn’t been settled what that word means.”). Nor did he use his satire on Hitler, The Great Dictator, (1940) to condemn the Hitler-Stalin military partnership then in full force when both jointly 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 the artist held their views, then their art had to be good. Instead, he argued that an artist can hold detestable opinions–as in the case of Ezra Pound–and still produce great art. The same could possibly be said of Chaplin, although his films, in my opinion, come across as mawkish and cheaply sentimental. It’s pity that Ackroyd, who at least departs the herd by not defending Chaplin’s war-time views, cannot come to terms with the fact that Chaplin was lifelong Stalinists and a gifted artist.