McCarthyism, brides' youth delayed 'Sir' Charlie

Fearing U.S. reaction, Britain 1st denied Chaplin knighthood, reports say

July 22, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The silence about Charlie Chaplin has been broken. Much of the chat of his native England yesterday was about how he was denied knighthood for nearly 20 years because prudish Americans felt he was a Communist little tramp.

After decades of mystery, British government documents - which were secret until their release over the weekend - show that the snub of the colorful black-and-white movie actor was primarily the result of his marriages to two 16-year-olds and American reaction to them. He was in his late 20s at the time of the first marriage and in his mid-30s at the time of the second.

"U.S. blocked Knighthood for Chaplin," read a headline from The Observer of London. "How Charlie's lust for girls appalled the Queen," blared a headline in The Mail. Hourly updates on the British Broadcasting Corp. provided accounts of how British officials feared a backlash from the U.S. government if Chaplin were to be honored.

His chances of being granted knighthood, which would make him "Sir" Charlie, were not helped by reports from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI that he had "communist sympathies" and had lost a paternity suit in what, in his day, constituted a Hollywood scandal.

The documents were compiled by Britain's Foreign Office Research Department in 1956, when Chaplin was nominated for a knighthood, and released by the Public Record Office. Among the papers is a report about him called "The United States' Case Against Mr. Charles S. Chaplin," which stemmed from a hesitancy to offend the U.S. government. It was the culmination of a flurry of letters between British diplomats in the United States and the Foreign Office's protocol department in London.

Knighthood is purely an honor. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was knighted after the attacks of Sept. 11.

McCarthyism was in full swing in the United States when Chaplin was first being considered, and the Foreign Office wrote that granting him a knighthood would bring the British honors system into "disrepute." Never mind that Chaplin's pantomime-driven humor, including his goose-stepped ridiculing of Hitler in The Great Dictator, seemed as valuable to enduring World War II as the military's might was to winning it.

Although the Foreign Office pointed out that the English might forgive Chaplin's political sins (he denied until his death that he was a Communist), it made clear that its real concern was his "immorality" at marrying such young brides.

"Mr. Chaplin managed to shock even the broad-minded in the 1920s - e.g. his two marriages to 16-year-olds," the British document states. "Nor has the press allowed its readers to forget the Joan Barry paternity suit, the lurid details of which dominated headlines in 1943 and 1944 before Mr. Chaplin was finally declared the legal father of Miss Barry's child."

The report continues: "The American public have clearly taken exception to these marriages."

Chaplin was finally knighted in 1975 at age 86 as Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin - two years before his death and way too late, according to popular sentiment here. He was so frail that he had to be wheeled to the ceremony.

Born in London in 1889, Chaplin is revered throughout England. He pulled himself out of a life of poverty after his father drank himself to death and his mother was institutionalized with severe mental health problems, and he played the London Hippodrome at age 10. He came to the United States when he was 19, and soon his face became among the most recognizable in the world at the time and ever since.

Among his best-known movies were The Gold Rush and Modern Times, but he is probably remembered most for his character "The Tramp," which had its debut in the film of the same name. It ends with his signature lonesome waddle - somehow conveying optimism - after he lost at love.

Chaplin might have felt like the character in 1952. Having left the United States to promote a film, his re-entry permit was effectively canceled by Hoover, who was as obsessed with Communists as he was rumored to be with dresses. Chaplin settled in Switzerland, where he died Christmas Day in 1977.

For all his talents - his ability to find simplicity in sophistication and sophistication in simplicity - his peculiar form of slapstick in some measure belied his complexity. Before being barred from the United States, which made him a millionaire, he spoke glowingly of the country but refused to become a citizen.

After Hoover's move to ban him, he issued a bitter statement. He said he had been targeted by the "lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who by their influence and the aid of America's yellow press have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted."

Chaplin's honor, bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II, came only after a second push on his behalf began in 1971. A member of a committee that recommends knighthood wrote to the Foreign Office saying that whatever sins, real or imagined, Chaplin had committed, forgiveness was in order. The committee member suggested that the feelings of Americans were being misconstrued.

"In the past, in 1956, they were described as `strongly opposed,'" the committee member wrote of his predecessors. "But a good deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then. There may be a feeling it is time to let bygones be bygones.

"Would the Americans mind, or would we?"

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