On this date in 1889, Charles Chaplin was born. By 1918, he was the biggest star in the world. But Chaplin was more than an entertainer; he was also the first Hollywood activist. His early films, starring Chaplin as the Tramp, were subtle commentaries on class in America. The Tramp was a friend to the working class and an enemy of authority figures. In one of Chaplin’s most famous films, “Modern Times,” the Tramp gets a job in a factory, and his follies there illuminate the difficult working conditions that the working poor faced on the assembly line.
But as he grew older and wiser, he felt compelled to speak out – even at his own peril. Because of his support for the working class, he was labeled a Communist and investigated by the FBI. But the investigation led nowhere. Although he was interested in the Communist movement, he never joined the party.
As his films grew increasingly political, he was faced with a sad reality: the more he spoke out in support of his political beliefs, the more his star faded. In truth, it was not just his politics that led to his fall from fame. The invention of the talkie made his particular brand of humor obsolete. He in fact resisted using sound in any of his films until 1940’s “The Great Dictator.” What was it that made him finally relent? Well, he finally had words that needed speaking. Watch his moving final speech in that film, released a full year before the U.S. entered World War II.
Happy birthday, Charlie.