Chaplin and HUAC

A king in New York’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.  

Kevin Brianton

Senior lecturer La Trobe University

The only direct depiction of the HUAC investigations in a negative light came in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957).  Chaplin had been one of he earliest victims of the anti-communist hysteria and had always been a target for the American Right.  Several of his films had enraged the conservatives such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).  His controversial private life had added fuel to the fire of conservatives who considered him to be a moral threat to the country.  An editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Express said:

Charlie Chaplin shelf proclaimed “citizen of the world” and “man without a country,” is fast nearing the end of the trail as far as the United States is concerned.

The complacent self-worship of the man, in a New York press conference is amazing.

In boasting that he was neither a patriot nor an American citizen, he said, in part:

“I am not nationalist of any country … You might say I am a citizen of the world … I never voted in my life … I did a great deal for the war effort … I made a speech in favour of opening a second front in 1942 … I believe that voting for people … leads to fascism.”

What a moral non-eternity that Chaplin is!

In joining the ranks of subversives who have the overthrow of the American way of life as their avowed objective, he insults the American people, the very people who have poured millions into his lap.[1]

The FBI had more than 1900 pages of reports devoted to Charlie Chaplin during his 50 year residency in America.[2]  Just as John Jefferson’s sexual preferences in My Son John were seen as evidence of his political leanings, Chaplin’s divorces and paternity litigations were seen as pointers to his communist sympathies.  Certain scenes in Modern Times comment on communist issues such as when the tramp walked down the street waving a red flag, trying to signal a driver after it fell off a truck.  A communist parade turned the corner behind him and police arrest him as a communist leader.  More important was his depiction of the dehumanizing nature of industrial work which Chaplin delighted in satirizing, along with bosses and police.  It was these scenes and his support for issues such as a second front against the Nazis in 1942 which left him tainted as a communist sympathizer.  It was in this cold war atmosphere of 1952 that United States Attorney General James McGranery rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit while he was travelling to London for the premiere of his film Limelight.[3] 

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on he HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film A King in New York (1957).  The film’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.  The exiled King Shahdov of Estrovia sought refuge in the United States where he hoped to fund his plans for the peaceful use of nuclear power.  Unfortunately the crooked Prime Minister, played by Jerry Desmonde, had run off with the funds.  The King and his loyal ambassador Jaume, played by Oliver Johnston, were introduced into various aspects of American culture.  The King visited a progressive school and met a precocious child Rupert Macabee, played by his son Michael Chaplin, who launched into Marxist critique of society.

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on the HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film: A King in New York (1957).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The King later met Rupert wandering homeless in the streets because he was running away from the Un-American Activities Committee who wanted to question him about his parents’ loyalties.  The FBI eventually captured the boy in the King’s apartment and the King was called before the committee.  Before appearing he was wrapped up in a fire hose and proceeded to douse the committee with water. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and before leaving visited Rupert who was destroyed after naming names.  The film’s subject matter was so contentious it was not shown in the United States until 1976.[4]

The pro-HUAC pictures were popular with the American audience.  Both On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny were in the top 20 grossing films of 1954.  It is almost impossible to determine whether the main cause of their success was their pro-HUAC message, but it does seem that conservative films had more resonance with the American public.  Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a determined attack on the McCarthyite mentality and the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the time.  It was a popular film and part of the post-war liberal flowering of films.  The high-minded aspirations of Storm Centre did not attract an audience.  A King in New York never had a chance.  Although the stinging verbal jab by Wilder on informers in Stalag 17 struck some kind of chord, the attacks mad on HUAC by Chaplin, Miller, Taradash had a little, if any, impact on the American public.  They were pot shots against a well armored opponent.  It is doubtful that the American Right ever felt the sting in the lines delivered in the films.

From the lack of popular reaction to his set of films it would seem that the American public were more behind McCarthy and the HUAC investigations.  The efforts of Hollywood’s liberal community failed to impress the American public that the communists were victims.  However, the pro-HUAC films were also one-offs, and no cycle of films began from On the Waterfront with the informer as hero or from the garbled political message of The Caine Mutiny.  At the close of the decade and in the early 1960s, the political tone of films became more and more anti-McCarthyite.  Films such as Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964) attacked McCarthyism in many different ways.  However, these films were looking at McCarthyism in retrospect when controls were looser and there was little likelihood that a career could be ended by a political statement.  Even though the anti-HUAC films did not strike a chord with the public, it is a credit to the courage and the integrity of the filmmakers that they were made at all.


[1] Los Angeles Herald Express 15 April 1947 printed in David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, McGraw Hill, New York, 1990, p. 546.

[2] Ibid. p. 750. A detailed summary of the FBI’s campaign can be found in this biography.

[3] Ibid., p. 572.

[4] Robinson, Chaplin., p.589.

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