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Remembering Charlie Chaplin, citizen of the world

Early in the 1957 film A King in New York, the second-to-last feature that Charlie Chaplin would write and direct and the last in which he would star, an unusual debate erupts between the two principal characters, one an exiled monarch and the other a precocious schoolboy. The subject at hand is passports, of all things, and the exchange is ferocious. Governments, the boy declares, “have every man in a straightjacket and without a passport he can’t move a toe…. To leave a country is like breaking out of jail and to enter a country is like going through an eye of a needle.” “Of course you are free to travel,” replies the indignant king. “Only with a passport!” the boy retorts. “It’s incorrigible that in this atomic age of speed we are shut in and shut out by passport!”

Chaplin, then 68, plays the sputtering old monarch arguing for the current world order, but the aging star’s true sentiments were those of the radical youngster (played by his son, Michael Chaplin). If today this frenzy about passports seems all a bit mysterious, audiences at the time would have understood the reference immediately. Though he lived and worked for nearly forty years in the United States, the British-born Chaplin never applied for an American passport; A King in New York was released just five years after the star’s de facto exile from his adopted homeland when his re-entry permit to the country was denied for political reasons. (For audiences in the U.S., who didn’t see the film until 1973, the issue would have been equally in mind, with the film’s release coming just one year after Chaplin’s long-awaited return to the United States to accept an honorary Academy Award.) The question of passports and the issue of the free movement of individuals across international borders was one of the preeminent concerns of Chaplin’s later life.

This month marks the 128th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth in England and this year the 65th anniversary of his proscription from re-entering the United States; both anniversaries afford an opportunity to reflect on Chaplin’s passionate internationalism and its relevance to our world today. Chaplin was a victim of the red scare of the 1950s, to be sure; his unabashedly left-leaning political sympathies made him vulnerable to charges of communism and prompted both FBI and MI5 investigations into his background and allegiances. But political systems aside, he was also an outspoken advocate for a kind of radical internationalism that didn’t sit well with early Cold War sensitivities. “I consider myself a citizen of the world,” Chaplin declared to the American press in the late 1940s when questions about his refusal to apply for American citizenship began to circulate.

For Chaplin, claiming to be a “citizen of the world” was no mere rhetorical gambit: it was to some degree actually true, in the sense that Chaplin was known and beloved in countries around the world. Rising to stardom in the midst of film’s ascendency as an internationally popular medium of entertainment, Chaplin was one of the first global celebrities. By the height of his fame during the 1920s, there was not a habitable continent on the planet where people didn’t clamor to see his films. Movie palaces in the British colonial city of Accra (now the capital of Ghana) teemed with spectators watching unlicensed re-cuts of Chaplin’s films; his famous Tramp character spurred home-grown imitators in Japan. Chaplin himself estimated that seventy percent of his income derived from revenue generated outside of the United States. “My business is an international one,” he proudly declared in his autobiography.

Gandhi meets with Charlie Chaplin at the home of Dr. Kaitial in Canning Town, London, September 22, 1931. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

More than just a monetary concern, that near-universal popular acclaim clearly spurred or reinforced in Chaplin a vision of a cooperative international community. The filmmaker’s very life and livelihood in fact depended on the free movement of individuals and the free exchange of goods. Born into extreme poverty in the south of London at the close of the Victorian age, he rose to fame across the Atlantic in the American film industry and grew his fortune distributing his films abroad as co-founder and part-owner of United Artists. Yet Chaplin, who made his living telling stories drawn in large part from his own impoverished background, was always an uneasy capitalist. His enthusiasm for the free flow of people and goods across borders had less to do with enriching the few and more to do with empowering the many. In an unpublished essay called “The Road to Peace” that he wrote around 1960, Chaplin asks whether, in an age of international media and film distribution when images and stories are shared around the world, it is “any wonder … that vast masses of people are desiring a better way of life?” For Chaplin, internationalism in its truest sense meant the pursuit of international equity. “World peace will never be secure unless all nations have a fair share of the raw materials vitally essential to their economic existence,” he mused. For nation-states, that meant the support of international bodies like the fledgling United Nations with the hopes of creating a world where “we settle all international differences at the conference table.” For individuals, it meant the freedom of travel extolled in A King in New York, the same freedom on which Chaplin’s own fortune rested.

For Chaplin, being a citizen of the world meant thinking of his allegiances in international rather than local terms and of thinking equitably about nations and individuals alike. His was an economically progressive internationalism, even a populist internationalism. “The monopoly of power is a menace to freedom,” he has his radical alter-ego declare in A King in New York, arguing against consolidated power in companies and nation-states alike. It was a sentiment closely reflected in Chaplin’s own statements off the screen. “I believe in liberty—that is all my politics,” he told the press at the time of his exile. Chaplin was undoubtedly an idealist in his outlook, but that idealism was based in a tangible reality: once, he himself had actually succeeded in bringing the world together, if only in laughter.

Featured Image credit: Statue of Charlie Chaplin in front of the Alimentarium on the Vevey, Switzerland lakefront promenade. Henk Bekker from Copenhagen, Denmark, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jack Wallace

    Thanks for the humane picture of Charlie. He should be an inspiration to us all.

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