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'Charlie Chaplin vs. America' explores the accusations that sent a star into exile

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." I was surprised to see that that was the subtitle of the new book, "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America," about the movie star, screenwriter and director. I always thought that he was beloved. He's famous for his silent films, including "Modern Times," which satirized how machines, including assembly lines, had become dehumanizing, forcing people to take their cues from machines. One of his sound films, "The Great Dictator," is famous for the way Chaplin satirized Hitler and the authoritarian mindset.

"The Great Dictator" got Chaplin into trouble. His affairs with young women, a paternity suit in which he was wrongly accused, getting smeared in gossip columns and investigations into his alleged Communist ties made things far worse. The FBI compiled a 1,900-page file on Chaplin. When he left America for a trip to England in 1952 to promote his latest film, "Limelight," his reentry papers were revoked, leading him to spend the rest of his life in exile. My guest is the author of "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America," Scott Eyman. It will be published next week. He's also the author of many books about other movie stars and directors, including John Wayne, Cary Grant, John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille. Thursday evening, Eyman will be co-hosting a Turner Classic Movie retrospective of several Chaplin films, including "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator," "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Limelight."

Scott Eyman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I found this book really interesting. I didn't realize how controversial Chaplin was and how many different agencies had investigated him - the FBI, the CIA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Post Office, the House Un-American Activities Committee. So his most controversial film was the 1940 film "The Great Dictator." This was a satire of Hitler. It was a - it was made a year before the U.S. entered World War II. What was controversial about ridiculing Hitler?

SCOTT EYMAN: Well, he started shooting the film in September 1939. It came out on October 1940. At this point in history, America is a isolationist country, as is Congress. Hitler was not our problem. The Jews of Europe were not our problem. If Hitler took England, we would just have to make a separate peace, and that would be the end of our problem. Chaplin believed otherwise, as did Franklin Roosevelt. As a matter of fact, Franklin Roosevelt was one of the few people in America that wanted the film made. Nobody in Hollywood wanted the film made because in the latter part of 1939, anti-fascist films were very, very few on the ground. But he was basically bound and determined. There's a letter in the book from Jack Warner to Chaplin. Jack Warner had just had a meeting with Roosevelt in the Oval Office, and Roosevelt had brought up Chaplin's...

GROSS: This is the Jack Warner as in the Warner Brothers company.

EYMAN: Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

EYMAN: And Roosevelt had heard the mutterings about Chaplin making an anti-Hitler satire, and he brought it up to Warner that he certainly hoped Chaplin was going to go ahead and make the film because he thought it would do a lot of good. And Warner wrote a letter to Chaplin reporting his conversation with the president and said if President Roosevelt believes it'll do a lot of good, so do I. I hope you go and make it, Charlie. He didn't offer to help in any way, (laughter) but he was passing along the story. He didn't really need to pass along the story. Chaplin was totally committed. But nobody wanted that film made. The British Foreign Office didn't want the film made because Neville Chamberlain was the prime minister, and he was attempting to appease Hitler, unsuccessfully, obviously. The American Congress was totally isolationist.

So it was a - and the industry, also, the American film industry thought it was a dangerous film to make. But Chaplin basically ignored everybody. The Nazi representative in Los Angeles was a man named George Gissling (ph), and his job, essentially, was to strong arm anybody that wanted to make an anti-Nazi picture by writing a threatening letter or two or three. And he wrote a threatening letter to the head of the Motion Picture Association, a man named Joe Breen, inquiring as to Chaplin's plans to make this film about - clearly, manifestly about Hitler. And Breen reported back that he'd asked Chaplin about it, and Chaplin said, well, there's no script, there's no story, there's no nothing. And if, indeed, Breen did call him about this, Chaplin was lying through his teeth because three weeks later, he started building sets to make the film. So he was going to go ahead and make the film come hell or high water.

GROSS: One of the reasons that I think that his studio didn't want him to make the film is that they wanted all their films to play in Germany, and Germany was definitely not going to play an anti-Hitler film. And also, the Germans, for a while, thought that Chaplin was Jewish. Why did they think he was Jewish?

EYMAN: They were obsessed with the idea that Chaplin was Jewish. That's a very good question, because at one point, there was a book published in Germany by a Jewish consortium that included Chaplin in a roster of famous showbusiness Jews, which was erroneous. He wasn't Jewish, but he never denied the erroneous charge because he felt it would give aid and comfort to antisemites and besides that, he liked Jews, so he just went along with it. So most people went along with him because he hadn't bothered to deny it.

GROSS: So what was the impact of "The Great Dictator" on Charlie Chaplin's life?

EYMAN: The thing about Chaplin is that he was going to do what he thought was the right thing to do. He didn't listen to committees. He didn't listen to friends who told him you're making a mistake. He had a very monotheistic view of his own career.

GROSS: (Laughter).

EYMAN: He - the audience had always followed him wherever he led. They had followed him into feature motion pictures with "The Kid" and "The Gold Rush" when people said that they didn't think he could pull off a feature because the character wasn't strong enough. They had followed him into the 1930s when he insisted on making silent pictures after silent pictures were dead and buried. But he made two silent pictures, one's "City Lights," the other was "Modern Times," both of which were huge critical and commercial successes. So he believed that the audience would follow him where he led, because they always had before. So he doesn't - he didn't really have a lot of qualms about making "The Great Dictator," based on - of almost 30 years in show business and 25 years in the movie business. And by God, the audience followed him.

GROSS: So America enters World War II about a year after "The Great Dictator" is released. And once we enter the war, Chaplin starts talking about opening a second front on the Russian border. What would that have meant just on a technical level?

EYMAN: He was completely unconcerned with that. He thought the...

GROSS: (Laughter).

EYMAN: ...Only way for - he didn't get into logistics. He...

GROSS: All right.

EYMAN: ...Believed that Hitler was a moral and religious and psychological and a death threat to Western democracy, and nothing else mattered except that he'd be defeated, logistics and military personnel and everything else be damned. So he was speaking from the point of view of a concerned citizen, not a military strategist.

GROSS: So what kind of trouble did this get Chaplain in, the idea of opening up a second front?

EYMAN: The FBI began basically taking down dictation of all of his speeches. (Laughter) They shadowed him. They began surveilling his house to see if any known communists showed up at his front door for a meeting. That was the approximate cause for a fair amount of the government surveillance over the next couple of years. And that was amplified when he got hit with a paternity suit in 1942.

GROSS: Yeah, we'll get into that. So there was a 1,900-page FBI file on Chaplin. It's a lot of pages.

EYMAN: It's a lot of pages.

GROSS: What were some of the different chapters in it? What were some of the things they investigated about him over the years?

EYMAN: You name it. They - it depends on the period you're talking about. Basically, at one time or another, he was the target of the entire security apparatus of the United States of America. You know, they would bug his phones at some times, then they would back off on bugging his phones. And they would set up perimeters outside of his house to see who showed up at his front door. They would open his mail. All this took place over a period of eight to 10 years, depending upon how excited J. Edgar Hoover was getting.

GROSS: Did he know this was happening?

EYMAN: I can't imagine he didn't know. But if he did know, he did not acknowledge it.

GROSS: Did you get access or try to get access through the Freedom of Information Act to the FBI files on Charlie Chaplin?

EYMAN: Yes, they've been available for years.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that. So you read them?

EYMAN: All 1,900 pages. The very interesting thing is there was this disconnect between Hoover in Washington and the FBI office in Los Angeles. The FBI in Los Angeles were the men on the ground in terms of surveilling the motion picture industry. And the head of the FBI office in Los Angeles was a man named Richard Hood because Hoover seldom went to Los Angeles. And every once in a while, Hoover would yank Richard Hood's chain and say, I want you to do this and this and this regarding Charlie Chaplin and see about this and that.

And at first, Hood goes about his business and does what his boss tells him to do. But as the '40s wear on, Hood begins to drag his feet because by 1946, 1947, the FBI had informers in the American Communist Party, and they had the membership roster. And they knew who everybody in the Communist Party - American Communist Party was. That's why in 1947, when they called the Hollywood Ten to Washington to be cross-examined, everybody in the Hollywood Ten either had been a member of the Communist Party and quit or was currently a member of the Communist Party. That's because they had the membership roster.

So they knew that Chaplin was not a member of the party, had never been a member of the party and never had given a dime to the party. And if they had thought about it for more than 20 minutes, they would have realized that anybody with Chaplin's autocratic leanings as an artist, a man who - was almost impossible for him to delegate anything (laughter), would never be privy or a member of a party with a top-down autocratic drift because he could not possibly have done what anybody else wanted him to do, because Chaplin had never done what anybody else had wanted him to do.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like he was a man who didn't like to belong to things. I mean, he liked to make his own films and to lead everybody, but he didn't like to belong to groups or parties or anything like that.

EYMAN: He belonged to the Catalina Yacht Club.

(LAUGHTER)

EYMAN: I think he belonged to...

GROSS: What was their ideology (laughter)? Yeah.

EYMAN: There you go. He belonged to the Lambs Club in New York, acting - a bunch of actors. He never joined the Director's Guild. He never joined the Screen Actors Guild. No, he was absolutely not a joiner. It had - stuff like that had zero interest for him, and it meant nothing to him.

GROSS: OK, so despite the fact that he was never a member of the Communist Party, he did have friends who were members. And you call him the most prominent victim of the red scare. In 1950, he becomes a target of Senator Joe McCarthy, the senator most responsible for creating hysteria surrounding people alleged to have communist ties. And you write that this turned McCarthy from a backbencher with a drinking problem into a political star. What were the allegations he made against Chaplin?

EYMAN: That he was a termite eating away at the foundation of America, and sooner or later the house is going to collapse. Essentially the same charge that the investigators at the House Committee on Un-American Activities were making against all the people they were investigating.

GROSS: So what became of that?

EYMAN: Nothing, basically, because Chaplin had never been a member of the party. And he never actually was called before Congress. They kept threatening to call him before Congress, but they didn't. And I suspect that's largely because they had all the authentic communists that they could call before communists or former communists that they could call before Congress. Whereas Chaplin had never been in the party, so what exactly were they going to ask him?

GROSS: Right. And the FBI found nothing, too, in spite of those 1,900 pages. Did people know that? Because smears tend to stick with you - it's hard to wash them off. So did the charges, did the allegations stay with him even though nobody ever found anything?

EYMAN: Yes, yes, because they were consistently spread and respread, and respread again, for a period of over 10 years, 12, 14 years. And it was a classic campaign of disinformation that had no - in most cases had zero relation to reality. There are - there were some hilariously lunatic stories that hit the public prints of the things that Charlie Chaplin was supposedly involved in.

At one point, there was a story - this is in the late 1940s, when the British and the Irgun were fighting the war in Palestine. And it was said that Chaplin was aiding the Irgun in slaughtering British soldiers, helping slaughter British soldiers. Well, he had nothing - he'd never been involved with the Irgun in any way. My favorite of these lunatic disinformation stories came, actually, after he'd been kicked out of the country, when it was printed that he was going to adopt the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (laughter)...

GROSS: Oh, wow.

EYMAN: ...Who had just been put to death, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

EYMAN: And again, complete lunacy, but there was this steady drip, drip, drip of lunatic disinformation. And gradually, the people that were prone to believe it, believed it. And the people that were not prone to believe it gradually began to think, well, maybe.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Eyman, author of the new book "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN' "NONSENSE SONG (TITINE) - FROM 'MODERN TIMES'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Eyman, author of the new book "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided."

So let's start with the sexual allegations that surrounded Charlie Chaplin. One of the things he got into trouble with was his affairs with young women. And you traced this interest in people much younger to when he was 18 and he was infatuated with a 12-year-old. And when he was, like, 52 or 53, he had an affair with Joan Barry when she was 22. And she is somebody who had an affair with J. Paul Getty, who was very, very wealthy. This is the kind of age gap, 53 or 52 versus 22, that still makes many people very uncomfortable today. And I'm wondering if you want to compare the reaction then to the kind of reaction you think it would get now.

EYMAN: Well, it would cause trouble now. No question it would cause trouble now. I think people are even more sensitive about it now than they were then. At the time he was going to trial in the paternity suit involving Joan Berry, just as the trial was getting underway, he married Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill. And she was 18 years old, and he was 53.

So the - his marriage seemed to confirm everything that the Hearst press and the Los Angeles Times press and the Chicago Tribune press, all the right-wing newspaper chains, were printing about him - that he was a roue, that he was a degenerate, blah, blah, blah, blah. As it happened, he was married to Oona O'Neill for the rest of his life very happily. They had eight children together. But it seemed to confirm to the public at large that he was what the prosecution said he was.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the paternity suit filed against him. And this was filed by Joan Berry, the woman who was 22 when he was about 52. And she was asking for a lot of money in this paternity suit. The blood test showed he wasn't the father. But before the blood test, Barry went to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who already didn't like Chaplin. Tell us a little bit about Hedda Hopper and her relationship with Chaplin. Like, you know, Barry went to the right person because if she wanted to smear Chaplin, Hedda Hopper was the person to do it.

EYMAN: Hedda Hopper loathed Chaplin for reasons both political and sexual. Hedda Hopper was extremely conservative. Hedda Hopper was one of the founders of the right-wing motion picture group that fomented the House Un-American Activities Committee. And she had also been abandoned by an older roue husband (laughter) as a young woman, who left her high and dry with a young son. Her young son became William Hopper, who played Paul Drake on the "Perry Mason" TV series.

So this - Chaplin rang all these alarm bells in her head for reasons both political and sexual. And Hedda Hopper - this was the story Hedda Hopper had been waiting for her entire journalistic career, so she called another friend of hers, who was a columnist for the New York Daily News based in Hollywood. And they got interviews with Joan Barry. And they began flooding the prints with interviews with Joan Barry, about how she'd been used, cast aside, impregnated - etc., etc. - by Charlie Chaplin.

The feds got interested and he was prosecuted on the Mann Act. The Mann Act involved transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes and was originally passed decades before to stamp out prostitution. Well, Chaplin hired Jerry Giesler as his defender, his defense attorney. And the jury deliberated for an hour and found him not guilty. Well, that was the end of the Mann Act prosecution, and then came the paternity suit. And there were three blood tests administered by three different sets of doctors.

Two of the blood tests proved that Chaplin was not the father, the other blood test was ambivalent, so the evidence was certainly on his side. But blood tests were not dispositive in California courts for a number of years at this point. We're now talking 1943. And he was found guilty by the jury, not because of the evidence, but because of who he was and his past history and the fact that he had an affair with a 22-year-old girl, even though he was not the father of the child. So he took this rather amiss (laughter).

GROSS: How did he respond?

EYMAN: Grudgingly. He wanted to appeal, the courts turned down his appeals, so that was the end of it. So he not only had to pay child support for 18 years for a child that wasn't his, he had to pay the fee of the attorney who'd gotten him convicted.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Eyman. And he's the author of the new book "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S "HIS MORNING PROMENADE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Eyman about his new book, "Charlie Chaplin Versus America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." Chaplin was famous for his silent films and for his 1940 film "The Great Dictator," which was made the year before the U.S. entered World War I, and mocked Hitler. Chaplin is a beloved figure in Hollywood history, but in his time, he was the target of investigations into his alleged communist ties. He was scandalized and gossip columns, condemned for his affairs with young women. And in 1952, on a trip to England, he was banned from returning to the U.S. and lived the rest of his life in exile.

I want to talk with you about when Charlie Chaplin was banned from returning home to the U.S. I mean, he was born in England and spent his childhood there, but he spent, you know, the majority of his life in the U.S. He'd gone to England in 1952 to promote his latest film, "Limelight." And right before he left, Hedda Hopper wrote an item in her gossip column saying that he was planning this trip. And then she writes to Richard Nixon, who at the time was a senator from California. What does she write to him?

EYMAN: She tells him that something needs to be done and that he's the one to do it. She had been a cheerleader for Nixon ever since he got elected to Congress and later the Senate. And his papers are full of letters from Hedda Hopper encouraging him, excoriating him, nagging him when he didn't answer her letters. She was categorized as high maintenance by any correspondence. She was a real piece of work, as my grandmother would say (laughter). And she was basically trying to foment government action using Richard Nixon as the battering ram.

GROSS: So she wanted government action against Chaplin.

EYMAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: OK. So does Nixon take action on her letter or just file it with the other letters that she's written him?

EYMAN: He writes her a placating letter saying, yes, you're absolutely right. I couldn't agree with you more. And then he changes the subject...

GROSS: Right.

EYMAN: ...Because at this - by this time, he's running for vice president on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower. And he's got bigger fish to fry than Charlie Chaplin or Hedda Hopper. And evidently he does absolutely nothing. There's nothing in Richard Nixon's papers to indicate he took any action whatever or was involved in the revocation of Chaplin's reentry permit.

GROSS: But meanwhile, the attorney general gets the Immigration and Naturalization Service to open an investigation that leads to Chaplin being banned from returning to the U.S. after his trip to England. What reasons do they give for banning him?

EYMAN: The reasons were vague. The document - a press conference that the attorney general gave a week after the revocation mentioned Chaplin's leering, sneering attitude towards the United States, mentioned his lack of citizenship, things like that. What was not stated in what Chaplin did not know was that if he had turned around and come back and demanded a hearing to get back his reentry permit, they would have had to give it to him. And they would have had to let him back into the country...

GROSS: Because...

EYMAN: ...Because he'd never been convicted of a crime. He had never been convicted of a crime. And that was the way that they deported various people that they didn't want in America, like mafiosi. They would get a mafiosi convicted on income tax evasion and deport him to Italy because he'd been convicted of income tax evasion. They couldn't get him on anything more lethal than that, but that was enough to have him deported. They could have done the same thing with Chaplin, except he'd never been convicted of anything, including income tax evasion. And believe me. They had gone over his corporate income taxes, his personal income taxes with fine-toothed combs for a decade, and they couldn't find a dime that he'd underpaid. So they actually had no legal justification for excluding him from coming back to the country.

GROSS: Why didn't he ever become an American citizen?

EYMAN: Because one of his core beliefs was that nationalism was a lethal disease, and it led to things like Adolf Hitler and Nazism in World War II. A friend of his named Max Eastman, who knew him quite well over a 40-year period, a good writer who started out as a socialist and ended up writing for William F. Buckley's National Review, said that what people didn't understand about Charlie was that he was born in England and made his fortune in America. And if the reverse had been true and he'd been born in America and made his fortune in England, he never would have become an English citizen either. He simply didn't believe in the kind of patriotism that is knee-jerk in most countries. He didn't partake of it. He considered himself - his phrase was, I'm a citizen of the world.

GROSS: You said, had he fought the ban on his returning to the U.S., he would have been allowed in because they didn't really have anything on him. But he didn't fight it. Why didn't he?

EYMAN: He got his backup. He was enraged. He was furious. And he didn't want to be a guest at the party if he was disinvited.

GROSS: And he felt he'd been smeared for so many years.

EYMAN: Oh, God. Yes, yes. Would he have done this on his own? No. I don't think there's any scenario under which he would have left America on his own. He had a wife. He had four young children, at this point, with Oona. They were all under the age of, I believe, 8. They were all, you know, going to school. He had an infrastructure. He had his own studio in La Brea Avenue. He was part owner of United Artists, a major releasing organization.

And he was 63 years old, and he figured he probably had 10 more years, you know? He was not about to leave. And he lived in one house in California for his entire life. He'd been in one house for 30 odd years. He was not a guy who pulled up stakes quickly or easily or hopped around. So he was going to be a lifer in Southern California. The fact that that choice was taken away from him just enraged him, and it's never really been obvious how enraged he was until you read the letters that I found in the Chaplin archives that he wrote to friends like James Agee, where he does vent. And he's clearly carrying around a load of anger, verging on rage, about what was done to him.

GROSS: Soon after he was banned from returning to the U.S., there was a campaign to ban his films from theaters. The American Legion passed a resolution urging American movie theaters to boycott his latest film, "Limelight," and every movie in which he appeared. And in their magazine, they published a story about Chaplin, saying his films were a sustained assault on democratic ideals and that Chaplin had long used film as a propaganda medium. And they said "Modern Times" is one of the few non-Soviet films constantly shown in exhibition in the Soviet orbit. That was totally false, right?

EYMAN: Totally false. None of his films were shown in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era because the Soviet Union wouldn't pay the money that Chaplin thought they should to rent the films, and he wasn't going to give them to them for free.

GROSS: So how successful was the campaign to ban Chaplin movies from theaters?

EYMAN: Extremely successful. Extremely successful. "Limelight" was a huge hit in Europe. Actually, it made more money than any other Chaplin film in terms of European grosses. But it only - it - a lot of places in America never saw it because the American Legion would show up and picket it and tell people going in that they were, you know, being un-American by going to see an un-American picture by an un-American artist. It's a love story, basically, about the theater. There's no political orientation to it whatsoever. But they were a - they were still...

GROSS: "Limelight" was?

EYMAN: "Limelight" was a...

GROSS: Yeah.

EYMAN: ...Completely apolitical picture. But they were reacting to - they were still reacting to "The Great Dictator." They were still reacting to "Modern Times" and the idea of "Modern Times" being anti-capitalist. I don't know if you remember "Modern Times," but it opens with the factory workers flooding into the factory in the morning and the production line getting going and the assembly line moving faster and faster and everybody trying to keep up. And then we cut to the president of the corporation who's working a jigsaw puzzle at his desk. That's as close to a criticism of capitalism as it went. But that was Chaplin's world view. He didn't see the - he didn't see society at large as evil or as vampirish. He saw it as indifferent. He didn't see - he didn't think society at large was - had a limited interest in the life of the underclass. And it wasn't a character flaw. It wasn't based on money. It was just based on human nature.

GROSS: So by the time Chaplin is banned from returning to the United States, few theaters can actually even show his movie.

EYMAN: True. Absolutely true. And so he had them pulled from release in America.

GROSS: For how long?

EYMAN: Until 1964.

GROSS: Wow.

EYMAN: So it was 12 years was the - Chaplin films didn't play in America until 1964. And then when they did, it was because he had written his memoir and it was coming out in about a year. And they decided to see if the temperature had cooled. So they booked a season of Chaplin films in New York, and it turned into the great event of 1964. It played for nine, 10 months, all the films in repertory. And as it turned out, the memoir was a huge bestseller as well. So his enemies had died or gone to Earth or simply a new generation had taken over and decided that whatever had happened in 1939 and 1942 and 1945 had no relevance in the '60s.

GROSS: Well, there's more to talk about, but we need to take a short break right now. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Eyman, and he's the author of the new book "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBTIE OF MARTA AZNAVOORIAN AND PHILIPPE QUINT'S "WEEPING WILLOWS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Eyman about his new book "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided."

So after Chaplin decides not to challenge the ban against him returning to the U.S., he moves to Switzerland. He has a really good home life with his wife Oona and their many children. But you say it ruined him as an artist. How?

EYMAN: The two films he made after he moved to Switzerland are grossly inferior to the films he'd made amongst all the tumult and controversy in Hollywood in the '30s, '40s and even until "Limelight" in 1952. Was Switzerland responsible, or was age catching up with him? He wasn't that old. He was 63 when he got kicked out of the country, and he was 68 when he made "A King Of New York" and 78 when he made "Countess From Hong Kong." So that's getting up there. But good films have been made by directors in their 60s and 70s. So whether it was just a lessening of stimulus, a certain passivity in the environment that he found in Switzerland - all of his letters from this period, he talks about how restful it is and how serene it is and blah, blah, blah, blah.

In one of Oona's letters she says quite the opposite, that he would get claustrophobic with all the snow, and he'd talk about going to Marrakesh just to get to see the sun again. So I think it was a double-edged sword. I think on one end, Switzerland gave him the serenity that he probably needed after 15 years of character - of enduring character assassination. On the other hand, it put him out of touch with what was going on in the world around him and what was going on in America. And there's only so much you can get by reading newspapers.

GROSS: Chaplin grew up very poor. His father was an alcoholic. His mother had mental health problems and was institutionalized. He lived in a rooming house with his father and his father's mistress. And then his father died young, and Chaplin was sent to a workhouse as an indigent child. Just briefly describe what a workhouse was.

EYMAN: A workhouse was basically a state-run orphanage for children whose parents were either dead or rendered insane or institutionalized themselves or in jail, and they had no other adult supervision. So the state took them over. And Chaplin remembered it as a period not so much of abuse as utter humiliation. He was there for about two years. His brother was also there for a while. Sydney was older by two years, and Sydney was very, very close with Charlie and vice versa. Chaplin allowed very few people in intimately. He was not a man who glad-handed. He was not a man who had a lot of people close to him. He kept himself for himself. And I think that was a function of his childhood, when he early learned the hard way that whatever society says it's going to do or pretends it's going to do, essentially you're on your own, especially in Victorian England with a alcoholic father who dies at the age of 37 and a mother who's insane and infected by syphilis. So he was very quickly responsible for his own - after childhood, he was responsible for his own recognizance, his own meals, his own roof over his head, and sometimes he had a roof over his head, other times he didn't. So there were times when he lived on the streets.

GROSS: After the Immigration and Naturalization Service banned Charlie Chaplin from returning to the U.S., and he refused to fight it because he felt he'd been so mistreated in the U.S. and so smeared, he never returned to the U.S., right? That was it.

EYMAN: He came back to get his honorary Oscar in 1972...

GROSS: Oh.

EYMAN: ...On his terms. He - they were - they - his films were being reissued all over America, all over the world. He signed a deal for his film library, and his films were being reissued, and they gave him an honorary Oscar to make up for the fact that in 1952, basically the entire movie industry had turned the other cheek and ignored the fact that the most famous comedian in town had just been driven out of the country. When he got kicked out of the country, three people in Hollywood stood up publicly and said this was a terrible mistake. You know who they were?

GROSS: Who?

EYMAN: Sam Goldwyn, Cary Grant and William Wyler. Everybody else shut up.

GROSS: What did Charlie Chaplin say in his acceptance speech?

EYMAN: He was overwhelmed. It was a 12-minute ovation. It was the longest ovation in the history of the Oscars. Old age is beginning to have its way with him when you look at it on YouTube. He's older, he's frail. He just kind of shakes his head, and he can't believe it that after all these years - you know. The funny thing was, his son, Sydney - wonderful man, gone now. But I had a long interview with Sydney, oh, 20 years ago, probably. And he said the thing that you have to understand about my father was he didn't care about the Oscar. He didn't care about awards. Those meant nothing to him. He said my father's image of himself was as a workman - to show up every day and work on the script until it's as good as you can make it, to show up on the set every day until the scene is as good as you can make it. He said it wasn't about awards, it wasn't even about money. It was about being a good workman. Putting in your time.

He said that's why he hated to go on vacation. You know, they had eight kids in the house, and Oona would get restless in the house, or the kids would get restless - and sure, let's go to Ireland. Let's do this. Let's do that. And he really didn't want to go. He would, grudgingly, but he really wanted to stay and work on his - whatever his project was. He was a compulsive workman. That was his identity. But he came back because it was a business deal, and he was making a lot of money, and they were going to give him an Academy Award. And ultimately, he was overwhelmed. He was overwhelmed by the response. He was overwhelmed by the love that the audience projected at him for those 12 and 15 minutes compared to the obliquity that he'd had to endure all those years at the end of his Hollywood period. It's a very moving scene when you watch it on YouTube. Very moving. So it was a closing of a circle. It really was a perfect closing of a circle. He died five years later.

GROSS: Scott Eyman, thank you so much for talking with us.

EYMAN: Thank you, Terry. It's been a lot of fun.

GROSS: Scott Eyman's new book is called "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review The Rolling Stones' first collection of new songs in 18 years. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES' "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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