History's Second Greatest Monster
In "Charlie Chaplin, monster," Roger Lewis of the UK Spectator reviews a new biography of the other world figure of the first half of the 20th century with the tiny mustache, and finds him to nearly as tyrannical in his own way:
No actual birth certificate for Charles Spencer Chaplin has ever been found. The actor himself drew a blank when he went on a rummage in Somerset House. The latest research suggests that he was born ‘in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, near Birmingham’. But surely the truth has been staring people in the face ever since the Little Tramp first popped on the screen: Chaplin is the lost twin of Adolf Hitler.
Peter Ackroyd almost suggests as much. Both men first drew breath in April 1889. They had drunken fathers and nervous mothers. There were patterns of madness and illegitimacy in the family tree. They were short and sported an identical moustache. They had marked histrionic skills, each man ‘appealing to millions of people with an almost mesmeric magic’. They were despotic towards underlings — and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is less political satire than back-handed homage. Hitler watched it at a private screening — twice.
And speaking of trivializing, there is no more trivializing, over-rated, treatment of Hitler than Chaplin’s dimwitted, laboriously unfunny Great Dictator. Yes Chaplin made some funny movies, but when he tried his hands at politics Chaplin made a movie that did nothing but help Hitler because he made him seem like an unthreatening clown just at a time, 1940, when the world needed to take Hitler’s threat seriously.Yet Chaplin’s film makes it seem like Hitler was nothing but a harmless fool (like Chaplin, same mustache and all). And he made it at a time, during the Nazi-Soviet pact, when the world most needed to mobilize against Hitler’s threat. And yet Chaplin, to his eternal shame ended the film not with a call to oppose fascism, and its murderous hatred, but rather—because he was following the shameful Hitler-friendly Soviet line at the time—ended his film with a call for all workers in the world to lay down their arms—in other words to refuse to join the fight against fascism and Hitler.
Today, the left seamlessly transmit their memes through an endless variety of media, but even in 1939 and '40, what Rosenbaum describes above was a multimedia theme of the left while the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was in force, until Hitler violated it in 1941, much to Stalin's shock. Chaplin in film, Dalton Trumbo in print, and Pete Seeger in song (when he wasn't swindling obscure black South African artists out of millions in royalties.)
Within the film industry itself, Chaplin was the precursor to much of the business's darker side: Like Stanley Kubrick, another obsessive, vertically challenged director, Chaplin's "one unfulfilled ambition was to star in a biopic about Napoleon," Lewis writes. And speaking of Kubrick, Lewis asks, "Did Chaplin inspire Nabokov to write Lolita? He’d have been a better Humbert Humbert than James Mason." Which brings us to the similarities between Chaplin and his cinematic successor in the second half of the 20th century:
The girls he liked were dewy 15-year-olds — he’d wait until they were 16 before he married them, when they’d find themselves mistress of a large mansion in Beverly Hills and a body of servants, plus an obligation to the School Board of Los Angeles ‘to continue their education’. As with Woody Allen, Chaplin could help his brides with their homework — or maybe not. ‘Charlie married me and then he forgot all about me,’ was a frequent complaint cited in divorce hearings. He was always off chasing fresher meat, painting his private parts with iodine to ward off the clap. Louise Brooks was terrified to see his ‘bright red erection’ coming at her in the dark.
On that note, do I even need to add, read the whole thing?