EXILE’S RETURN: A LION IN WINTER
Herald Examiner Collection Los Angeles Public Library
After a twenty-year semi-voluntary political exile from the United States, Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the most brilliant comic artist of the 20th century, applied for and received a temporary visa which permitted him to reenter the country briefly in order to receive an honorary Academy Award for lifetime professional achievement. The aging actor was so moved by his reception that he could barely speak when Jack Lemon presented him with the honorary Oscar. Physically frail and aging, 82-year-old Chaplin had been burdened with the worry that all of his greatest films were becoming forgotten and that his public image in this country had been permanently tarnished by a cynically motivated, FBI-orchestrated, trumped-up White Slavery case covertly organized against him in conjunction with a concerted behind-the-scenes political smear campaign by the right-wing press during the Hollywood blacklist era of the early 1950s. The humiliating public scandal and the ensuing economic boycott of his films had persuaded him that he was no longer welcome in the United States after thirty-eight years of permanent residence (without citizenship). In 1952, he had relocated his impressionable young children and still-expanding family to the privacy and seclusion of Switzerland.
But when he finally returned to the U.S. for that honorary Oscar in 1972, he received what still remains the longest standing ovation in the history of the Motion Picture Academy.
Times had changed. The dignified septuagenarian was now in his dotage while the 37th President of the United States—a former HUAC member and one of the most outspoken domestic anti-communists of the day at the time of Chaplin’s unceremonious departure--was too deeply immersed in political hot water of his own to comment on Chaplin’s triumphant return. Within a few months he would be attempting to explain a break-in that had recently taken place at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.
The love fest atmosphere that night was all the more poignant because Chaplin was returning to a Hollywood he had personally helped to transform from a sleepy suburban village into the media capitol of the world. And he was also being saluted by a grateful industry because his silent film masterpieces had been seminal in elevating their mass communications medium from its lowly social origin as a cheap form of working class entertainment into the culturally and intellectually prestigious art form known today as the cinema. He was one of two pioneers (the other was D.W.Griffith) to establish incontrovertibly that movies were as valid an art form as the other lively arts.
Many of the actors assembled in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night also considered him the greatest actor in film history. And none of them would have doubted the fact that he had also pioneered the fundamentals of modern film acting technique at the very earliest stage of silent film history. Until Chaplin, over-the-top, melodramatic acting styles from the 19th century Victorian stage (both comic and dramatic) dominated film. The scaled-down, naturalistic film acting techniques he innovated were better suited to the big screen where intimate close-up shots magnified the projected visual image of the human face to heights of fifteen feet or more.
Chaplin’s peers were also saluting him for leaving his indelible stamp on 20th century cultural history itself by writing, producing, directing and acting in four silent film, feature-length masterpieces--three of which still remain on the AFI’s all-time one hundred greatest films list.
Hollywood was a hick town and Beverly Hills was a sagebrush wilderness when 25-year-old Charlie first arrived in Los Angeles.
Security Pacific Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Chaplin had no previous film acting experience when he came to California. By the end of 1915 he was the most famous human being in the entire world. But at the time he first arrived as a greenhorn at the gates of Keystone to try his luck at making a buck in those “galloping tintypes” of 1913, he already had under his belt close to twenty years stage experience in British music hall. As Charlie’s birth announcement in an English show business trade
paper proudly proclaimed: he was “cradled in the profession” by his two actor parents.