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Author Interview: Richard Carr

Richard Carr answers a few questions on his recent book Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America

Book - Charlie Chaplin What got you interested in Charlie Chaplin?

Like most I suspect, initially it was the films. Sometimes people overdo the hilarity of them – comedy almost a century old is bound to date – but they are often really clever pieces of work. City Lights (1931) is a gem – mixing pathos, class tension, and romance to brilliant effect. In that film Chaplin’s poor tramp falls in love with a blind girl who believes him to be a wealthy man. Just the skill in crafting that plot – a girl who can’t see in a film which contains no sound – is really impressive. The guy was clever.

Why did this book need to be written?
The point was that previous books had understandably looked at films like City Lights or The Gold Rush, and sometimes Chaplin’s controversial personal life, but not so much the politics that dovetailed with both. Reading Chaplin’s autobiography is to encounter a Who’s Who of interwar big political fish – films touching on Hitler and Mussolini of course – but also the director’s real life encounters with Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Oswald Mosley, Franklin Roosevelt, David Lloyd George and many more such huge names. I found the opportunity to chase down those real world links through the archives not only of Chaplin himself, but the political operators with whom he was dealing, really fascinating. This involved research in archives everywhere from California to Switzerland.

What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?
I think I began with the vague notion that Charlie Chaplin was a bit of a Russell Brand figure – working class Englishman makes it big in Hollywood, sleeps with a lot of women, and has broad left wing sympathies which were a bit imprecisely expressed. This proved to be somewhat unfair. Chaplin was a deep political thinker – not only reading people like Keynes but using them to produce his own economic manifestoes. In many ways his policy prescriptions – quantitative easing, higher taxes for the rich, investment in infrastructure to arrest the Great Depression – were basically similar to what politicians like Jeremy Corbyn have offered in more contemporary times. One can agree or disagree with what Chaplin advocated, but it was a remarkably extensive and specific agenda – particularly for a comedian. He was a one man think tank.

Most people probably would associate Chaplin with being a strong opponent of fascism - did anything new arise from your research here?
Definitely! There are two sides to Chaplin and fascism.

Firstly, though he did not buy all aspects of the Italian regime, it would not be outlandish to describe Chaplin as something approaching a fascist sympathiser in the late 1920s. Whilst he was always opposed to the racial politics of Adolf Hitler, when it came to Benito Mussolini he was often kinder. He regularly praised Mussolini’s efforts in conquering that most pressing of left wing fears, mass unemployment. Even in The Great Dictator it is arguable whether the Mussolini parody character is even a villain at all. On a personal level, certainly, the two gregarious figures would probably have got on fairly well. And, despite later accusations he was soft on communism, Chaplin was a capitalist and an adventurer. Early fascism was built on both.

But Chaplin never understood Hitler, and the racial nationalism that drove his politics. Chaplin was not Jewish himself, but was regularly accused of being such by the Nazis. His films were also promptly banned by the Third Reich as, later, they were in Italy. The book shows the fanatical zeal Chaplin poured into making The Great Dictator, and delves into archives showing how far the British government leant on him to stop making the film (appeasing Hitler, rather than mocking him, very much being official government policy in the late 1930s). If we criticise Chaplin’s personal life, and he must have been a nightmare to know as a friend or a wife, we must also praise the bravery he showed in making a movie very much swimming against the tide of officialdom.

How would you describe the book in a sentence?
The world’s most famous man deals with Hitler, Stalin and Churchill.

About the Author

Richard Carr is a Senior Lecturer in History and Politics at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. His previous publications include Veteran MPs and Conservative Politics in the Aftermath of the Great War: The Memory of All That (2013). He has also co-authored the books Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon (2016) and The Global 1920s (2016).

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