Charlie Chaplin’s Strange Exile

In the 1950s, Charlie Chaplin found himself at odds with the U.S. government, leading to a nearly 20-year exclusion from the States.

Charlie Chaplin sitting next to a newsboy

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This three-part series on Charlie Chaplin was originally published in March of 1958, after Chaplin had been forced to leave the United States following an FBI investigation based on accusations of communist sympathies. Chaplin’s popularity had been in decline throughout the 1940s, not only because of the rumors of communism, but also because of scandals related to a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women. This series was written six year after Chaplin had left the U.S. He would not return to America until 1972.

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here

When I think of a million dollars, tears come to my eyes…

This is one of the theme songs from Charlie Chaplin’s latest film, A King in New York, in which he has added another sad chapter to the strange case of Charles Chaplin versus the United States. In A King in New York, a furious Chaplin takes off after the Statue of Liberty with a blunderbuss. When the smoke clears, the old gal is still there, and all Chaplin has is an aching shoulder—and the worst artistic flop of his career.

Even the day that Charlie Chaplin and the United States came to the parting of the ways, September 17, 1952, in New York harbor, the plot was chaotic. Many observers felt the actor got a most inelegant bum’s rush. Others, including members of our various patriotic societies, hailed it as the most wholesome good riddance since the day we lost Benedict Arnold, in the same direction. There remains much mystery as to what was going on behind the scenes.

Chaplin had announced that he and his family were leaving on a long vacation trip to Europe. The reentry permit in Charlie’s British passport was valid for one year. The Chaplins were two days at sea before the then Attorney General of the United States, James P. McGranery, tossed off a bombshell statement that he had instructed the Immigration authorities to hold Chaplin for a hearing to determine whether he would be allowed to reenter the country. What were the charges? That, hinted the Attorney General, would tip off Mr. Chaplin. McGranery then went on to add, “If assertions about Mr. Chaplin are true, he is, in my judgment, an unsavory character… . He has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist Party, with grave moral charges and with making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him.” In Europe the reaction to this bold statement was a spontaneous uproar in Chaplin’s favor.

What provoked McGranery’s action? I have made inquiries at the Department of Justice, and I have asked Chaplin his version. Naturally, the versions differ. The Department of Justice presumably was preparing to move against Chaplin and intended to wait until he returned to the country. But the plan apparently leaked, and hence McGranery made his announcement. Chaplin seemed convinced—wrongly—that the American government, under special orders from President Truman, was out to lower the boom on him.

Something Foul Afoot

Since he arrived here in Europe in 1952, Chaplin has added to the general confusion. A born mythomaniac, he has given several public versions of his troubles—the pressure of bankers on Hollywood, McCarthyism, fascists in Washington, the American Legion, now this, now that, et cetera. In private, however, Chaplin recently told one of his closest friends in London the following lurid tale: Chaplin says that in Hollywood, in the spring of 1952, he was visited by agents of the FBI — this could have been in connection with the granting of the reentry permit. Several old and rather sticky matters in the dossier were gone over. Suddenly — according to Chaplin — came the charge that he was the father, out of wedlock, of a now-famous star. There are several raw things in what the FBI calls its raw file. But for Chaplin the nightmare of a second Joan Berry scandal, the paternity case in which he was convicted by a Los Angeles jury of being the father of an unwed girl’s baby, must have been terrifying.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin with Jackie Coogan in the 1920 classic, The Kid.

This is Chaplin’s penny-dreadful version, and if true, it would explain a lot. Both those who insist that Chaplin had decided to leave the United States forever and those who believe he was pressured into it now cite the curious incident known as “Oona’s Strange Interlude.” Shortly after they landed in Europe, Charlie sent his wife hightailing back to his other properties and converting the proceeds into a cashier’s certified check, Oona scurried back to Europe. Obviously, since the treasure trove was in a rather neat little bundle, pickup letter and all, Chaplin was hedging his bets. But it seems more obvious that had he definitely known he was leaving Hollywood forever, he would have taken his valuables with him.

There is a variant version of Operation McGranery, one of those persistent stories that crop up so often in the vast Chaplin apocrypha. It goes back to the summer of 1952, when Charlie came to the East Coast a short while before sailing. Chaplin is a ferocious after-dinner mimic, and on this occasion he added a new pièce de résistance, Bess Truman Launches a Battleship. New York friends warned Chaplin that if news of this spoofery leaked down to Washington, it might cause trouble. According to one published version, the attorney general did hear of this naughty take on the First Lady and decided to throw the book at the little fellow. Former President Harry S. Truman, in a letter to this writer, said that this story “was news to me.”

But the real reason American audiences will not see A King may not be censorship, as Chaplin has been hinting for European boxoffice purposes, but a private quarrel between Chaplin and the Internal Revenue Service. If Chaplin made money on any picture in the United States, the tax collectors would immediately grab it, because of the wholesale cheating they say he has done in the past.

The revenuers regard Charlie as “a hard, shirking man” and claim getting taxes out of him is like trying to open an oyster with a spoon. Down through the years the epic battles between Chaplin and the Treasury have become textbook classics in the art of the tax maneuver. On one occasion the Treasury found Chaplin more than $1,000,000 in arrears and forced him to pony up. In a return engagement, Chaplin proved that the Treasury owed him $18,000—one of those giddy victories that Charlie rather unwisely boasted too much about. In the third showdown, it is the Treasury that is enjoying the old boffola.

How an old master like Chaplin got his neck in the wrong loopholes is an involved affair, although the law is simple enough. Through the autumn of 1952, as he moved from capital to capital and triumph to triumph, Charlie’s plan seemed to be simply to play things by ear. Then, one fine spring day in 1953, came the tax notice from the United States, and Charlie whipped off to the nearest American consulate, in Geneva, and tossed in his reentry permit like a hot grenade. He apparently thought that possession of it was what made him liable for United States taxation.

Too late. This time the Treasury had Chaplin in a three-way bind: If Charlie claimed his reentry permit was valid, then he was taxable on the usual basis, as an alien still legally resident in the state of California; if he claimed he was no longer a resident or had been deprived of his right to be a resident, then he was taxable on all income and profits made in the United States. For a nonresident alien, British, the flat rate is 30 percent; the one status Chaplin could not claim was the popular “18-month exemption clause” under which other Hollywood directors and stars had made films in Europe free of U.S. tax. That clause applied to American citizens only.

The amount due, said the Treasury, was $516,167. Chaplin refused to pay. A penalty fee brought the amount to $1,400,000, roughly. And then Chaplin got so mad he sat down and wrote that song: “When I think of a million dollars—”.

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here

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