Charlie Chaplin was ‘investigated by FBI and MI5’ after displaying ‘Communist sympathies’

Top 10 Facts About Charlie Chaplin

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of one of Chaplin’s best-known films, ‘The Kid’. Inequality, wealth disparity, gendered oppression and prejudice are the thematic blocks of the movie. It is for these reasons that its fans say ‘The Kid’ has remained a timeless classic, even relevant in today’s world.

Chaplin was one of Hollywood’s first great early filmmakers, famous for his work both on and off the screen.

His character ‘The Tramp’ made him a world megastar.

Yet it was his highlighting of the world’s ills that caught the attention of secret service agencies in the West.

‘The Kid’ was made in 1921, just three years after the Russian Revolution, when the Communist Bolsheviks overthrew Nicholas II and rid the country of Tsardom forever.

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The Bolsheviks, inspired by the works of political philosopher Karl Marx, pushed a working class revolution, claiming the basic struggle of the world was bound in class: one inflamed by inequality, wealth disparity, gendered oppression and prejudice – the exact things Chaplin portrayed in his films.

It led the FBI and MI5 to blacklist Chaplin as a potential Communist sympathiser, the organisations trailing his every move.

J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, soon hounded Chaplin, describing the star as one of “Hollywood’s parlour Bolsheviks”.

Given Chaplin’s British roots – the actor was from London – the FBI enrolled the MI5 for help in gleaning information to help get him banned from the US.

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The results – including eavesdropping on conversations – are held in an extensive personal file on Chaplin, that was released in 2012 by MI5.

In 1952, an MI5 liaison officer in Washington warned of the then 51-year-old: “Chaplin has given funds to communist front organisations… He has been involved in paternity and abortion cases.”

The outfit noted that ten years earlier, Chaplin had told the Los Angeles branch of the National Council of American Soviet Friendship: “There is a great deal of good in communism.

“We can use the good and segregate the bad.”

While many of the files were heavily redacted to protect the informants’ names, big Left-wing hitters of the time were said to have been in contact with the film star.

There were references to Jimmy Reid, the Communist Scottish trade unionist, Larry Adler, the musician who left the US where he was deemed a Communist and blacklisted, and Humphrey Lyttleton, the Eton-educated jazz artist who was a self-confessed “romantic socialist”.


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The files showed MI5 also intercepted a telegram from Ivor Montagu, a film critic, producer, and former Soviet spy, telling Chaplin that he was sorry to have missed Chaplin when he visited his native London in 1952.

Hundreds of cuttings from newspaper articles and magazines also filled the report, one noting the fact that Chaplin had not taken up American citizenship despite having lived in the country for more than 30 years.

It highlighted how the socialist newspaper The Daily Worker welcomed his position in Hollywood.

The paper said: “His films have lampooned the great and the dictators, raised up the common man against the rich.

“Now the world’s bully threatens the world’s clown.”

More than 2,000 pages were put together on Chaplin by the FBI.

The bureau asked MI5 whether Chaplin had ever met any “highly placed persons” in London, urging the British intelligence service to investigate any links he had with the Communist Party’s UK branch.

The FBI paid particular attention to Chaplin’s relationship to his birthplace, wanting the MI5 to find out if his real name was “Israel Thornstein”.

MI5 opened investigating but to no avail.

It told the FBI there was “no evidence that Chaplin’s name is or ever has been Israel Thornstein,” while a suggestion that he “may have been born in France” came to nothing.

The files revealed that while the FBI’s main concern was whether Chaplin was a Communist, the MI5 was intent on determining whether he proved a national security risk.

Sir Percy Sillitoe, then head of MI5, told the chief police commissioner in South Africa ahead of a visit by Chaplin that, “We have no trace in our records of this man, nor are we satisfied that there are any reliable grounds for regarding him as a security risk”.

In the end, Chaplin’s name was partially cleared, with MI5 suggesting he had been exploited in the interests of Communism as “one of the victims of McCarthyism”.

His MI5 file, however, concluded that: “It may be that Chaplin is a communist sympathiser but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a ‘progressive’, or radical.”

Of the ordeal, Chaplin, after being denied entry to the US in 1953, said: “I am a victim of lies and vicious propaganda.”

The Hollywood legend died in his sleep on Christmas Day, 1977.

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