Recently released documents by the British spy agency M15 contained an extensive file on Charles Chaplin, considered to have been one of the greatest screen legends of all time.
The documents revealed that in response to FBI claims that Chaplin was a "dangerous Communist sympathizer" and was "one of Hollywood's parlor Bolsheviks," the M!5 began an investigation of him in 1952.
Although Chaplin lived in the United States for more than 30 years, he never became an American citizen. He voluntarily left the country, ostensibly for being a "victim of McCarthyism," and settled in Switzerland.
Chaplin made frequent visits to London, his birthplace, and the FBI asked M15 for information that would help ban him from returning to the U. S. But as the released documents indicate, the M15 concluded: "It may be that Chaplin is a communist sympathizer but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a 'progressive', or radical..Not a security risk."
Interestingly, it is how Egon Ervin Kish, saw Chaplin. Kish, a Prague-born journalist, known as "The Raging Reporter," hds become a master of European-style literary reportage. In his early work he focused on crime and the lives of poor, but attained world renown after uncovering the spy scandal involving Col. Alfred Redl, the former chief of military counter-espionage, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Between the two World Wars, Kish roamed the world, publishing his collected reportages in books, and becoming progressively more linked with anti-fascist causes. During his visit to America, in the 1930's, he became acquainted with Charlie Chaplin.
Their friendship blossomed to such a degree that Chaplin invited Kish to observe his filmmaking and provide him with feedback on how various scenes would affect the viewing audience. They have also engaged in conversations about social issues.
"Chaplin's early life was spent in Dickensian poverty," Kish told me in a 1946 interview, after his return to Prague. "He never had forgotten it."
According to Kish, Chaplin's political views were a mixture of being highly critical of the United States, and having communist sympathies. "But he never was a Communist Party member, as I was, and I always thought that he would have not been a good one. Chaplin was too emotional and unpredictable."
While serving as a Prague-based foreign correspondent for Hungarian newspapers, I was summoned to the Ministry of Information, to interpret between members of a Hungarian cultural delegation, and Vaclav Kopecky, the minister of Information.
Kopecky was a Moscow-trained, ardent Communist, with a flair for self-promotion. Chaplin's departure from the United States, disappointed and angry, and having taken up residence in Vevey, Switzerland, offered Kopecky a unique opportunity, to shine.
He was determined to entice Chaplin to utilize the technically superb Czech film-studios, at Barandov, located on the outskirts of Prague, for the production of any new movie he decides to make. He believed that the Hungarian film-historian who was a member of the delegation and a long-time friend of Chaplin, could persuade him.
To my knowledge, Chaplin never acted on the offer. Kopecky's initiative was called, "one of his harebrained schemes." But the details remained unknown.
In early 1970s, while vacationing in Switzerland, I thought, I may learn more about what Chaplin's reaction was to Kopecky's offer. Hoping to interview Chaplin, I called his home. His assistant took the call. I explained that I am in the process of writing a magazine article on the life and times of Egon Ervin Kish, and would like to quote Chaplin's recollections of him.
The assistant went to consult Chaplin. A few minutes later, Chaplin came on the line. I recognized his voice immediately. I explained my connection to the late Egon Ervin Kish and the purpose of my request for an interview.
After a short hesitation, Chaplin agreed to see me, the next day. But the interview never took place. Next day, Chaplin had to undergo emergency oral surgery.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and
Lake Placid. His column was
reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.