Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics

By Steven J. Ross | Go to book overview

1
THE FIRST POLITICAL MOVIE STAR:
CHARLIE CHAPLIN

When is a dinner party something more than just good food and conversation? When it is given by Charlie Chaplin, or so thought FBI deputy head J. Edgar Hoover. In August 1922, America’s favorite Tramp hosted a soirée to introduce Hollywood liberals and leftists to Communist labor leader William Z. Foster. Several days later, director William deMille was visited by two of Hoover’s secret agents who grilled him about the party (which deMille did not attend) and demanded to know whether his friend Chaplin was a Communist. When the unnerved director admitted that Chaplin had once confessed he was a socialist, “a look of satisfaction passed between the two men; they had probably known all the time; it would have gone ill with me had I lied.” The agents sent Hoover a memo reporting that Chaplin was part of a Communist plot to use movies to make a “propagandist appeal for the cause of the labor movement and the revolution.”1

Four years earlier the federal government had used Chaplin to sell war bonds to an adoring public. Now they feared the effect his films would have “upon the minds of the people of this country” if the world’s most famous comedian became an outspoken advocate for radical causes. They had good reason to be concerned.2

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