Interview with Charlie Chaplin’s son Michael J Chaplin

“We have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, 1940

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, 1940

It was 1940 and the United States hadn’t joined World War Two yet when silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin made his first full-dialogue picture The Great Dictator to mock Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
“To me, the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule impostors, and it would be hard to find a bigger impostor than Hitler” he would then write in his autobiography in 1964.
As of today, the film’s epic final speech to humanity is still the most requested piece of his work according to The Chaplin Office in Paris which manages Chaplin’s right-holding companies.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921

The Great Dictator was banned in Germany and every country occupied by the Nazis for years, but Hollywood welcomed it with five Academy Awards nominations in 1941.
However, despite Chaplin’s quick rise to fame with the 1920s and 1930s silent films The Kid, A Woman of Paris, City Lights and Modern Times and his memorable on-screen character The Tramp, he was beginning to be made into a public enemy in America.

The Tramp resorts to eating his boot in The Gold Rush, 1925

The Tramp resorts to eating his boot in The Gold Rush, 1925

The poverty and hardship he had experienced as a child in the Victorian era in England before being taken to the States in 1908 by an entertainment company as a teenage performer meant that he would sympathise with the poor and their struggles because he had suffered immense misery himself.
As a result, he would constantly bring social realism into his films and characters: The Tramp was a penniless vagrant who behaves like a gentleman, Modern Times portrayed the harsh conditions of factory workers and Monsieur Verdoux criticised capitalism.

Modern Times, 1936

Modern Times, 1936

All through the 1940s, Charlie Chaplin went into being accused of communist sympathies, and an investigation was opened by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover whom – please, the time has now come for you to stop identifying with Leo Di Caprio.
The FBI also worked with gossip columnists to destroy Chaplin and his reputation, and the attempt was successful.

Rumours, tales and scandals around Chaplin’s three failed marriages to younger women and his 1943 and final marriage to 18-year-old actress Oona O’Neil, 36 years his junior, laid the foundation for a smear campaign that culminated in a paternity suit filed by a mentally-ill woman who stalked him, broke into his home several times and was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Charlie Chaplin, Oona O'Neil and six of their eight children by André Favez from the archives of Roy Export Co. Ltd ©

Charlie Chaplin, Oona O’Neil and six of their eight children by André Favez / Roy Export Co. Ltd ©

Her child was not Chaplin’s daughter according to blood test evidence, but medical tests were not accepted as evidence in legal trials in California at the time, so Chaplin was declared the father and ordered to pay support until the girl turned 21.
As his popularity continued to plummet to an all-time low, his 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux received hostile media treatment, boycotts and censorship all over the States, and his 1952 film Limelight was heavily picketed; by the 1950s, Charlie Chaplin was considered a traitor in the United States and regarded as a pervert.
Against all odds and despite the large age gap, Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neil remained married until his death in 1977 and had eight children together.

Limelight, 1952

Limelight, 1952

It served no purpose that the man repeatedly insisted he was not a communist and described himself rather as someone who wanted “nothing more for humanity than a roof over every man’s head”, and that he “didn’t want to create any revolution”, and all he wanted to do was “create films”; in 1949, British author George Orwell added Chaplin’s name into his list of over 30 notable people whom he suspected of being communist sympathisers, and fed the document to the Information Research Department, a secret propaganda organisation of the British state under the Foreign Officer.

Despite his over 40 years in the States and his four marriages to American women, Chaplin had never applied for American citizenship – and so the day after he boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth with his family to sail to Europe and promote Limelight, the American government revoked his re-entry permit, stating that he would have to submit to an interview regarding his “political views” and “moral behaviour” to be able to re-enter the United States at a later date.

Monsieur Verdoux, 1947

Monsieur Verdoux, 1947

It was 1952 and the height of McCarthyism, and those suspected of being communists would be hounded right in the middle of the ocean, but no Russian or Belarusian athletes and sports teams were ever banned from international competitions in over 44 years of Cold War unlike what happened in 2022 at the hands of FIFA, UEFA and the International Olympic Committee in an unprecedented move which went completely undisputed by the media and whose extent and consequences are yet to be figured out.

Charlie Chaplin receives his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972 © Public domain

Charlie Chaplin receives his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972 © Public domain

As for Charlie Chaplin, he didn’t submit himself to any FBI third degree and eventually settled in Switzerland with his big family. He would only return to the United States 20 years later, in 1972, to be granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, accept an Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards and be given the longest-ever standing ovation in Oscars’ history, 12 minutes.
With respect to his native United Kingdom, the Crown waited until two years before his death to finally make him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975.

Michael J Chaplin in A King in New York, 1957 by Roy Export S.A.S.©

Michael J Chaplin in A King in New York, 1957 by Roy Export S.A.S.©

Being exiled had a profound impact on the Chaplin family; the eldest son of Charlie’s marriage to Oona, Michael John Chaplin, was 6 years old when they were forced to leave the United States. At 10, he appeared in his father’s 1957 film A King in New York, which satirised US President McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria; at 16, he ran away from home, went to London and became a hippy.
In more recent times, he found himself raising his own children in Southwest France, farming land and running a goat farm in the countryside.

Michael J Chaplin by Ashim Bhalla ©

Michael J Chaplin by Ashim Bhalla ©

Today, the large family Michael J Chaplin has in turn created for himself has been helping keep Charlie Chaplin’s legacy alive and well through a plethora of activities and projects including the Chaplin’s World Museum in Switzerland dedicated to the life and work of the cinematic genius, and the upcoming cinema documentary Charlie Chaplin: A Man of the World by two of Michael’s daughters, Carmen Chaplin and Dolores Chaplin.
The feature-length factual film explores the possible Gypsy roots of Chaplin’s family and celebrates the Romani tradition and culture.

A Fallen God by Michael J Chaplin

A Fallen God by Michael J Chaplin

In addition to being involved in the documentary’s research and production for much of the last decade, Michael Chaplin has also managed to put together a groundbreaking debut novel he started working on when he was still a goat farmer in France.

A Fallen God by Michael J Chaplin is a monumental 390-page historical fiction book published in January 2024 it took this gentleman 20 years to complete.

The novel, which tells a modern version of the Tristan and Iseult myth, is set in 13th-century Southern France during the conflict between the Catholic Church and the lesser-known rebellious Cathar movement, or Catharism, a Christian alternative religious group regarded as a heretical sect by Pope Innocent III, which was eventually wiped out through the Albigensian Crusade.

A Fallen God is a labour of love for Michael, who described it as the first thing in life besides his family he is truly proud of – and such an accomplishment for someone who left school with no qualifications, couldn’t listen to teachers even if he “was interested in what they said”, was tested for dyslexia and would not pay attention to his father whom had never really gone to school himself but insisted that his children do well in class.

“Your only defence in this world is to be educated”, Charlie Chaplin used to tell them, even though, in the end, what had made him defenceless, boycotted and in exile had not been his lack of formal education, but the legitimate exercise of the human being’s undeniable right to refuse to conform.

 

Michael, was there a particular moment in your life when you suddenly realised the impact your father had on the world?

Limelight, 1952

Limelight, 1952

Well, as children, we travelled to the East, to Japan – especially to Japan, and I mean, when we got off the plane there were suddenly crowds and crowds of people, and the police were holding people back. The only other time I had faced something like that had been in 1952 at the premiere of Limelight in Trafalgar Square, London We’d just come from America to England, and the premiere was completely overwhelmed, with crowds of people being held back by ropes. I was just a little boy by then and I hadn’t seen that before; in Hollywood, my father was just another man, but then suddenly in Europe he was enormous.

Is there one or more of his films you believe are still relevant today?

The Great Dictator, 1940

The Great Dictator, 1940

We have an office that treats all his commercial rights and copyrights and deals with people who want to use his films, and the one thing that is mostly asked for is the speech at the end of The Great Dictator. People still want to use it as it’s universal, and I think it is very, very relevant to the times we are living in now.

Which pieces of his work are you most attached to?

My favourite films are City Lights, The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator – I think those are his big, big films.

Charlie Chaplin was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for alleged communist sympathies, he was a victim of a smear campaign and had his work boycotted in America for a long time. What would he think of today’s cancel culture and Russian culture being cancelled in the Western world?

Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, 1931

Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, 1931

I think today it has gone so crazy that he would also be cancelled, you know? Without any doubt. Luckily, he didn’t have to see the time of craziness that’s going on today. He would probably turn this into a film because he needed to work, he needed to be filming, he needed to have a project – otherwise, he would just walk around the property in Switzerland! You know, he had a need for action, and it was hard for him at the end of his life when he realised he couldn’t really go on; physically, he didn’t have the means of going on but he still had projects that he wanted to do and he left scripts. There was a film project that he wanted to do and realise but physically he just couldn’t do it, so he left some scripts in the house.

He was quoted as saying: “My only enemy is time”.

Yes, exactly. He didn’t have time to fulfil all his dreams.

What did you think when, in 2003, it was revealed that your father was on George Orwell’s list of 30-plus notable “communist sympathisers” which he sent to the secret propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office in 1949?

Yes, well, I’m not a great fan of George Orwell myself. I haven’t really read his books so I can’t judge him, but he seemed like sort of a pinched, upright person. He’d been a genius, of course, he foretold in his novel 1984 what is happening now, so it’s something very topical; in that way, yes, he was wonderful. But I was not a fan of his, really, and his writings didn’t really crack me. He didn’t like my father, I suppose. He thought he was dangerous – a man who didn’t need to speak any single language to be understood, a man who was universal and loved by so many people and became such a celebrity that even when he met people in Brazil who grew up near the Amazon jungle they would always bring his films up… I suppose this bothered Orwell, I don’t know why. I think he should have been more respectful in his attitude.

Why didn’t your father return to live in his native UK once he left America?

Charlie Chaplin and his merchandise in 1918 © Public domain

Charlie Chaplin and his merchandise in 1918 © Public domain

Most of his career was in California with a beautiful climate. I don’t think he liked rain and cold winters too much, but he finally ended up in Switzerland and every summer we’d go to The Côte d’Azur, in France. He loved the sun and the blue sea, he said he was rather a Mediterranean man. But yes, he was British and he never gave up his British passport, he had no reason to. There was nothing political or economical about the fact of not living in England, he was in a warmer country and he loved that, I think it just came down to that. Also, England was his childhood, London was his childhood, and it was a miserable one, right at the bottom of the social ladder, in poverty. And I think maybe that was his reason for not returning to England because it would awaken traumatic memories probably for him. He loved to visit London, though. We’d go walk in Lambeth [a district in South London] and he loved to look at his childhood sites, but that was as a much older man with nostalgia. But I’m sure he had many hard memories from there, and he probably didn’t want to go back to that, even though he enjoyed going and walking around London, but it was too painful for him actually to live there.

What legacy has Charlie Chaplin left to people?

Charlie Chaplin, aka The Tramp © Public domain

Charlie Chaplin, aka The Tramp © Public domain

You know, now I’m talking to you from Málaga, in Spain, and there is a figure in Southwest Spain that comes in in Andalusian music and also in Africa, called El Duende [A duende is a humanoid figure of folklore, with variations from Iberian, Ibero American, and Latin American cultures, comparable to dwarves, gnomes, or leprechauns], it’s like a devil that comes in and creates chaos, but he has a guitar, and then he suddenly plays magically and beautifully. This is a universal figure; in Africa, they have the trickster who creates chaos in places. And I think, in his early films, my father was like El Duende: he would arrive at a wedding party with everyone dressed up and everything, and he’d start taking the cake and put it into his pocket! He was a folkloric figure I think, and then he went on to make more serious films where he explored his relationships with women and much more. But I think the reason he is universal also is that he spoke a language that could be understood everywhere, and he was a character that is in a lot of the folklore of many, many countries.

And what legacy has he left you?

Charlie Chaplin and Michael J Chaplin in A King in New York, 1957 by Roy Export S.A.S.©

Charlie Chaplin and Michael J Chaplin in A King in New York, 1957 by Roy Export S.A.S.©

I had a very difficult relationship with him as a child. He was very easy with his daughters, he had a wonderful relationship with all my sisters – but with another boy, I think he was worried about me. I wasn’t good at school, and he believed in education, he believed education is the only way out of poverty. And I didn’t believe that, I just wanted to get out of school and forget about school and just go out into the world. My older half-brothers, Sydney and Charlie, also had a difficult relationship with him, he was worried about us – he was worried that we weren’t educating and preparing ourselves for difficulty, for how hard life could be. But he didn’t transmit it. He knew how to transmit it to his daughters, but he didn’t know how to really transmit it to us.

Is there a future for the making of silent films?

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in 1915 © Public domain

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in 1915 © Public domain

Well, I don’t know if there are some great mime artists – it’s all down to mime as in silent films you can’t talk, you have to talk with your body but no, I don’t think there is a future for silent films unless someone suddenly appears who is a great mime.

How about the French black-and-white silent film The Artist which won five Academy Awards in 2012?

Yes, this can still be done. The Artist was very good. But you have to do it, and mostly it’s hard because you’re competing with sound and special effects, and so much of that stuff is dominating. You know, the big films from the big studios crush everything else. And I think for small films to survive it’s becoming harder and harder. However, I don’t know much about the business myself because I’ve never been into that.

In 2013, your family started a documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s possible Gypsy roots. When is it going to be released?

Charlie Chaplin: A Man of the World by Carmen Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin: A Man of the World by Carmen Chaplin

The film will probably be released in 2024. It took a long time to make and get a lot of people involved, but finally, everything is done now, so hopefully it may come out in festivals in 2024. It’s such a fascinating world to enter into, a wonderful world, a magical world with a lot of pain but a lot of joy, too. It’s my family’s job, but especially my daughters’ job to get people interested, one of them [Carmen Chaplin] is the director, one [Dolores Chaplin] is the producer and so on. But yes, I think the film will be very good. We are still still working on the title, we were thinking of Charlie Chaplin, A Man Of The World, or maybe, you know, something a bit less pompous!

You were born in California and you have lived in Switzerland, France, Spain and the UK. How do you feel about your identity? 

I don’t believe in nationalities and governments, it’s just a world I don’t really want to get into. I’m glad that in Europe you can now go everywhere without having to have a passport, well – everywhere apart from Great Britain! [Brexit has ended freedom of movement in the UK since 2021] But I love London, I spent my youth in London in the 1960s, when London was Swinging London and it was an absolutely magical place to be.

How did you become interested in Catharism?

Well, at a certain moment in our life, my family and I went down to live in Southwest France farming land, herding goats, and so we settled there and fixed up the house, and it’s there that I first heard about Catharism. This was a religious group of people who separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church and became more and more present, and more and more people would call themselves Cathars. They took over the whole of Southwest France until Pope Innocent III became so alarmed that he called for an enormous crusade to go down there and wipe it out. And it was done. Some people say it was the first European genocide and that thousands of people were burns to death. And they did wipe Catharism out in the end.

How did you put together your novel A Fallen God?

Michael J Chaplin by Ashim Bhalla ©

Michael J Chaplin by Ashim Bhalla ©

For some reason, I always wanted to write a book, and when I heard of Catharism, I became very interested in writing about that. And then I am always very interested in myths, and I also wanted to write about the tale of Tristan and Iseult, which is a well-known myth. And I hadn’t thought about that until a very good friend of mine, Gottfried Wagner – who is the great-grandson of the 1800s German composer Richard Wagner and a musician as well – took me to the opera to hear Tristan and Iseult by Richard Wagner. He said, “I wish my great-grandfather had written more operas like that instead of those heavy Germanic compositions”. I was looking for something to write about, something that didn’t involve me personally, so I thought that writing a modern version of Tristan and Iseult was ideal. It had been done in films in 1981 by François Truffaut as La Femme d’à côté [The Woman Next Door], the story was based on the Tristan and Iseult myth.
And so I thought well, okay, I will do this myself, but then I got very involved up to my neck in things because my own life seems to go into myths as well, and then I was caught up in that, and so it took me a very long time, it took me 20 years to write the book. Meanwhile, we made the Chaplin’s World Museum in Switzerland and a lot of other things, but mostly it was about overcoming all the blockages in myself. It was really a therapy as well to finish it. It took me 20 years, but now it’s here, and now that it’s finally published I’m so relieved.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921

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