Monday, January 30, 2017

Charlie Chaplin: Another immigrant banned from the USA

I try to make all the college courses I teach as, well, relevant for my students as possible. (Yes, I didn’t think I’d ever again be using that ‘60s/’70s buzzword either.) Most of the time, that requires a lot of time, effort and, most important, research on my part, to find direct (or even indirect) links to the current zeitgeist to make whatever material I’m covering – whether it be in a film studies course, or a journalism course, or Media and Society 101 – seem less like dry and dusty and, worst of all, irrelevant history.

And then there are times when God just throws something into my lap.

Today I screened Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in a History of Film class. As usual, I pointed out that the term “Chaplinesque” continues to be used to describe everyone and everything from Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy to Zach Galifianakis’s Baskets. I also said they might be amused to know if they watched old black-and-white reruns of The Addams Family — and you might be surprised how many of them are familiar with that ‘60s sitcom through reruns on digital networks — that Jackie Coogan grew up to be Uncle Festus.

But today was a bit different. Today, I pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was demonized by J. Edgar Hoover and others because of his supposed “subversive” activities (which included, among other things, Chaplin’s directing and starring in The Great Dictator). And that in 1952, after he voyaged from the US to his native England for the premiere of Limelight, Attorney General James Patrick McGranery revoked his re-entry permit, and announced Chaplin would have to submit himself to interviews about his political leanings if he didn’t want to be permanently banned from returning. (You can read more about this shameful episode, and Chaplin’s response to McGranery’s threat, here.)

After telling my students all of this, I paused a few seconds, then added: “Gosh, aren’t we glad this sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore?” The general response: Laughter. And no one laughed louder, I should note, than two female students wearing hijabs.

By the way: Later this week, I am screening for another class Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel over the White House, a truly bizarre 1933 fantasy — which I scheduled before the November election — in which a US President suspends the Constitution, imposes martial law, dissolves Congress, summarily executes perceived enemies of the state — and is viewed as a hero.

Think I’ll have any trouble making that one seem relevant?

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