His comic genius has been celebrated for a century, but was Charlie Chaplin also a master of deception?
According to newly released documents, both the FBI and Britain's MI5 spent years trying to determine if the star of silent films was actually a Communist born in France under the name Israel Thornstein.
On Friday, the British National Archives released previously classified documents compiled by MI5 in the 1950s revealing extensive cross-Atlantic surveillance of the British actor for suspected communist ties.
It was the height of the McCarthy era in the U.S., the FBI was keeping a close eye on left-leaning Hollywood stars and the bureau's staunchly anti-communist chief, J. Edgar Hoover, privately derided Chaplin as "one of Hollywood's parlor Bolsheviks," MI5 historian Christopher Andrew told the Associated Press.
The FBI asked its British counterpart to investigate Chaplin's personal background and political allegiances in a bid to ban him from the U.S. for fear of Soviet infiltration. Chaplin, whose mother and father were English entertainers, said he was born in London in 1889. The Americans wanted to see if he was actually born in France under the name Israel Thornstein, and if he was a Communist spy.
Though agents speculated that Chaplin's family might have Russian origins, the MI5 was not able to resolve suspicions about the place of Chaplin's birth. The agency could not find any records of the actor's birth in England under either name. It also said there was "no evidence that Chaplin's name is or ever has been Israel Thornstein," or that he had been born in France. While a Washington-based MI5 liaison officer determined that Chaplin had given funds to "communist front organizations," the agency also found no reason to believe he was a spy.
"It is curious that we can find no record of Chaplin's birth, but I scarcely think that this is of any security significance" wrote John Marriott, the head of MI5's counter-subversion branch, in 1952.
Film historian Matthew Sweet told the AP that rumors about Chaplin's biography had been circulating well before the McCarthy era. The story about a French birthplace apparently originated with a film magazine article from the 1910s that said Chaplin was born while his mother was on tour near Paris. Rumors that Chaplin was Jewish became widespread after "The Great Dictator," in which Chaplin portrayed both a Jewish barber and Hitler-esque despot. Chaplin did little to correct the record.
Raised in London in poverty, Chaplin moved to the United States at 21 and became an international superstar with his downtrodden, bowler-hat-wearing alter-ego, the Little Tramp.
The iconic silent film star, who starred in such classics as "The Gold Rush" and "The Great Dictator," was effectively exiled from the U.S. in 1952, when Hoover arranged for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to block his return after a trip abroad. He returned to the U.S. in 1972 to receive an honorary Oscar, and also received a British knighthood in 1975, two years before his death at age 88. The honor was delayed 20 years because of Britain's concern over America's reaction.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.