Sexual exploitation

The troubling similarities between Harvey Weinstein and his idol Charlie Chaplin

The biggest name in the era of silent movies was also a serial sexual predator whose fame as the Tramp kept him immune.

In February 2012 Harvey Weinstein co-hosted a dinner to honour Charlie Chaplin’s services to the movie industry. In attendance that night, among many Hollywood stars, was Rose McGowan, who has since levelled accusations of rape against Weinstein. Asked about the occasion, Weinstein then remarked that he regarded Chaplin to be “one of my idols, certainly”. At the time, this appeared to be a fairly run of the mill commemoration in Tinseltown, but, in the light of recent revelations about Weinstein, we may now have to view it in a rather different light.

The Weinstein story is in part a parable of unchecked male power, wealth, and the implicit protection that comes with both. And as Weinstein knew, Chaplin had enjoyed similar privileges for decades. The specific accusations levelled against both cinema titans may not be identical, but they stem from similar sociological roots. As I note in my recent biography of Chaplin: “Charlie was a nightmare to be married to and a person with questionable sexual ethics across the board.” Perhaps this undersells it.

Though Weinstein’s actions were of a different order, the ill treatment of women in Hollywood is nothing new. From Edna Purviance in Chaplin’s World War I-era comedies through to Paulette Goddard in 1940’s The Great Dictator, almost all Chaplin’s leading ladies ended up sleeping with their director. The only major exception, City Lights’ Virginia Cherrill, was still partly cast by Chaplin based on her “shapely form in a blue bathing suit”. In casting sessions for previous films Chaplin’s aides reported his eyes going “up and down” what they called “lithe young” bodies. It can hardly have been a pleasant atmosphere on his sets.

Age and power

Age was a big factor here and, thus, power. Speaking of his love for “young girls” while then a man in his mid thirties, Chaplin noted that there was “something so virginal in their slimness – in their slender arms and legs”. One such example – Lita Grey – he cast in The Kid at the age of 12, got pregnant and had a shotgun Mexican marriage to avoid going to jail for statutory rape at 16, and had filed for divorce by 18.

Actress Lita Grey became pregnant by Charlie Chaplin at the age of 16. Image courtesy Famous Film Folk.
Actress Lita Grey became pregnant by Charlie Chaplin at the age of 16. Image courtesy Famous Film Folk.

When Grey’s mother had burst in on the two in one of their early nights together, Chaplin had offered the scant reassurance that “we’ve been together several times when you didn’t know about it”. The important point here was that Chaplin’s proclivities for the young were readily acknowledged as odd at the time. Newspaper reports regularly referred to Chaplin’s “child wife” or “girl wife”. Hollywood gossip was abuzz with the Lita Grey story. Everyone knew, yet never was Chaplin seriously challenged.

That said, there’s an element of Great Gatsby-esque nostalgia that somewhat gives Chaplin and his ilk a free pass in our modern collective memory too. In this view of the world, everyone was caught up in the 1920s’ throng of hedonistic passion and elaborate cocktails, and who was sleeping with who largely irrelevant. As such, the actress Louise Brooks, who also slept with Chaplin, described his other conquests as Pola Negri wanting “publicity”, Marion Davies “fun”, and Peggy Joyce “whoring for stardom”.

This paints a calculating, self-interested group of actresses all seeking to game a system they had significant agency in. But this was just not the reality. By the 1920s Chaplin’s first co-star turned lover, Edna Purviance, had become “so drunk – literally staggering – that he could not use her in a scene”. Much of this emanated from her director/lover’s sometime callousness. Georgia Hale, who performed the same dual role during the Gold Rush, spoke of Chaplin as someone who “expected all from a woman. He criticised, but could not or would not see himself”. This was not a level playing field, either emotionally or economically.

What Chaplin had, however, was a direct appeal to his audience – a trend explored of late by the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, Srsly. Instead, it was a completely tangential question – Chaplin’s pro-communist sympathies in an era of state-sanctioned red baiting – that in the end caused his sexual activities to become “a problem” for his public. When the American right wanted to portray Chaplin as a “red” in the 1940s he suddenly also became a “cheap Cockney cad” who was preying on innocent American girls.

Yet two decades earlier he had managed to combine cheating on a 16-year-old wife with many controversial political comments, and his career kept going. The icon of the Tramp kept its creator immune. People only cared about his bedroom when they stopped enjoying the films, or thought Chaplin had become too much of a lefty preacher.

Hidden vices

Chaplin’s behaviour may not have been exactly the same as the allegations levelled at Weinstein, but the case of Chaplin – “one of the greatest filmmakers” in Weinstein’s view – remains illustrative of a trend of the misuse of power in Hollywood that one can draw from Chaplin through Roman Polanski and Woody Allen to allegations most recently being made against the actor Kevin Spacey.

The complete creative and economic freedom enjoyed by such moguls may on occasion produce world-class cinema, but it also has fostered a super-elite able to operate in the shadows of the law – widely known about, but ignored. The concentration of wealth in the movie industry has only exacerbated this since Chaplin’s day. The problem is systemic and ingrained in Hollywood tradition. For all its scale, rather like the news emanating from Westminster, the Weinstein case is not a bolt from the blue.

Richard Carr, Lecturer in History and Politics, Anglia Ruskin University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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