On this day in 1972, the great silent film actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin prepares for his first voyage to the United States since 1952, when he was denied a re-entry visa amid questions about his leftist politics.
Born in Britain in 1889, Chaplin first became famous as the “Little Tramp” in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedy films. Over the course of his four decades in Hollywood, Chaplin was one of the motion-picture industry’s most accomplished figures, writing, producing, directing and acting in such gems as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1929), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). With Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, Chaplin founded United Artists, the first major movie production company to be controlled by filmmakers instead of businessmen.
Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, anti-Communist hysteria had Hollywood in its grip by the end of the 1940s. Chaplin earned special scrutiny on account of his tumultuous private life (married several times to extremely young women, he was also the target of a paternity suit in 1943, which he lost) and his public support of leftist political causes. In September 1952, Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona (the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill) were en route to London for that city’s premiere of his latest film, Limelight, when they were informed by U.S. immigration services that Chaplin would be denied a re-entry visa upon his return. Bitter and angry, Chaplin vowed never to return to the United States. He moved with his family to Switzerland, and never made another American film.
Over the years, anti-Communist fervor died down in the United States, as did the animosity between Chaplin and the American government. In 1972, Chaplin planned a return visit to America to accept an honorary Academy Award. He traveled first to the British overseas territory of Bermuda, where he prepared on April 2 for his flight to the United States. The following day, according to a report in The New York Times, Chaplin arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Eastern Airlines Flight 810, at three p.m. in the afternoon. As his wife guided him by the elbow to a waiting limousine, Chaplin blew kisses to the nearly 100 people (most of them members of the press) who had gathered on the airfield; some 200 other spectators watched from behind glass in the Eastern Airport Terminal.
Chaplin spent four days in New York, where the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored him in a tribute. He then flew to Los Angeles for the 44th annual Academy Awards ceremony. The 82-year-old Chaplin received a 12-minute-long standing ovation from the audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night, and was visibly moved as he accepted the award, which honored “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”