“At this moment I believe my troubles began”

On the evening of May 17th, 1942, Chaplin received a phone call from the head of the American Committee for Russian War Relief in San Francisco asking if he would replace former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Joseph E. Davies, who was scheduled to speak at a rally the next evening but became ill with laryngitis. Although he was only given 24 hours’ notice, he accepted. He caught the evening train to San Francisco which arrived at eight the next morning.

The Civic Auditorium was packed with 8,000 people. Chaplin had been given little time to come up with a speech. He made notes on the back of his placecard at dinner and downed two glasses of champagne to calm his nerves.

Chaplin delivering his speech at the Civic Auditorium in S.F., May 18th, 1942

Backstage he paced back and forth waiting to go on. Then he heard his introduction.

I was wearing a black tie and dinner jacket. There was applause, which gave me little time to collect myself. When it subsided I said one word: “Comrades!” and the house went up in a roar of laughter, then applause. When it subsided, I said emphatically, “And I mean comrades.” There was renewed laughter and then applause. I continued: ‘I assume there are many Russians here tonight, and the way your countrymen are fighting and dying at this very moment, it is an honor and a privilege to call you comrades.’ Through the applause many stood up.”1

He continued:

What Communism is, I know not. But if it makes such men as are on the Russian front then we should respect it. Now is the time to clarify the air, for they are giving their life’s blood that we might live. We should not only give of our cash but of our spirit of comradeship to help them.

When people ask: “What about after the war; will Communism sweep the world?” My answer is “So what?” Our design for an industrial system makes it impossible for us to predict. We are not to say. Undoubtedly we are in an era of collectivism.

But we won’t go back to the old days of a few men making a hundred million dollars in a business about which they know nothing while little men stand in line.2

He ended his forty-minute speech by saying: “The Russians are our allies, they are not only fighting for their way of life, but for our way of life and if I know Americans they like to do their own fighting. Stalin wants it, Roosevelt has called for it–so let’s all call for it–let’s open a second front now!”

Chaplin recalled that there was a wild uproar that lasted for seven minutes. “And as they stamped and yelled and threw their hats in the air, I began to wonder if I had said too much and had gone too far.”

Chaplin & others at the home of S.F. businessman Louis Lurie, May 18th, 1942: L-R: Chaplin, Betty Gordon (secretary of the Society of Russian Aid), Jacob Lomakin (Soviet Consul-General), Joseph Thompson (chairman of SF Russian War Relief Committee), Mrs. Thompson, & John Garfield. (source)

Afterward Chaplin had dinner with fellow speakers John Garfield, who presented a dramatic reading of “A Letter From A Red Army Soldier To An American Soldier” and Dudley Field Malone who read the speech prepared for the occasion by Joseph Davies. 3 Garfield told Chaplin, “You have a lot of courage,” referring to his speech. “His remark was disturbing,” recalled Chaplin, “for I did not wish to be valorous or caught up in a political cause célèbre. I had only spoken what I sincerely felt and thought was right. Nevertheless after John’s remark I began to feel a depressing pall over the rest of the evening. But whatever menacing clouds I expected as a result of that speech evaporated, and back in Beverly Hills life went on as usual.”4

Betty Gordon, Louis Lurie, and Chaplin

However the experience seems to have whet Chaplin’s appetite for public speaking, which is surprising since it was something that he never seemed to enjoy. A few weeks later, he was asked to speak by radio-telephone at a mass meeting in Madison Square. He made several more speeches on behalf of the Second Front over the next few months, beginning each speech with “Hello, Comrades!” He delivered his final Second Front address in New York on December 3rd, 1942.

Chaplin’s advocacy of the Second Front began what would be a very turbulent time in his career. The Joan Barry scandal would come a year later, then the controversy over his 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, culminating in his exit from America in 1952. But as Chaplin recalled twenty years later in My Autobiography, it all started with the speech in San Francisco. “At this moment I believe my troubles began,” he wrote.

1Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
2Bakersfield Californian, May 19th, 1942.
3Also on the bill was violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

1 Comment

  1. It was at the Civic? I live in SF now and pass that every time I come home from band rehearsal. It's now called the Bill Graham Civic. The Stones played there back in the '60s.Louis Lurie is well known regarding Sf, built a lot of highrises. A quick search revealed he lived at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, which is home to the Top Of The Mark bar, though he may have had other homes. My dad went to the Top of the Mark before he was shipped overseas, around this same time. I'll check his diary.Tom K

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