UK

MI5 drew a blank on finding Charlie Chaplin birthplace

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Media captionEdward Hampshire, principal records specialist at the National Archives, explains what is contained in the files

Newly released files show that an investigation by MI5 failed to determine where the silent film star Charlie Chaplin was born.

The inquiry was requested by the US in 1952 when it was trying to prove Chaplin was a communist sympathiser.

MI5 found that Chaplin, who grew up in London before moving to the US, had left-wing sympathies but nothing more.

At the time, Chaplin had been refused entry back into the US after attending a film premiere in London.

MI5 decided he was not a security risk but could not find his 1889 birth certificate, leading it to speculate he might not have been born in London.

But official Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out that not every birth was registered at that time in British history.

After the row, Chaplin decided not to return to live in the US and instead made his home in Switzerland, where he died in 1977. He filmed his final two movies in London.

He did return to the US to collect an honorary Oscar in 1972 and was also knighted by the UK in 1975.

Ed Hampshire, from the National Archives, said America and the UK were looking for different things in Chaplin's background.

"The American perspective was very much 'has Charlie Chaplin ever been a member of the Communist Party? That's the important thing'," he said.

"For the British it's all about 'is he a security risk or has he ever been a security risk, whether he's a member of the party or not'. They find no proof he's a member of the party and on top of that they find no proof that he's a security risk," added Mr Hampshire.

Chaplin's MI5 files will be free to download from the National Archives online for a month.

Image caption Charlie Chaplin, seen here in the role of The Tramp, left the US in 1952

The file was opened in 1952, at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt during the Cold War, when it was reported he had made a covert donation to the American Communist Party back in 1923 when he was at the height of his fame.

Chaplin had come to London for the premiere of his latest film, Limelight, but was refused entry back into the US.

In 1953 Chaplin denied being a communist but was prevented from returning to his Hollywood home.

Chaplin was reportedly born in Walworth, south London, in April 1889 but MI5 agents apparently scoured the records and could find no trace of his birth certificate either under the name Chaplin or a supposed alias Israel Thornstein.

MI5 concluded: "It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned."

Rumours that he may have been born in France were also dismissed by MI5 but when they reported back to the US, the American Secret Service was baffled as to why there was no trace of him.

Coincidentally, Chaplin is believed to have been born four days before Adolf Hitler, whom he parodied in the 1940 film The Great Dictator.

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