Charlie Chaplin and his "City Lights" co-star Virginia Cherrill in a promotional still (Photo: United Artists)
Charlie Chaplin and his "City Lights" co-star Virginia Cherrill in a promotional still (Photo: United Artists)
I settled in for a Charlie Chaplin documentary at the Camden International Film Festival, looking forward to a frothy romp through the life and work of one of my favorite film comedians.

But about midway through I had the heart-thudding revelation that this icon, whose humanitarian persona has made the world laugh and cry for 100 years, was a classic domestic abuser.

I also realized that nothing has changed in a century as far as the way these guys operate, and also how famous perpetrators get a pass from the media, the entertainment industry, and the public.

Yes, R. Kelly will likely now spend the rest of his life in jail for the horrors he perpetuated on the countless boys, girls and women who loved him, but he was selling out concerts — as was Bill Cosby — through criminal court proceedings. And tickets are being sold today for a Broadway musical about Michael Jackson that keeps silent on the myriad of boys he allegedly molested.

“The Real Charlie Chaplin” chronicles how burning ambition, plus Fatty Arbuckle’s pants and a paste-on mustache, helped turn Charlie (stage name for Charles) Chaplin into the most famous man alive.

As his first forays as the Little Tramp flashed on the Camden Opera House screen, I determined to delve further into his slapstick short films at home. And the last scene of “City Lights” got me sobbing just as it did in each of the 10 or so previous times I have watched it.

Domestic abuse truly is everywhere when one’s eyes are opened to it. The first inkling that it had found me once again when I thought I was taking a professional break from it came at about the midway point in the movie when the female lead of “City Lights” said that contrary to rumor, she was not romantically involved with Chaplin during the filming because at 20 to his 42: “I was much too old.”

Then the soap bubbles of the standard biopic started popping all over the place: The girl angel who flirts with the adult Little Tramp in “The Kid” is played by a 12-year-old, Lita Grey. (Shades here of Woody Allen, with his predilection for absurdly young girlfriends broadcast in his movies brazenly and without public censure for decades, as for instance with Mariel Hemingway, 17 to his 42, in “Manhattan.”) When Lita was 15, the 34-year-old Chaplin impregnated her. It went downhill fast from there, but for her, not Chaplin, who only bounds to greater and greater professional triumph.

As soon as I got home, I ordered Lita’s 1998 memoir “Wife of the Life of the Party,” and I wore down my pencil underlining the classic acts of domestic abuse that she recounts.

A big part of the educational outreach of my nonprofit Finding Our Voices is the Power and Control Wheel, a graphic created in the 1980s by the Duluth Domestic Abuse Program that lays out the tactics abusers use to get and maintain control of their intimate partners. When a survivor steps up to be a face and voice of our project, they mark up one of these wheels according to the ways they were terrorized. About 40 of these customized wheels are on our website, allowing everyone to see the pattern of abuse that crosses all boundaries.

Here are some of the things Lita writes about what Charles did to her in Hollywood, followed by what a Finding Our Voices survivor wrote about what a boyfriend, husband, or mother or father, did (or said) to them, in Maine a century or so later.

Lita: “He labeled me a gold digger and a whore. … such verbal tirades would come out regularly during the course of the marriage.”

Johnnie: “Stupid.” “Whore.” “Crazy.”

Lita: “He blamed all his problems on me.”

Kate: “Everything was always my fault.”

Lita: On a train, “Charlie broke his aggressive silence and said to me: ‘We could put an end to this misery if you’d just jump.’”

Mary Lou: “He said, ‘I’ll show you how to put a gun to your head and be successful committing suicide.’”

Charles Chaplin threatened Lita with a gun. Amy Burns from Androscoggin County’s ex was a state trooper when he pointed his loaded service revolver to her head. No consequences to either man for this action. (State police drove Amy’s ex to a veterans hospital instead of arresting him.)

Lita’s divorce papers detailing Chaplin’s cruelty and crimes went public, giving the press a field day but putting not a dent in his wild popularity.

When Chaplin was 54 he married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill.

Their daughter Geraldine said in the documentary that, growing up: “Our world revolved around our father’s well-being.” Their son Michael says: “Anyone who ends up too close to him you’ll end up suffocating.” In my daughter Jackie’s Power and Control wheel, “father edition,” she writes: “I felt like I was not allowed to exist.”

Now let’s look at the complicity of the entertainment business, media and public as far as glorifying, and emboldening, domestic abusers.

In the documentary, an elderly Lita shakes her head as the voiceover says, “She tried to set the story straight in interviews but the topic frequently strays back to the matter of Chaplin’s genius.”

On February 1, 2014, Dylan Farrow published an essay that opened: “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen … sexually assaulted me.” Two months later, Diane Keaton lauded Allen to Matt Lauer on the “Today” show, saying, “He is a genius.”

The Chaplin documentary reported that even after Lita died, “biographies of Chaplin continue to characterize her as a manipulative and seductive teenage girl.” When Amber Heard reported that Johnny Depp “hit and kicked her on numerous occasions, has thrown objects at her, at one point nearly suffocated her to the point where she feared for her life,” the media acted as a megaphone for Depp’s team in depicting her as crazy, and also a gold-digger even though she pledged to donate all proceeds from a defamation lawsuit to a domestic abuse shelter.

In an essay for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation about “the elite exploiters who to date remain insulated from the consequences of their actions,” Natalie Ford wrote: “When will the artist be separated from the art and finally be held accountable? It needs to be now.”

In the end it was charges of communism, and not his despicable and criminal acts toward girls and women, that led to Chaplin’s fall from grace. Woody Allen keeps making movies and found another publisher for his memoir. And it is Johnny Depp’s general, bizarre behavior that has knocked him from his golden, $10 billion box office Hollywood perch.

As for me, after watching the Chaplin documentary I curled up on my couch and watched my second favorite Chaplin movie, “Gold Rush,” — filmed during the exact time he was abusing his teenage wife — and loved it as much as ever. I tell myself that what I would never do with entertainers who are acknowledged creeps is buy a ticket to see them on stage, because that burnishes their wallet and fame.

And how about you? Where do you draw the line with good art/bad person?