by Ian Masters
A work of fiction on Charlie Chaplin's 1936 visit to Angkor, and why the mysterious trip keeps eluding us.
Publisher: Monsoon Books
Author: Ian Masters
Language : English
ADB Library Catalog ID: eFICMAS
"The CAMS37 biplane had a single propeller behind the wings and looked like a relic of a major air battle. Bullet holes had strafed one side. The holes were rusty. It must have been a long-forgotten battle. Charlie was doubtful whether there had been any maintenance since. Victor walked down the jetty and climbed into the cockpit, and there was nothing else to do but follow. It took Charlie a while to find his footing up and into the cramped seat beside the count. When he had settled in, Victor switched on the engine without any explanation or briefing. The huge propellers turned 180 degrees but sputtered out. Victor shifted the throttle. This time the engine took and held, and the propellors spun until they were a blur with just the yellow tips creating a circle. Black smoke billowed from the engine casing. ‘Are you sure she’ll fly?’ shouted Charlie. He received a thumbs up for his troubles. Victor put on some goggles and gestured for Charlie to do the same. ‘I do most of my work from the sky!’ he shouted over the din. ‘Only from sky can you see all. Are you ready for real adventure?’ He didn’t wait for Charlie to reply, and soon they were thundering down the river before lifting off gently into the sky. [...] They flew in low, coming out of a big dive and straightening up. Through the viewfinder, Charlie focused on a clearing and a small village pagoda. A few Khmer farmers looked up at the noise and waved. They had evidently witnessed the seaplane flying overhead many times. Charlie smiled and filmed more. He wished he’d brought more film stock. He tracked the farmers as they passed behind them until he felt Victor’s hand tapping his shoulder and pointing forwards. Charlie looked ahead. The smile faded; he lowered his camera. There, behind the setting sun, the five towers of Angkor Wat rose majestically from the tree canopy. Silhouetted, they became both massive and delicate as they pointed up towards the sky. They emerged from the unbroken expanse of the jungle like an offering from the natural world to the gods. For someone who prided himself on exploring, celebrating – even championing – the minutiae of the human condition and human behaviour, Charlie was utterly unprepared for the feeling on seeing the temple for the first time."
This is one of the scenes from Charlot, a short novel born out of a TV screenplay born out of of the remaining big question mark on Charlie Chaplin's and Paulette Goddard's visit to Angkor. 'Victor' is of course Victor Goloubew, the daring Russian aristocrat, Asian art specialist, and aviator. The date: sometime between April 19 -- when Chaplin and his party left Phnom Penh -- and April 25 -- when the local media gave notice of their arrival in Hanoi, year 1936.
"There are so many things we still don't know about this trip," recalled the author during a phone interview, "and when I began researching it in 2013 [for Love9, a BBC Media Action TV comedy series], and then sat down during the 2020 Covid pandemic to write down my version of the story, I realized there were two salient aspects in this journey to Angkor: first, the midlife crisis of a genius movie director who was escaping the noise around the release of Modern Times a few months earlier, and his the significant influence on Cambodian comedians, who often sported his signature toothbrush moustache."
A multi-awarded screenwriter, Ian Masters attempts here more than a extended screenplay, even if cinematographic effects are often used in the narrative. Avoiding the 'limelight' of press curiosity -- the main concern of reporters in then French Indochina being to find out whether Charlie and Paulette had secretely married, which remains an open question up to this day --, Masters' Charlot befriends Cambodian versions of "The Tramp", actors of Lakhon Khol traditional theater, and even comes across Saloth Sar, the future Pol Pot.
Poetic (or novelistic) license allows the author to show us Charlie presenting a most admirative young Prince Sihanouk -- then 14 of age -- with "his beloved Keystone A-7 16mm film camera", and to wonder whether this moment could have initiated the future King's passion for directing movies. While political context -- the Spanish civil war is about to start -- provides a dark background to the story, the novelist offers an interesting explanation to the unplanned visit to Angkor: young actress Paulette Goddard, who had just co-starred Modern Times ['The Masses' was the title the film director had contemplated for a while] with Charlie, wanted to make the announcement of their engagement from the 'romantic' Khmer ruins. When her mother Alta, who was part of the trip, exclaims: "I don’t know why we couldn’t just announce the marriage in Singapore without all this hullabaloo to tell the world from Anchor Wat!", she replies: "It’s pronounced “Ang-kor”. It’s romantic. Different. And besides, that’s what we wanted to do, so that’s what we will do. We’ll just be delayed by a few days. It’s not as if there’s any rush." The anticlimax happens in front of Angkor Wat, during an imaginary press point (p 247): "Mrs Goddard shoved through the press to the front and positioned herself near the couple. She had been waiting for weeks for this news, and she beamed with pride as she inched closer. Finally, they would be announcing their marriage to the world. Perhaps afterwards they could go home. Paulette smiled, waiting for Charlie to speak. But he seemed lost for words and she leant close to his ear. ‘This is your moment, not mine, darling.’ He nodded. She wasn’t going to save him again. But he didn’t know how to begin. ‘Say what you need to say. Just make sure you really mean it,’ she whispered. Charlie cleared his throat. ‘Paulette and I,’ he started, ‘have had a wonderful vacation exploring Indochina these past days.’ Mrs Goddard’s face fell. Paulette let go of Charlie’s hand and pulled her mother closer."
There was certainly something tacky and un-Charlie to make public plans wedding plans in front of such a sacred place. In closing, the author remarks: "How much of this really happened? Many newspapers mention the visit of Charlie Chaplin to Phnom Penh with Paulette and Mrs Goddard, and their arrival on 18th of April 1936. In the archives you can find his answers to questions from the press conference held at Hotel Le Royal. He was asked if he might consider setting his next motion picture in the East. Another asked if he intended hunting – for elephants, the newspaper records. And another enquired whether Paulette and he were married, a question he carefully evaded. He and his travelling companions had an audience at the Royal Palace with King Sisowath Monivong, before continuing their journey to the ruined temples of Angkor by car. By the 22nd of April 1936, they had left Indochina [not quite so, see below] and were continuing their grand tour of the East, up the coast of China and towards Japan, before returning to the United States on the 11th of June of that year. What else happened in those few days remains a mystery. There are only sketchy details and an enigmatic and unconfirmed rumour that he had died on the trip. Had Charlie’s experiences unfolded as imagined in the pages above? And does it even matter? Or is it enough to enjoy a story that, somewhere in the multiverse of infinite possibilities, could perhaps be true?"
Here below, Angkor Database shares new insights on the subject:
More about the actual trip to Angkor and beyond
In L'Impartial-L'Avenir du Tonkin (20 Apr 1936), Charlie Chaplin explained the trip as follows: "C'est un voyage de plaisir. Je suis en vacances. J'ai quitté l'Amérique au mois de Février dans le but de visiter tout l'Extreme-Orient et je viens d'arriver dans votre ville [Saigon] apres avoir visité, en partant de San Francisco, le Japon, la Chine et les Straits. -- Vous avez visité Java. -- Nous y sommes restés trois semaines. Nous avons longuement visité Bali. C'est un pays tres intéressant. -- Quels sont vos projets? -- Nous partons demain pour Angkor que nous visiterons en détail pendant cinq ou six jours. Apres quoi nous reviendrons a Saigon pour poursuivre notre voyage en Annam et au Tonkin."
In another dispatch, Charlie noted that "nous partirons des demain pour Angkor avec M. Vergoz. Nous pensons etre de retour sur la fin de la semaine pour continuer notre voyage sur Hong Kong et le Japon." ["we'll leave as soon as tomorrow for Angkor with Mr Vergoz. We plan to be back [to Saigon] by the end of the week, and then follow on our journey to Hong Kong and Japan.] André Vergoz, who ran a travel agency, was the founder of the New Siem Reap Hotel, and the representative of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor (later Raffles). In Saigon, they stayed at the Continental Hotel.
But after Angkor, Charlie and Paulette were staying at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi on Apr 24 1936, and the day after they visited the Khai-Dinh Museum in Hue, which shows their interest in Asian Art. In Hue they stayed at the Saigon Morin Hotel (which still boasts a 'Suite Charlie Chaplin', room 111). To the day, the visit is recalled in Vietnam as "TUẦN TRĂNG MẬT CỦA VUA HỀ CHARLIE CHAPLIN TẠI HUẾ & HÀ NỘI", The Honeymoon Trip of King-Clown Charlie Chaplin".
The Academic Accelerator Encyclopaedia gives a quite different itinerary for the enigmatic 'Indochina' trip: "After the release of Modern Times, Chaplin left on a trip to the Far East with Paulette Goddard. Chaplin, Goddard, and a Japanese servant named Yonnemori [Frank Yonamori] arrived in Saigon at 8:30 a.m. on April 13, 1936, where they stayed at the Continental Hotel, before embarking on a trip to several parts of French Indochina. After Saigon, they visited Phnom Penh to see Angkor Wat, returned to Saigon and went to Dalat, then Hue arrived in Da Nang on April 23rd, visiting the Marble Mountains and the Henri Parmentier Museum [now Museum of Cham Sculpture]. On April 29, the party arrived in Hanoi (capital of French Indochina) and stayed at the Metropole Hotel. On the afternoon of May 5, the couple visited the popular tourist destination of Ho Long Bay, and after visiting Ho Long Bay, boarded a ship called Canton from Haiphong to Hong Kong. The couple declined to comment on the nature of their relationship and it was also unclear if they were married. Some time later, Chaplin revealed that he was married in Canton during this trip. Goddard was again the leading lady in her next feature film, The Great Dictator, but by 1938 the couple had become estranged, but both were focused on their work. She eventually divorced Chaplin in Mexico in 1942, citing incompatibility and a separation of more than a year." [Looks like botched AI research].
Victor Goloubew might be the hidden hand behind the days following the Angkor visit, as he had EFEO and personal connections in Hanoi and Hue. The ruined Russian count had been obviously smitten by Paulette, as he dedicated his photoportrait: "A Paulette Goddard, la blonde étoile qui brille dans le ciel d'Angkor" [To Paulette Goddard, The Blond Star shining in Angkor sky. Funnily, Charlie has been attempting to convince Paulette to stop dying her hair since the beginning of their affair in 1932]:
Curiously, Kenneth S. Lynn doesn't mention the 'Indochina' trip in his extensive study, Charlie Chaplin & and His Times (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997), while commenting at length his encounters with French poet and movie director Jean Cocteau on the cruise ship SS President Coolidge, and earlier on the Japanese liner Kashima Maru during the latter's 'Mon Tour du Monde en 80 jours'.
We have found the part dedicated to Charlie in Cocteau's series, published in Paris-Soir between Aug 1 and September 3, 1936. According to the quite mythomaniac poet, they met after a dinner at sea 'between Hong Kong Shanghai on an old merchant ship of the Chinese seas'. "I went to bed. A knock at my door. There they were, Charlie and Paulette. We cannot believe it! Charlie takes hold of my hands, my shoulders. He removes his glasses, wipes them, put them back on his nose, bursts into laughter, shakes his white curls...I don't speak English, he doesn't speak French [untrue], and we speak one to each other, we ask questions, we give answers without any hardship. What is this new language? [...] It is the language of the soul, the language of poets, the language of heart." Later, the trio goes to a Shanghai dancing hall "with some Hollywood capitalists", where Chaplin reportedly "gaps at the pathetically suggestive dancer in that sordid dive." Paulette wants to see Shanghai by night "but there is nothing to see!", exclaims the poet-globe-trotter. Charlie decides to go back to their hotel early, and Cocteau returns to the ship where he's going to spend the night.
This encounter with Chaplin, Jean Cocteau will mention it again and again in later writings. His Tour du Monde had been paid by Paris-Soir's editor-in-chief, for him and his young companion Marcel Khill, who in fact acted as an interpreter between the two men [see Cocteau Journaliste, ed. Pierre Marie Héron and Marie-Eve Thérenty, Presse Univesitaires de Rennes, 2014]. From the first meeting on the Hong Kong - Shanghai lap to the arrival in San Francisco on June 3, 1936 (which was also Paulette's 26th birthday), it seems the French writer and dramaturgist had been able to pry from Chaplin some introduction to the Hollywood studios.
As for Paulette Goddard (3 June 1903 or 1905, Whitestone, NY, USA - 23 April 1990, Ronco, Switzerland), her reputation as a starlet "who could charm a rock" has too often eclipsed the fact that she was an avid traveler, a wise collector of art who befriended Andy Warhol, and a strong character who bluntly remarked in 1947, when several of her friends -- and her third (or second) husband Meredith Burgess -- were accused of being Communists by members of the US Congress, ''If anyone accuses me of being a Communist, I'll hit them with my diamond bracelets.''
Escapist Trip or Honeymoon?
We found two very different takes on the 'trip to the Orient' in:
1) Joe Morella's and Edward Epstein's Paulette : the adventurous life of Paulette Goddard (St Martin's Press, 1985 on Internet Archive) offers an interesting angle: the whole trip was just on a whim, and the planned marriage tanked because of Anglo obscurantism:
"On February 5, 1936, Paulette, her mother and Chaplin left Los Angeles and headed toward San Francisco en route to Honolulu, where they were going to vacation. While they were on the dock in San Francisco, Chaplin happened to spy some crates that were stamped "China." He suddenly blurted out, "Let's go there." - Where? - China! - Are you kidding? - Let’s do it now or well never”, Chaplin said. - But I haven’t any clothes! - You can buy all you want in Honolulu.
Charlie, who liked Paulette 's mother (she was, in fact, a woman his own age), suggested to Alta that she accompany them on the adventure. Someone who knew Alta Goddard well says, "She was very much like Paulette in many ways. Alta and Paulette had the same sparkling eyes and the same infectious laugh. And they shared a spirited sense of humor." Most people thought Alta [nicknamed “Legs Goddard”for obvious reason] was Paulette 's older sister, and she and Chaplin had a warm, friendly relationship. She happily agreed to join Chaplin and her daughter on the trip.
The trio, accompanied by Chaplin's servants, continued on to Hawaii and later embarked for Tokyo. Chaplin was a huge favorite in Japan. In fact, all Chaplin films made back their negative cost from the Japanese market alone. From Japan the group continued on a cruise through the China Seas. If the trip to China had been a spontaneous decision, Charlie and Paulette made another spontaneous decision while they were in the Orient. It was not one that they shared with their public — and now is when the "mystery" began.
Chaplin had said that this was going to be his honeymoon voyage — that he intended to marry Paulette somewhere along the way. These statements had been dutifully noted by the press. After docking at Yokohama and Shanghai, the couple stopped in Hong Kong and then headed for Singapore. Chaplin had sent a wire to the United Artists representative in Singapore: do your utmost to arrange for our marriage.
Singapore at the time was a British colony. And suddenly the question of the validity of American divorces under British law was raised. Chaplin of course had been divorced twice, Paulette once. Since the Anglican Church was the official church of Singapore at the time, additional questions were raised. The Archdeacon of Singapore, Graham White, announced flatly that he would refuse to perform any wedding between divorced people, Charlie Chaplin included."
2) Chaplin's own son, Charles Chaplin, recalled in his book My Father (Random House, New York, on Internet Archive):
[After Modern Times], "his churning mind began to grope for something new and exciting upon which to fasten itself. And he settled upon a visit to the Orient, which had so impressed him when he went there on his trip around the world. But this time he did not plan to travel alone. Paulette, accompanied by her mother, Mrs. Alta Goddard, was to accompany him. Dad was never niggardly where praise was deserved, and out of appreciation for the wonderful job Paulette had done in the picture he had presented her with a piece of expensive jewelry. But the trip was to be an additional reward, and Paulette was as excited about it as a child.
For more than three months our father toured the Orient with Paulette. Not once in all that time did we have a letter from him, though Fm sure he thought of us. But it has always taken an earth-shaking event for Dad to sit down and write. [...]
All these speculations made little impression on Syd and me. We thought only of how long a time it had been since the house on the hill had been open to us. We missed it, we missed Dad and Paulette and our friends. It wasn't a happy spring for us that year anyway; we were making our first acquaintance with tragedy [the nervous breakdown of their mother].
[Upon their return to America], "Your fathah," Frank [Chaplin's majordomo and driver] told us on the way home, "he got married down at Hong Kong on the boat." As we asked for more, "I didn't see 'em get married," he said with a laugh. "I don't hang around them all the time. They have their things to do. I have mine. But they tell me so."
Syd and I ran up and kissed first Dad and then Paulette. Paulette stooped and hugged us both while Dad laughingly confirmed Frank's piece of information. But though Dad told us flatly that he had married Paulette, it was to remain a family secret for years, because neither one of them bothered to tip off the reporters. Throughout the long period they were together the newspapers continued to speculate as to "when" and "if" and "where.""
3) Kenneth S. Lynn, op. cit., relies on a 1943 FBI interview with actress Joan Barry (courted by Chaplin) to come to the conclusion that the Chaplin-Goddard marriage never happened:
"She was "fresh and alive," he told her. He would like to place her under contract, he avowed. As the FBI interviewer summed up her reaction, "she could scarcely believe this offer and thought that he would promptly forget it, but later in the evening Chaplin gave her his phone number and asked her to contact him." At some point in the evening, curiosity prompted her to ask him "how many times he had been married and he said, 'Twice.' I said, 'What about Paulette Goddard?' He said, 'Well, I mean three times.' " Later in their acquaintance, however, "he admitted that he and Goddard had never been married”."
Saklo or Chaplin's Shadow over Cambodia
សាក់ឡូ, Saklo, the Cambodian version of 'Charlot' -- the French name for The Tramp --, has definitely entered the social imaginary of Cambodia. Until recently, popular stand-up comedians like Neay Koy and Neay Krem (and even Koy's son, Neay Kay) have been using most of the Tramp's attributes, the derby hat, the moustache, the oversized pants. Emulation, not imitation: 'No one could do it like him', reckoned Krem in 2015.
Thai comedian Jonathan Samson (b. 7 May 1980, Boston), who performs in Thai and Khmer, is also keen to pay tribute to Charlie Chaplin "as an inspiration". In his latest movie, The Murderer (2023), the story of an expat accused of murdering his Thai in-laws, he plays the role of a guy named...Charlie.
Not to forget that giant Indian comedian Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), who played characters based on The Tramp in films such as Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), was a close friend of Charlie's and even played a supporting role in "A Countess from Hong Kong" (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. But the way Charlie impacted Cambodian society is certainly unique in the myth's geography. Incidentally, the idea for 'A Countess' came to Charlie during his cruise from Saigon to Hong Kong aboard the Kashima Maru, when "he knocked out a ten thousand-word story about a down-on-her-luck Russian countess who stows away on an ocean liner and falls in love with an American millionaire. As a vehicle for Paulette and himself, the story had real possibilities, he felt. Or did it? Once again, doubts triumphed over initial certainty. But with the magpie instincts that David Raksin had noted, he shelved the manuscript of "Stowaway" instead of tearing it up. Thirty years later, it would serve as the basis for the second of the two cinematic fiascoes of his twilight years, A Countess from Hong Kong..." (in Kenneth S. Lynn, op.cit.)
Go to a countryside Khmer wedding nowadays, a two-day festival of ancient rites, dance, music and stunning outfits. On day 2, after the morning arrival of the groom and his party to the bride's house bearing presents, comes the moment of Ti Pi Ket Sak, the symbolical hair-cutting and perfume-spraying of the couple performed by the guests -- at this stage, the groom is not yet allowed to sit at the right of the bride and sits at the left, while a man and a woman perform a comic dance and song, the pantomime of married life. The dancers wear traditional attire, once again a symbol of the first cosmic wedding of Preah Tong and Neang Neak, but crack jokes and joyously tease the newlyweds. The man is wearing a shaggy wig and a toothbrush moustache. He's the eternal Cambodian man, and he's Saklo.
The book, to be released October 1, 2023, can be pre-ordered here.
About the Author
Ian Masters is an award-winning screenwriter who has worked across Africa and Asia for over twenty years. As a freelance scriptwriter and creative consultant for BBC Media Action he has developed and written TV and radio dramas from Bangladesh to Indonesia, Cambodia to South Sudan.
His first produced feature film script, The Last Reel -- directed by Kulikar Sotho, who was local liaison manager for Lara Croft Tomb Raider (2001) and co-productor of the series Expedition Unknown (2023) -- was Cambodia’s submission to the Academy Awards in 2014. In 2018 he returned to the UK, where he continues to write and work as an international script consultant from Somerset. Charlot (2023) is his first novel.