CHARLIE CHAPLIN, 11TH MAY—FATED ENCOUNTER A NEW LANGUAGE—ARTISTE IN THE STREET—AN ART BARS ITSELF IN—PASSEPARTOUTS LUCK—THE END OF CHARLIE—WORK
Two poets follow the straight line of their destiny. It suddenly happens that these two lines intersect, forming a cross, or if you prefer, a star. My meeting with Charlie Chaplin remains the delightful miracle of this voyage. So many people have planned this meeting for us, tried to be its organisers. But on each occasion some obstacle arose and now chance—which poets know by another name—throws us together on an ancient Japanese cargo-boat, transporting merchandise on the China seas between Hongkong and Shanghai.
Charlie Chaplin is on board. It is a staggering piece of news. Later on, Chaplin was to say, “The real function of a person’s work is to make it possible for friends like ourselves to cut out preliminaries. We have always known each other.” But up to that moment I had no idea that the wish was mutual. Furthermore this voyage had taught me how capricious fame was. I had had, it is true, the pleasure of finding myself translated into all languages, but in some places where I expected friendship I had met with a blank; elsewhere I expected a blank and had been overwhelmed with friendship.
I decided to write Chaplin a short note. I mentioned my presence on board and my affection for him. He came down to his dinner-table with Paulette Goddard.1 His manner conveyed to me that he desired to preserve his incognito.
The truth of the matter was that my letter had not been handed to him. He did not know that I was on board the Karoa and did not connect me with the table-companion whom he could only half see. After dinner I returned to my cabin. I was undressing when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it. It was Charlie and Paulette. My note had just been delivered. Chaplin was afraid it might be a joke or a trap. He had hurried off to ask for a passenger-list from the purser, and then sure of his facts, decided to run down and reply in person.
No response could have been simpler nor more youthful. I was touched. I begged them to go and wait for me in their cabin and just give me time to slip on a dressing-gown and pass the news on to Passepartout, who was writing in the reading-room.
You can imagine the innocence, the violent and fresh impact of this extraordinary meeting for which our horoscopes alone had been responsible. I was meeting a myth in flesh and blood. Passepartout’s eyes devoured his childhood’s hero. Charlie Chaplin shook his white curls, removed his glasses, put them back, gripped my shoulders, burst out laughing, turned to his companion and kept repeating. “Isn’t it marvellous? Isn’t it marvellous?” I do not speak English; Chaplin does not speak French. Yet we talked without the slightest difficulty. What is happening? What is this language? It is living language, the most living of all and springs from the will to communicate at all costs in the language of mime, the language of poets, the language of the heart. Chaplin detaches every word, stands it on the table, as it were on a plinth, walks back a step, turns it where it will catch the best light. The words he uses for my benefit are easily transported from one language to the other. Sometimes the gesture precedes the words and escorts them. He announces each word first before pronouncing it and comments on it afterwards. No slowness, or only the apparent slowness of balls when a juggler is juggling with them. He never confuses them, you can follow their flight in the air.
The ingenuous Las Casas writing in his Memoirs about the Emperor Napoleon’s bad English comments, “From this combination of circumstances was born a veritably new language.”
It was certainly a new language that we were talking, that we brought to perfection and to which we stuck, to everybody’s surprise.
This language was comprehended only by the four of us, and when they reproached Paulette who speaks French well, for not coming to our rescue, she replied, “If I help them, they will lose themselves in details. Left to their own devices, they only say the essentials.” A remark which speaks volumes for her intelligence.
A necessary reserve stops me from telling you Chaplin’s projects in detail. Precisely because he opened his heart to me I find it impossible to hand this wealth over to the public. What I am at liberty to say is that it is his dream to film the Crucifixion in the middle of a dance-hall where no one notices it. His Napoleon was to be a fantasy of the Elba period (a comic-opera Napoleon). From now on Chaplin is going to renounce “Charlie.” “I am the most exposed of men,” he said. “I work in the street. My aesthetics are those of a kick in the pants, and I am beginning to get it back.” A remarkable statement and one which sheds light on one whole aspect of his character. In the modern jargon, he is suffering from a vast inferiority complex. It is equalled only by his rightful pride and a system of reflexes suitable for defending his solitude (which he finds painful) and allowing no one to encroach on his prerogatives.
Even friendship is suspect; the duties and inconveniences it entails. His instant taking to me was, it seems, unique, and it produced a kind of panic in him. I felt him withdraw into him֊ self again, and close up after his expansiveness.
He is making his next film, in which he himself is not appearing, for Paulette. He is to shoot three episodes of it at Bali. He is busy with the script and never stops writing. He recites the dialogues to me. This film seems to be a kind of halt before a new cycle. But can he ever take leave of his “poor Pagliacci” theme, removed from the commonplace though it is by his genius? His next role is to be that of a clown, torn between the contrasts of real life and the “boards.” How carefully he restricts himself to this facile, sentimental ballad theme which he re־ deems from banality by his attention to detail, so that the most easily satisfied as well as the most stolid audience could follow his progress on the tight rope.
I ought to have guessed that Modem Times  was a terminai work by this sign; for the first time at the end of the film Charlie does not walk off alone down the road.
In any case Charlie was gradually shedding the type as he became the individual. The moustaches got smaller, the boots shorter, etc. If he is to take character parts, let us hope that one day he will give us Dostoievsky’s The Idiot. Is not Prince Myshkin a hero after his own heart?
I spoke to him about The Gold Rush  being one of those gifts in an artist’s life. A work that seemed to have a blessed life from start to finish, to walk on a ridge of snow poised halfway between earth and heaven. I saw that my description was an accurate one and that he does indeed reserve a special place in his work for The Gold Rush. “The dance of the bread-rolls! That’s what they all congratulate me on. It is a mere cog in the machine. A detail. If that was what they spedaily noticed they must have been blind to the rest!”
I remember that charming incident, that farce invented to dazzle the guests, that faculty for flying in one’s dreams and imagining that one will be able to teach others how to do it and that one will still be able to fly when one wakes.
He is right; those who praised and mentioned only this particular item failed to understand this love-epic, this chanson de gestes. It is a film, finely balanced between life and death, waking and sleeping; it is the candle-light of sad Christmases. In it Chaplin lowers as it were the brothers Williamson’s diving-bell to the depths of his nature. He turns over the pages in his flora and fauna of the great depths. In the cabin episode he combines the popular legends of the North with the chicken episode which is pure Greek comedy and tragedy.
“One hasn’t always the luck to produce a work that grows like a tree every time. The Gold Rush, A Dog’s Life , The Kid  are exceptional. I worked too long on Modern Times. When I had worked a scene up to perfection, it seemed to fall from the tree. I shook the branches and sacrificed the best episodes. They existed in their own right. I could show them separately, one by one, like my early one-reelers.”
He mimed the cut scenes. He set his décor in the narrow cabin, directed his supers, played his own part. We shall never forget the scene in which he incites a town to revolt and holds up all the traffic on account of a piece of wood that he is trying to thrust into the gutter with his little cane.
Paulette went off for a few minutes. Charlie bent over and whispered in a mysterious voice, “And then I feel such pity.” What? Pity for this thousand-spiked cactus, this little lioness with her mane and superb claws, this great sports Rolls with its shining leatherwork and metal? The whole of Chaplin is in that remark; that is what his heart is like.
Pity for himself, the tramp, pity for us, pity for her—the poor waif whom he drags after him to make her eat because she is hungry, put her to bed because she is sleepy, snatch her away from the snares of city life because she is pure, and suddenly I no longer see a Hollywood star in her silver satin page-boy outfit nor the rich impresario with his white curls and salt and pepper tweeds—but a pale little man, curly-haired, with his comic cane, dragging away a victim of the ogre of capital cities and police-traps, as he stumbles along through the world on one leg.2
Chaplin is your good child who puts out his tongue as he works.
It was a child who came down to my cabin, a child who invited us to California, and it is a couple of children who after the filming of Modern Times decided on a five minute impulse to set off for Honolulu, travel round the world hand in hand.
I find it extremely difficult to fit the two pictures together. The florid complexioned man who is talking to me and the pale little ghost who is his multiple angel whom he can divide up like quicksilver. I gradually succeed in superimposing the two Chaplins. A grimace, a wrinkle, a gesture, a wink and the two silhouettes coincide, that of the fool of the Bible, the little saint in a bowler hat who tugs at his cuffs and straightens his shoulders as he enters paradise and that of the impresario pulling his own strings.
One evening he asked me to lend him Passepartout. He wanted to turn him into the star of the Bali film. He had been looking for the right man and had found him. Passepartout would be the ideal partner for Paulette, etc., etc. You can imagine Passepartout’s excitement. Alas, it was our fault that the scheme could not be realised, for the sole condition was that Passepartout should learn English in England in the next three months, a tour de force which he had made up his mind to accomplish but which circumstances and my work rendered impossible.
The fact remained, however, that Passepartout had encountered his “fateful moment on the high seas” as the fortune-teller had once predicted, which proves that young men should travel out and meet their fate half-way.
The miracle, as Passepartout said, without a hint of bitterness was that Chaplin should offer him the part. The luxury of his position was that he could not accept it. It changed his life into a fairy-tale.
The project strengthened our bonds and brought us closer together. We joined forces, shared our meals and the journey alike; to such an extent did we form the habit of living together that we found it painful to part company at San Francisco.
Our encounter was not just a meeting of two artists full of curiosity about each other. We were sworn brothers, finding and understanding each other.
When Chaplin is working on a film, whether he locks himself up in his cabin or paces up and down his studio, he is completely absorbed in the job in hand. He takes his fear of being distracted from it to the point of rejecting life and confining himself within some simple problems and exhausting their possibilities. An old man’s smile, a Chinese mother suckling her new-born baby, some detail observed in the poor quarter are all grist to his mill. He does not look any further and shuts himself up in his beloved work.
“I don’t like work,” said Paulette.
Chaplin loves it; and as he loves Paulette he makes work of that. The rest of life bores him. As soon as you distract him from his work, he becomes weary, yawns, stoops, his eyes lose their sparkle. He plunges into somnolence.
Chaplin should be pronounced in the French way, like the painter’s family.
Two things about his ancestry are a source of pride to him; his French descent and his gypsy grandmother.
In physical and moral make-up, the little man of the films comes from the Jewish quarter. His bowler hat, overcoat, shoes, curly hair, his pity, his proud yet humble soul are the flower of the ghetto. Is it not a significant and admirable thing that Chaplin’s favourite painting is Van Gogh’s The Old Shoe?
Charlie is working.
Shut up in his cabin for the last two days, unshaven, in a suit which is too tight, his hair untidy, he stands fidgeting his glasses in those very small hands of his, setting in order sheets of paper covered with writing.
“I might get drowned bathing tomorrow” he confided to me at Shanghai. ‘7 do not count. I don’t exist. Only this paper exists and counts.”
Rendez-vous at Hotel Cathay at five p.m. Dinner that reunites business men who have come from Hollywood.
All the time at table Charlie yawns. In this dance hall which is Chinese but is doing its best not to look so, only one plank of the floor speaks of China and on it we are to see an artiste who sums up this squalid town—in which Shanghai Lili Marlene would not find room to move and could only be European— sitting at the Venus under a bluish trellis among the “taxi-girls” (the name for girls of every race with whom you dance in exchange for a ticket—five for a dollar).
“The White Flower of Chinatown” was how Marlene Dietrich described herself, speaking into a boa of cockerel feathers. It is difficult to imagine this flower, in this cracked vase in which the flowers cannot be less than two nights old, on a dance floor.
Look at this pitiable dance which Charlie watches open-mouthed with his double chin resting on his tie and his brow furrowed with crows-feet. A poor red-head with her hair done like a female clown surmounted with a chimney sweep’s hat, with one leg bare, the other in a pierrot’s trousers, a draught-board between her thighs, gloves with red spangles, embarks on the first notes of Debussy’s Cakewalk.
Picture to yourself this dimly lit stage surrounded by gowned Chinese who provide us with an exhibition of theological students dancing the tango, Chinese girls and half-castes hoping to be taken for patronesses, and under this spot-light, accompanied by an orchestra with gilt music-desks and green lanterns this woman saying to herself, “I am going to invent a modern number, an acrobatic dance, which will be a hotch-potch of our time, plus Pierrot’s melancholy, clown’s antics, grimaces of the devil, the agility of a ship’s boy and the provocativeness of a vamp.” And off she goes, leaping, falling with her toes turned in, putting out her tongue, sinking her head into her shoulders, making eyes, clawing the air, wagging an admonitory finger, pouting, pirouetting, hopping on one foot, rolling her hips, surveying the horizon under her raised hand and pulling on imaginary ropes—in short, all the usual routine.
This wretched woman sums up a Shanghai of which you get a front view when you try to interrupt the wild course of one-eyed coolies who only last four years, and gallop full pelt straight ahead without knowing where they are going.
The guests at the dance café rise to their feet and revolve on the floor. Chaplin remains at the table. He is ruminating. The people who look at him, trying to place him, are causing him visible embarrassment.
I have left him to himself. Some of my compatriots wanted me to join them at their table. He is sulking. He stretches over from his table to tell me about a cock fight in Spain. The impresario of the fight, a colossus with the hands of a marchioness, little dumpy white hands, the palms of which he rubs gently, voluptuously, in the blood. No other movement except a flutter of these fine hands and a slight quiver of his nostrils.
Suddenly Paulette gets up. She would like to “see Shang־ hai.” But there is nothing to see. But it has to be “done.” My French friends give me to understand that there is a secret Shanghai. They are racking their brains. Chaplin is returning to the hotel to sleep. He is going back to stow his fountain-pen and camera safely away, precious machines from which the ink and images might escape and it is important for them to be wrapped up in cotton wool for the night. . . .
Excerpted from Jean Cocteau, My Journey Round the World translated by W. J. Strachan, Peter Owen, London, 1958. Published by permission of Peter Owen Ltd. Title supplied.
1.Paulette Goddard, female lead in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) married Chaplin in 1936; divorced him in 1942.
2.He owes his good fortune to the fact that his sympathy is his natural road whereas it usually diverts us from ours, and that the practice of his pity carries it on to its goal instead of spoiling and weakening it. (Author’s note).