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Charlie Chaplin in Cambodia

Charlie Chaplin in Cambodia

Peak Kuok

Charlie Chapiin remains the archetype for Cambodian comedians even today.

IN March 1936, excited rumors fuelled by reports from Singapore began circulating

through the Indochina press based in Saigon: it now seemed certain that one of the

most famous stars in motion-picture history, Charles Chaplin (1889-1977), better

known in Indochina by his French name "Charlot", would visit Cambodia.

Chaplin had continued his great role of "the Tramp" in his first two sound

films for United Artists Corporation, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).

It was in the latter film that Chaplin aimed his satyric wit at the new machine age

by dabbling in Marxian themes of "man versus machine". Les temps modernes

was to be his last "silent" film - silent only in the lack of speech, for

Chaplin composed the music and added special sound effects.

Five days after the première of Modern Times at Grauman's Chinese Theater,

Hollywood, on February 12, 1936, Chaplin and his party sailed from the United States

on the SS President Coolidge for a trip to Hawaii and ports on the Asia-Pacific rim.

Paulette Goddard, his dazzling co-star of Modern Times, accompanied him on the five-month

voyage. A wire report soon after their departure informed the world that Charlie

and Paulette had been married in Singapore (other sources mention Canton), though

years later in his autobiography Chaplin would only confirm that they were married

in the Orient, leaving the location unnamed.

In fact, Goddard had been Chaplin's resident mistress at his Summit Drive Beverley

Hills mansion since 1932. Inexplicably, all members of the party were listed as living

at 1103 Coneway Avenue, Beverley Hills, California on the ship's passenger list.

Described in the press of the day as a 21 year-old, Paulette was more likely about

25. One inquisitive Indochina reporter immediately inquired of the starlet about

the latest big news. Had Miss Goddard become Mrs Charlie Chaplin or not? Her reply

was evasive. The pretty actress did not deny she had the right to wear a diamond

and platinum wedding ring on her left third finger, but she claimed that this did

not mean her husband was Charlie Chaplin. She cut short further questions by declaring

that she was strongly opposed to discussing her private affairs in public.

Charlie Chaplin's party, comprising Paulette Goddard, her mother, Mrs Goddard and

Frank Yonamori, a Japanese majordomo, through the agency of Thomas Cook and Son,

sailed on the Suwa Maru from Shanghai to Singapore, arriving on March 19, 1936. On

March 22 they passed through the Malacca Straits, visited Bali and then Java, before

returning to Singapore on April 3.

The travellers arrived in Saigon on April 12, 1936, on the Aramis, then drove to

Phnom Penh where they arrived at Hotel Le Royal on the 18th.


Charlie Chapiin remains the archetype for Cambodian comedians even today.

After their arrival at the hotel on Tuesday evening, reporters flocked to Le Royal

to interview the stars. Their visit to Phnom Penh was a mere 24 hours: on the morning

of the 19th they departed for Angkor. Members of the press, representing no less

than five of Indochina daily newspapers, covered Chaplin's movements and impressions

of Cambodia. He received reporters with "much courtesy and charm" at the

hotel: "We were not only simply to interview him, but able to have two hours

of agreeable conversation with him around a bar table".

What were his impressions of Phnom Penh? "The Cambodian capital is a charming

little town. The Royal Palace as well as the Silver Pagoda are delightfully pretty."

The local life had captured his attention and he added, "the Cambodian houses

are very picturesque".

Chaplin continued, the reporter noting his poetic but sincere comments. He had nothing

but laudatory remarks for the older Cambodian (French) colonists, but had one sole

criticism - once again, related to domestic architecture. This was the quasi-elegance

of the European houses which he was surprised to see built in the style of suburban

villas exhibiting ("which one knows is open to question") a general lack

of comfort.

Earlier that same day Chaplin had visited the Royal Palace (where he was happy to

have seen His Majesty, King Sisowath Monivong, in the setting of his palace) and

the Silver Pagoda. He had wandered through the city and was obviously impressed by

what he saw. Chaplin is reported to have appreciated the scenes of local life and

taken by the liveliness evident during his stroll in the "Asiatic quarters"

- a reference perhaps, to the Quartier Chinois - the Chinese sector in the vicinity

of the Grand Marché (Psah Thmei) that was then under construction.

Oddly enough, he explained with surprise, he found himself in a city where he considered

certain reclaimed avenues (that had recently been laid over former canals) as being

"little sisters" to the grand Champs Elysées in Paris.

The press could not resist speculating on a possible movie based on his visit to

Indochina. Unfortunately, this film never materialized.

"Without a doubt, one day we will be seeing on Indochina screens, a film inspired

by the trip to Cambodia by the great mime artist...

"But we will nevertheless have to be patient as Charlie did not hide from us

that he didn't plan to abandon the wise measure (that he has had for several years

now) of limiting his film activity to one film every five years."


Lotto and friend

Charlie Chapiin remains the archetype for Cambodian comedians even today.

The reporters inquired further: "In response to our question about whether he

planned to profit from his stay in Indochina to take part in some great hunting,

he simply told us that he had never fired a rifle in his life and felt no desire

to kill. The only game that interested him was the elephant - which he only desired

to capture and not kill."

The great comedian concluded the evening interview with the observation that his

drive through Indochina had been productive, in terms of new and unexpected sights.

He offered his services to carry out intensive publicity on behalf of Indochina tourism

on his return to the United States. The following morning, the party was driven to

Siem Reap.

Victor Goloubew (1878-1945), a wealthy aristocrat from St Petersburg who was well-connected

in Parisian society (he knew the artist Auguste Rodin) and possessed a taste for

the fashionable life, was one of the archaeologists working at Angkor. It was in

a scholarly role of École Francaise d'Extreme-Orient art historian that he

hosted the party's 1936 April tour of the temples. Following their visit to the sites,

the travellers returned to Saigon via Phnom Penh for the remainder of their Indochina

tour, which included the cities of Dalat, Hue and Hanoi.

When the alleged honeymooners returned to California in June 1936, Goddard played

out her well-rehearsed cat-and-mouse games with consummate skill - this time with

American reporters.

"Are you and Mr Chaplin married?" -"It's never been announced officially."

"But is it so? Would you deny you are Mrs. Chaplin?" - "I never discuss

my private life. I find that my private life is one thing and my career another."

The enigma persists to this day and the journalists' questions will probably remain

unanswered: did Goddard marry Chaplin in the East, or was it all simply a charade?

Biographer Kenneth S Lynn in his recent book Charlie Chaplin and His Times (1998)

suggests that "The overwhelming likelihood is they [Paulette & Charlie]

had never been married, and that the divorce proceeding was undertaken at Goddard's

insistence ... ". Following several subsequent affairs, Chaplin married Oona

O'Neill on June 16, 1943.

Postscript. It is now over 60 years since Charlie Chaplin ventured into Indochina.

As evidenced by Phnom Penh movie advertisements of the 20s and 30s, he was incontestably



Charlie Chapiin remains the archetype for Cambodian comedians even today.

His fame remains undiminished. In 1999, video-sellers at Psah Thmei (the "New

Market") offer for sale compilations of Chaplin's most famous films. Charlie's

image of the down-but-not-out tramp still flourishes throughout Cambodia.

There are several popular Cambodian television comedians (typically moustached with

dark-ringed eyes and the curly, slightly dishevelled hair) that model their attitudes

of mime and manner on Chaplin. In Cambodia, the legacy of "the little fellow"

is preserved for future generations to continue laughing at "the funniest man

in the world".

Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia files by

Darryl Collins, cultural consultant. The National Archives is open Monday till Friday,

8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30. It is behind the National Library. All are welcome to consult

its holdings. The re-establishment of the catalog of its holdings is in progress,

a process being facilitated by the support of the Toyota Foundation, the French Embassy

and the French Cultural Center.



Email: [email protected]


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