Book excerpt

Book excerpt: ‘Charlot’ by Ian Masters

A chapter in Charlie Chaplin's midlife crisis in 1936 as he travelled in Indochina

Ian Masters
August 23, 2023
Book excerpt: ‘Charlot’ by Ian Masters
Charlie Chaplin in The Champion, 1915. Charlie and the Bulldog. Photo from Flickr.

On the other side of the European Quarter, Charlie was blissfully oblivious to Levalier’s interest in his wife, and Paulette’s half- hearted attempt to deflect it. His mind was consumed with his new friend and his stories of colonial excess and exploitation. He listened intently in the rickshaw as Phirath pointed out this building and that canal, each new landmark given a political slant or a cultural resonance. It was nearly dark by the time they pulled up in front of the light yellow Art Deco façade of the Central Railway Station. The two towers on either side of the entrance cast shadows over the square in which rickshaw drivers huddled around a cluster of market stalls. Dusk was fast approaching and some of the traders were lighting lamps. Phirath and Charlie headed to the station entrance, passing a line of rickshaws. Two drivers played a game of Khmer chess in the half-light but many of the others were asleep.

‘Look at us,’ snapped Phirath in disgust. ‘Asleep. Hungry. Spending what we earn on the poppy. In IndoChine it is opium which is the religion of the masses. We must wake our people up!’ ‘It will take more than comedians for the French to give up their pearl,’ said Charlie. His introduction to the politics of the protectorate — and in particularly the cruel reality of the rubber plantations in the French colony – had been a wake-up call. He found the clandestine discussions with his unlikely companion intoxicating and inspiring in equal measure.

‘How can they stop us? All around the country the signs are clear. Change is coming.’

‘Isn’t it always?’ replied Charlie, quickly regretting his easy Western cynicism.

‘We have Khmer newspaper. First time. Khmer graduates from the lycée. The Communist Party of Indochina. The time for acting is over. Now is the time for action.’

They crossed the grand threshold and into the cool dark interior. It was busy with porters and hawkers.

‘If we’re lucky our people compete to earn a few piastres as labourers or porters. But this is just scraps the French throw to us, a cruel competition which turns us against each other.’

He peered through the railings to the rear of the station, following the platforms until they extended beyond the main structure and into the open air. A handful of steam locomotives idled. Porters rushed with suitcases, trunks and cargo. Charlie joined him as the Battambang train arrived at the platform. The din and the smell of coal were an elixir. Steam hissed, whistles blew and there was a screech of brakes.

The two men exchanged glances. There was something in Charlie’s expression that made Phirath smile. He saw that familiar moment of inspiration, that first fizz of an artist’s creative neurons reacting to stimulus. ‘Tell me what you see.’

‘A railway scene, a set piece. After his arrival in the docks as a stowaway from America, this will be the moment that launches the story of Colonial Subjects.’


‘The Little Fellow’s unexpected departure on the train to Battambang in pursuit of the governor’s daughter.’

‘Go on. Maybe I can help?’

For an answer, Charlie lifted his camera to his eye and looked through the lens. The station was no longer the scene in front of Charlie. It was the studio backlot version of it, in black and white – an embryonic first vision of a Chaplin silent comedy.

ESTABLISHING SHOT: the main station’s grand art deco façade.

Tilting down a pillar on one side of the entrance to a sign which reads ‘Porters Required’.

There’s a queue in front of the sign – a line of labourers all wearing identical rice paddy hats. As we pan down the line, the pattern is broken by one lone derby hat – belonging to the indomitable Tramp. He’s beside Phirath in the line but Phirath shakes his head dismissively at the Tramp’s inappropriate choice of headwear. The Tramp looks first to Phirath, then to the porters to his left, clearly worried.

Before the Tramp can react, a French station master in uniform emerges and the line surges. In the hubbub the Tramp swaps his hat for his neighbour’s. A whistle blows and the labourers flatten against the station wall for inspection as the station master walks down the line. Until he reaches the derby on the unsuspecting Khmer labourer’s head. He’s yanked from the line and sent to the back. This starts a pantomime of hat swapping down the line as everyone tries to pass on the offensive derby. Distracted by

this, the labourers don’t notice as Phirath pulls the Tramp down to a crouch and they crawl through the station master’s legs to reach the front of the line. The Tramp taps the burly official on the shoulder and gestures inside with a sheepish grin. The station master’s bulging eyes narrow. He checks the line, then the odd couple at the front of it, perplexed. Undeterred, the Tramp pulls out a handkerchief and dusts down the station master’s lapels with a shrug and a grin, desperate to find favour. The station master bats him away irritably, but nods for them to go inside.

WIDE SHOT: a steam train idles inside the station. Smoke and steam billow.

CUT TO: The Tramp and Phirath wait on the platform. They are now dressed in the uniforms of official station porters complete with baggage trolleys. The Tramp picks up a discarded cigarette butt and puts it in his pocket for later as a train rumbles into the station billowing more smoke and steam. All the porters wait, eyeing the doors (and each other) – primed for customers. The first door opens and the Tramp is off, rushing over to the nearest door with his trolley, but another porter beats him to it and shoves his trolley aside. Further down the train another door opens. The Tramp runs over, but with the same outcome. He’s being outmanoeuvred by the more experienced porters.

At the second carriage, a porter has positioned himself to help an ELDERLY DOWAGER preparing to disembark. The Tramp taps him on the shoulder and gestures back to an irate-looking station master glaring in their direction. The porter gulps, worried – but while his back is turned, the Tramp kicks the porter’s trolley away and replaces it with his own. He doffs his derby for an elderly grand dame dowager and offers his hand to help her off the train. She hangs her hatbox on it, ignoring his gallantry.

But when he turns to put it on his trolley, the disgruntled porter has pushed the Tramp’s trolley down the platform and replaced it with his own. And gives the Tramp an angry glare. The Tramp is livid. They push and shove each other’s trolleys, ramming each other out of the way and shaking their fists, until they realise that Phirath has snuck through and is now helping the grand dame dowager with her baggage. The trunks and cases are piled precariously on his trolley.

That’s when a poodle runs through their legs. The argument is forgotten as the Tramp sees again the governor’s daughter beside the governor, approaching from the end of the platform. She looks horrified, hand up to her mouth and shouting:

INTERTITLE: Descartes! My darling Descartes!

Descartes, the poodle, has climbed to the top of the pile of the grand dame dowager’s luggage on Phirath’s trolley. The furious porter, feeling cheated by both the Tramp and Phirath, pulls the bottom case of the pile out to put on his trolley. The pile jolts lower, with Descartes on top. Each case is swiped out; each time a bewildered Descartes plunges lower and lower until finally it leaps into the Tramp’s arms.

The governor’s daughter is there in an instant and the Tramp hands over Descartes with a shy smile. A hand taps him on the shoulder. It’s the governor. He glares at the Tramp and shouts:

INTERTITLE: Put our luggage on the Battambang Train.

First Class.

He hands the Tramp a piastre coin. The Tramp grins.

CUT TO: the interior of the baggage compartment on the Battambang train. The Tramp whistles to himself, pleased as punch, as he stacks the last of the governor’s trunks on the train. Job done, he walks down the carriage, nodding to the French passengers, and doffing his derby to the ladies. He passes the governor’s daughter in her seat by an open window, her folded parasol and dog beside her. The heat is unbearable, and she fans herself. The Tramp doffs his derby, but she’s completely oblivious to him and stares instead at the bustle on the platform. But Descartes sees the Tramp. He barks once and then leaps out of the open window. The governor’s daughter shrieks. A handkerchief dabs her eyes, she looks to the Tramp, pleading. He nods gallantly, about to set off when the whistle hoots and the train begins to pull away …

As the train moves slowly out of the station, the Tramp sees Phirath holding Descartes. He grabs the parasol from beside the governor’s daughter and runs down the carriage, leaping over the connections to the next carriage, and the next, until he’s at the back of the train.

Phirath is running towards him, hands outstretched holding Descartes.

Closer and closer Phirath runs, but the train is building up speed. The Tramp holds out the parasol from the tip and hooks Descartes collar and pulls him into the train as Phirath leaps aboard. They clap each other on the back as the tracks rush away beneath them.

INTERTITLE: Tickets please!

Shock on their faces. They turn to see the ticket collector passing through the last carriage checking and punching tickets. He sees them at the back of the train holding a poodle and a parasol. His eyes narrow. The Tramp and Phirath look back, but the tracks are rushing away too fast now to jump.

The Tramp retrieves the piastre coin from the governor but Phirath shakes his head.

‘It’s OK for you,’ he says. ‘But the punishment for Khmer to ride train with no ticket is ten years. Ten years hard labour.’

The Tramp stares at him open-mouthed. ‘What?’ asks Phirath, confused.

‘What are you doing?’ the Tramp shouts, ignoring the ticket collector barreling towards them.

‘I don’t understand.’ ‘You’re … you’re talking!’ ‘So are you,’ quips Phirath.

Charlie’s sketch came to an abrupt halt with Phirath’s verbal intrusions. The filmmaker lowered his camera, annoyed. The younger actor looked at his idol with a sadness in his eyes.

‘What must be said cannot be limited to intertitles, to a few cards,’ he said, his voice firm but friendly.

‘Then I need to rework the scene. The Little Fellow doesn’t speak.’

‘Think of the power if he did.’

Charlie glared at him, but the hour started to chime on the big station clock.

‘I’m late.’ And he put his camera back into his bag and rushed through the station and into the twilight. He was already at the line of rickshaws when Phirath caught up with him.

‘Forgive me, Saklo,’ Phirath said, worried that his comment had

jeopardised their budding friendship and creative collaboration. There was a lot riding on it, although Charlie didn’t know that yet. Before Charlie could respond they saw the headlights of a police car enter the square and circle round in front of the station entrance, coming to a stop close to the line of rickshaws. The driver immediately stepped down and opened the rear passenger door. It was Le Favre.

Merde,’ muttered Phirath.

‘Do you think he wants my autograph?’ said Charlie. The captain’s persistence was beginning to rattle the filmmaker.

Phirath leant into Charlie so they wouldn’t be overheard and whispered, ‘It’s he who stopped Yen Bai in Vietnam. Forty men sentenced to death. Over nothing. And don’t be fooled by the governor either. He and the rubber plantation owners are in this exploitation together. They take what they like, do what they like. We will talk more, but now you must go.’

He told the rickshaw driver where to take his guest and Charlie climbed into the back. Before they pulled away, Phirath grabbed Charlie’s arm.

‘Saklo, in two days we perform in Battambang. It would be an honour if you would grace the performance with your presence. I must be honest with you. It is not just an honour. If you believe that we have the right to challenge the excesses of the French protectorate, your presence would … it would give us greater … visibility. The press follows you everywhere. Think about it, I beg you.’

Charlie barely had time to acknowledge this heartfelt request when the captain barreled over. Phirath turned his face away.

‘Was I not clear, Monsieur Chaplin?’ said the captain.

For a moment Charlie was caught between Phirath’s request and Le Favre’s irritating threats. But it was the manner of the Frenchman’s intrusion which made up his mind.

‘I’ll be there,’ he whispered to Phirath. ‘I promise.’

The young actor walked off into the darkness. Charlie turned his attention to Le Favre and offered his wrists to the policeman. ‘I wasn’t aware that taking a walk was a criminal offence, Sergeant Le Favre.’

‘It’s Captain Le Favre. As you well know.’

Le Favre trailed off when he caught sight of Phirath melting into the darkness beyond the nighttime street stalls. His eyes narrowed.

‘What do you want to achieve in Indochina, Mr Chaplin?

Perhaps it would be best if you would just speak your mind.’

Charlie thought about that for a moment, choosing his words carefully. It was an opportunity, and he knew it.

‘Very well,’ he replied eventually. ‘I am struggling to understand why Modern Times has been approved for screening in every country of the Far East and beyond, every single one, except for French Indochina? I believe that this was on your insistence. I am no threat, and neither are my motion pictures.’

Le Favre glared at the filmmaker. ‘Perhaps in America they are seen only as light entertainment. But it is the opinion of the governor that you and your films are dangerous to the status quo of this colony. In America you may be a celebrity, Monsieur Chaplin, but here you are a guest of French-administered Cambodia, and I would remind you once again to keep your Hollywood politics out of Indochina. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Is that a threat, Captain? Are you going to arrest me for

walking? Now that would be front page news.’

He dropped his wrists and eyeballed the captain. It was the Frenchman who looked away first.

‘Very well then. If you’ll excuse me, I’m late for the governor’s garden party.’

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