World Tour Revisited: Charlie “gleans the true meaning of life” from the Balinese

Chaplin entered into the spirit of the place and ate rice with his fingers from dishes made of banana leaves, squatted on the ground to watch cockfights, and would go any distance to see a native dance or hear an orchestra. His understand of the dancing and music was amazing. The music is entirely different from the white man’s, and persons who have long been in Bali find it difficult to interpret, yet Chaplin went away from the performances humming entire passages with unerring instinct. And his imitations of the dancers would pack a Broadway house. (Florence Hirschfeld, “Charlie Chaplin, Balinese,” New York Herald, June 12, 1932. Quoted in Syd Chaplin by Lisa Stein Haven, 2011)

The brothers saw their first native dance only a few hours after they arrived on the island. “After dinner at the Hirschfelds, Syd and I took a walk. The night was dark and sultry. In the distance they heard the sound of “jingling tambourines and clashing gongs in rhythmic tonal patterns. ‘A dance is going on somewhere,’ said Hirschfeld. ‘Let’s go.’ About two hundred yards away a group of natives were standing and squatting around, and maidens sat cross-legged with baskets and small flares selling dainty edibles.” After edging their way through the crowd, they noticed that “musicians were seated in square formation with instruments like xylophones in front of them. In the center were two girls, not more than ten years old, posed in kneeling fashion…dancing with their arms extended, weaving like serpents, swaying and undulating on their knees to the droning music.”1
“The girls were in perfect unison,” Charlie remembered, “their necks swayed and their eyes turned and flickered back. Their fingers quivered. There was something devilish about it.” When they had finished, the dancers sank back into the crowd out of view. “There was no applause and no compliments. Although they had performed beautifully, it was appreciated without comment.”  Charlie explained further:

Two words I discovered were unknown in Balinese language–‘love’ and ‘thank you.’ Those dancers had practiced assiduously, striving for perfection without any personal gain. Not one person gets paid for entertainment. It is all given free. A village will entertain another and walk miles to do so, and for their services will be given only a meal.”

After the performance we strolled over to Hirschfeld’s house and sat on the veranda underneath myriads of stars. That was my first night in Bali. 

How different, I thought, from anything I’d ever seen. How far removed I felt from the rest of the world. Europe and America seemed unreal–as though they had never existed. Although I was in Bali only a few hours, it seemed I had always lived there.

How easy man falls into his natural state. What does a career, a civilization matter in this natural way of living? From these facile people one gleans the true meaning of life—to work and play–play being as important as work to man’s existence. That’s why they’re happy. The whole time I was on the island I rarely saw a sad face.”2

It should come as no surprise that one of the brothers’ main reasons for visiting Bali were the beautiful, topless women. The following story suggests, however, that Charlie may have done more than just admire them from afar. During a visit to Charlie’s home in Vevey years later, Michael Chaplin recalled that Syd asked his father: “Do you remember in Bali when you disappeared with those two girls?” Charlie, horrified that his brother had asked him this question in front of his children, refused to answer.3

Charlie and Walter Spies with some of the native dancers. 

One of the people Charlie and Syd met on the island was Walter Spies, a Russian painter and musician who had been living in Bali for five years studying their music. Spies entertained the brothers during most of their stay. “Our routine for the day would start after breakfast, taking automobile excursions to various parts of the island. These excursions we usually took in the morning, returning before lunch, and in the afternoon would take our siesta. In the evening, thanks to our friend Spies, there was always some form of entertainment which would complete our day.”

The brothers saw a number of the local dances, including the Legong (possibly the one they witnessed on their first night), the Baris, the Lion dance, the Witch dance, and the Kris. Charlie recalled that he saw the latter dance during an all-night festival which included a barong play. “It took place on the outskirts of the forest and hundreds came from all parts of the island.” The play centered around the character of a witch, represented by a man wearing a “terrifying mask, wild tangled hair and long nails who never fails to fill the public with horror and fear.” During the kris, the performers often go into a trance, believing they are “imbued with the evil spirit of the character.”  This is exactly what happened the night Charlie saw the performance. “In the play the witch is supposed to recoil from the fire and run into a small proscenium built at the end of the ring, but this night the fear of the witch was so great that the actor lost control and rushed madly though the crowd into the  jungle, shrieking in a state of hysteria. We all followed, running into the darkness to see what had happened to him.” A priest rescued the actor, removed his mask, and holy water was administered. After ten minutes he came out of his trance.

Illustration by Peter Helck from “A Comedian Sees The World,”
Woman’s Home Companion, January 1934

Both Charlie and Syd would return to Bali later. Charlie in 1936 and 1961, and Syd in 1938. “Possibly,” as Syd’s biographer, Lisa Stein Haven, pointed out, “to convince themselves that such a place really existed.”4

Below are the brothers’ home movies from Bali. The man squatting with Charlie to feed the monkeys at the beginning is Walter Spies.

Where in the world was Charlie twelve months earlier?


1Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World,” WHC, Jan. 1934
3Interview with Michael Chaplin, BBC Radio program “The Chaplin Archive,” 2011
4Stein, Syd Chaplin, McFarland, 2011

1 Comment

  1. I knew it!! I knew Charlie couldn't visit that place without sampling some of the "native fare". Thought that too when I saw a picture of Charlie and Sydney with the Fisher brothers in Singapore where they went after Bali. In the photo Charlie was giving his brother a "death stare" as Sydney smiled. Romantic me thought Sydney was revealing Charlie's secrets from their time in Bali.

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