*All photos are from Charlie and Syd’s home movies.
The brothers’ first glimpse of Bali was in the morning. “We were cruising along its beautiful shores on the way to Bulelang, our landing place. Silvery downy clouds encircled the green mountains, leaving their peaks like floating fairy islands. Majestic landscapes and smiling inlets passed until we reached our destination. How different this port looks from those of civilized countries; no chimney stacks to mar the horizon, no begrimed dry docks nursing rusty ships, no iron foundries, stock yards or tanneries. Only a small wooden wharf, a few picturesque boats and houses with red tiled roofs.”
Charlie first heard of Bali during a conversation with his brother about the general unrest of the world. “If it comes to the worst,” said Syd, “I’ll go to Bali. That is an island untouched by civilization, where you can sit under sweltering palms and pick fruit off the trees and live as nature intended. There one doesn’t worry about depression. The problem of living is easy. And the women are beautiful.”
The conversation didn’t arouse his interest at the time. But when they were en route to Japan aboard the Suwa Maru, Sydney brought him a book.* During the day, Charlie browsed through it “and after reading a chapter I was ‘sold.'”
Much to Charlie’s surprise, they are greeted at the dock in Bulelang by an enormous crowd. “To my horror, I discovered that the natives of Bali had seen one or two of my pictures. ‘Good heavens,’ I thought, ‘have I come all this way for another Rotary Club welcome?'”
After tea at the governor’s house, “we got into our automobile and sped along the road to south Bali, our final destination.”
Although the landscape was beautiful, Charlie was disappointed. “Where were the beautiful women? I had been told that the natives went bare-shouldered, but I found they were all respectably covered up.”
He wouldn’t be disappointed for long. “We had been riding about fifteen minutes when my brother Syd nudged me. ‘Look there, quick!’
“I turned and saw a line of stately creatures walking along the roads, dressed only in batiks wrapped around their waists and their chests bare. How picturesque they looked carrying curved shaped pottery upon their heads, with one arm akimbo and the other swinging in rhythmic motion as they filed by.”
Charlie recalled that their guide, “an American Turk who sat in front with the chauffeur, was most annoying, for he would turn with lecherous interest to see our reactions–as though he had put on a show for us.”
The brothers arrive at Denpasar and stop at the Bali Hotel, which had only recently been built. “It is in modern style…the sitting rooms are open like a veranda, and partitioned off with sleeping quarters in the back.”
“How nice to be away from civilization,” Charlie wrote, “relieved of stiff shirt fronts and starched collars. I had made up my mind to go around native-like with just a loose shirt, a pair of trousers and sandals. You can imagine my disgust when I found a notice posted in the room which read that all guests must be fully dressed when entering the dining-room. I was most indignant. Nevertheless I dined deliberately without changing my clothes or shaving.”
That evening, Charlie and Syd were invited to dinner by the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and his wife, who had been living in Bali for two months. “On discovering his anonymity,” Hirschfeld later wrote, “Charlie decided to carry out an experiment. It was then I realized that the mustache, baggy pants and oversized shoes were of no more importance to Chaplin than the type of quill used by Shakespeare or the frame on any great painting. The pith helmet he carried with him would and did serve just as well for this research in laughter.
“His audience was composed of seven house boys who worked for me…These were the unwitting spectators of Chaplin’s magical performance. He proceeded to put the pith helmet on his head and it sprang crazily into the air with a will of its own. Undaunted and with a wonderful look of nonchalance he tried it again. And again the hat flew off his head. The natives howled with laughter, thinking his hat to be possessed of demoniacal powers. When the simplicity of the trick was exposed to them they tried desperately amid great hilarity to snap their turbans in the same way. That was the experiment. He had wanted to see if the natives would laugh at his pantomime. They did. Chaplin’s science is humor and his laboratory the world. His humor is contagious and natural. That was his first day in Bali and he had earned himself the descriptive title of ‘funny man.'”
Charlie had originally planned to stay in Bali for only a week, but enjoyed it so much he stayed for two.
Coming up in my next WTR post: Chaplin immerses himself in Balinese culture.
*The Last Paradise by Hickman Powell, published in 1930.
Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World,” 1933
Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
Al Hirschfeld, “A Man With Both Feet In The Clouds,” NYT, 1942
Stein, Syd Chaplin, 2011