First encounters / When Charlie Chaplin met Jean Cocteau

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Charlie Chaplin's first encounter with Jean Cocteau was memorable not so much for its improbability (it took place on a Japanese boat in the South China Sea) or its spirit (friendly enough) as for the marked disinclination the meeting inspired in either man for any second encounter.

It was 1936. Modern Times had just been released, and its creator had taken the leading lady - his wife, Paulette Goddard - on a trip to the Orient. Embarking at Singapore, he was handed a note from Cocteau, whose recent film Le Sang d'un poete was a critical success, and who was there doing a story for Le Figaro. Would M Chaplin, the note read, join him in his cabin for an aperitif before dinner? M Chaplin was delighted, although less so on discovering that just as he spoke no French, Cocteau spoke no English. Communication was carried on through the deadpan translations of Cocteau's secretary: "Meester Cocteau... he say... you are a poet... of ze sunshine... and he is a poet of ze... night." Still, their shared enthusiasms carried them along until 4am, and they promised to meet for lunch.

With the bright light of noon, however, came cold reality. They had said all they had to say to each other. Both men passed up lunch and spent the afternoon composing notes of apology, which crossed. Desperation set in.

But the dilemma was a shared one. Circumvention became the game of the day. It was understood that Cocteau lunched with his secretary, and Chaplin dined with Paulette. If during the morning promenade they should catch a glimpse of each other, the one closer to a door would promptly duck inside. Both grew familiar with parts of the boat they had not known existed. Gradually, they relaxed. By the time Tokyo was reached, salutations - even brief conversation - were possible.

The ironies became apparent only later. Paulette, who saw a great deal of Chaplin on that trip, was estranged from him within the year, but Cocteau remained a faithful, if distant, friend for ever