The controversy Chaplin endured in order to be decorated by the French government is not recounted in this memoir. His goal was always to receive the highly regarded Légion d’Honneur medal, equivalent to an English knighthood, but his acquisition of this medal and its attendant respect and honor took nearly ten years and probably ten times the difficulty it needed to. The story begins with Chaplin’s first trip back to Europe in September-October 1921. While most of his focus on this trip was on London and his first homecoming there since moving to America to work in films, Chaplin and his party made three trips to Paris as part of the itinerary. Certainly, meeting the French public who greeted him as “Charlot” for the first time was an important part of these visits, but also there seemed to be a sort of promise to Chaplin that he would be “decorated,” whatever that term happened to mean at the time. On the third trip to Paris, ostensibly to attend the French premiere of The Kid at the Trocadero, “it” happened, but the decoration was for something called “Officier de l’Instruction Publique,” an award given to public school teachers in France. After all this effort, Chaplin still didn’t receive the award he was after and returned to the States empty-handed, although his account of it in My Trip Abroad reveals none of this disappointment:
Mary [Pickford] and Doug [Fairbanks] are very kind in congratulating me, and I tell them of my terrible conduct during the presentation of the decoration. I knew I was wholly inadequate for the occasion. [. . .] Then they wanted to see the decoration, which reminded me that I had not looked at it myself. So I unrolled the parchment and Doug read aloud the magic words from the Minister of Instruction of the Public and Beaux Arts, which made Charles Chaplin, dramatist artist, an Officier de l’Instruction Publique.
The award he was after—the Cross of the Legion of Honor—is still in existence. Its official Web site offers this account of the award and its order’s history:
Le nouvel ordre, dû à l’initiative du Premier Consul Bonaparte, se voulait un corps d’élite destiné à réunir le courage des militaires aux talents des civils, formant ainsi la base d’une nouvelle société au service de la Nation.
Le 14 floréal an X (4 mai 1802), Bonaparte déclarait au Conseil d’Etat : “Si l’on distinguait les hommes en militaires ou en civils, on établirait deux Ordres tandis qu’il n’y a qu’une Nation. Si l’on ne décernait des honneurs qu’aux militaires, cette préférence serait encore pire car, alors, la Nation ne serait plus rien.1
Fast forward ten years to Chaplin’s next tour of Europe, 1931/32. Charlie and his entourage cut short his trip to Venice in order to be decorated in Paris on 27 March. This time the event had been secured by the devoted French caricaturist Cami and his friends. The press, unlike Chaplin in “A Comedian Sees the World,” were less hesitant to discuss the event. On the next few pages, two articles transcribed from the pressbooks in the Chaplin archives give extensive details of the event, its context, and surrounding controversy. The second of these articles, penned by James Abbe, the gifted photographer of celebrities (his wonderful publicity stills for The Pilgrim are perhaps his most famous Chaplin images), offers us an important glimpse into this aspect of the story.
Seattle [WA] Post-Intel
26 July 1931
“Charlie Chaplin’s Troublesome Legion of Honor Medal”
Kissed on Both Cheeks when Given the Historic Order, Then Scolded and Insulted for Taking It, and Now the Thorough Reform or Even Abolishment of the Decoration Is Being Urged in France
The conferring of the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor upon Charlie Chaplin threatens to put an end to all similar honors by the wiping out of this order, which was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte. And it has been a troublesome decoration, indeed, to the famous comedian.
True comedy should have always in it something of the tragic or the sorrowful, and Mr. Chaplin is famous for situations on the film in which on kissing the hand of the fair lady, or while engaged in some other pleasant occupation, a brick falls on his head or a mule kicks him. This is precisely this situation in which he has found himself in the matter of his induction into the Legion of Honor, and while it is amusing on the films, Mr. Chaplin has found it far from that when it occurs in real life.
The glittering cross and the resplendent ribbon of the Legion of Honor were hung on his breast, and as if to prove that France not only honored and loved him and that there was no fooling about it, M. Philippe Berthelot, Secretary General of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, kissed him on both cheeks.
But he had hardly stepped from the Secretary General’s office when the French press raised its collective foot and presented him with not one stout kick but several. And he read with astonishment that many members of the order that he had just joined were protesting to the Grand Chancellor of the Legion about it.
“Why should the red ribbon tinged with the blood of heroes be bestowed on a clown?” read the protest of one group. Mr. Chaplin was actually the victim of circumstances. Far from being in any manner unworthy, he is probably the most worthy to receive the decoration in a long time, but he received it just as France was boiling with indignation for what had gone before and what was expected to come.
It was his misfortune that hardly more than a few hours before he had received the medal, Josephine Baker, the young colored lady, or, as they laughingly call her, “the Vierge Noire,” who comes from Harlem, New York, and who dances and delights the French by doing so in not even practically nothing, had announced that M. Berthelot had promised to give her the Legion of Honor. And not long before that, a lady inventor of a French cheese, which has nothing of the perfumes of Araby about it, was proposed for the same decoration. The latter broke no precedent, however, because the distinguished cook, M. Escoffier, had been given the ribbon and medal for the invention of “peach Melba” and similar triumphs of French cuisine.
The net result, however, is that for the third time in history the matter of abolishing the Legion of Honor, or at least its lower ranks, is now being discussed in Paris and will shortly be brought up before the Chamber of Deputies. The second time was when the medal was given to Mme. Cecile Sorel, ostensibly for her high qualifications as an actress, but those who had received the decoration for risking their lives in war for France, or for achievements more in line with those which Napoleon had in mind when he founded the Order, quite openly charged that there were other less creditable reasons.
And the papers printed cartoons much more insulting than those they have just been printing about Mr. Chaplin.
Picking up the well-known French newspaper, L’Humanité, Mr. Chaplin saw a caricature of himself wearing the Legion of Honor rosette in his buttonhole—the little red rosette taking the place for street wear of the medal—and a caricature of himself pointing a cane at it. Mr. Chaplin in his film character is known as “Charlot” in France. Beneath was the following caption in French:
“Charlot—What’s this! Mr. Chaplin, have you been to the hardware market?”
A Frenchman had to explain to Mr. Chaplin that “hardware market” meant the same thing as junk shop. This was bad enough, but when he turned to the Ciné-Journal (“The Journal of the Film”) he saw another caricature of himself standing on the Arc de Triomphe, the Legion cross on his chest, and saying in French:
“My proper place? Here it is! On the ground? Tush! That is good enough for the unknown.”
When one realizes that the French Unknown Soldier is buried in the ground under the arch, it becomes apparent that the allusion to an “unknown” makes it about as insulting a caption as could have been devised.
On the same page was a sarcastic editorial in which the matter was discussed as if the Legion emblem had been given to “Charlot” and not Mr. Chaplin:
“All the members of the great League of Nations, who have applauded Charlot on the screen, will applaud with joy the action of France in raising him to the rank of knight of the Legion of Honor,” says one of our colleagues.
“Should we laugh at this, or should we weep? Neither one nor the other. We should simply shrug our shoulders. We should dishonor the Red Ribbon instituted by Napoleon I if we acted otherwise.
“Charlot is a great artist. I do not contest that. But all the same, what has he done for humanity in general, and for France in particular?”
Still another cartoon showed a concierge, that is a caretaker, talking to a friend while the man passed down the stairs behind him. The concierge says: “I think there must be something wrong with the new tenant. He has no Legion of Honor like everybody else.”
There is still a great deal of adverse talk because the picturesque poetess, the Countess Anna de Noailles, was given the grand cordon of the Legion of Honor, while it has not yet been given to Mme. Curie, who discovered radium and opened a new path in the world of science. The Countess was made a commander of the Legion. In this case, the resentment took the form of polite ridicule and a sarcastic controversy in Paris newspapers and magazines as to the proper way for her to wear her ribbon.
Not long ago, while complimenting some brave sailors who had saved the lives of a boatload of fishermen, an Under-Secretary of State expressed regret that he had only two Legion of Honor decorations to give.
What distressed so many Frenchmen is that, while there always seems to be a ribbon and cross ready for someone of dubious credit to the nation, the delays for real heroes and heroines are often outrageous.
Mme. Victorine Bessodes, a heroic nun, who devoted fifty years to nursing the fever-stricken in Senegal, did not get her cross till she was 79 years old. But Mme. Jeanne Lanvin, a dressmaker, got hers while she was young and able to show it off.
A midshipman, who died gloriously on the French ironclad Iena in 1897, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, as was fitting, but his family had to wait nineteen years for that recognition. Meanwhile, M. Cornuche, the well-known proprietor of gambling casinos, only had to wait a few months, after his friends suggested him to receive his “cross of the brave.”
Mathurin Le Guilloux, an officer in the French navy and hero of twenty engagements, saved the cruiser Jeanne d’Arc from explosion. Was he admitted to the Legion? No, his name was merely “proposed.” But a certain M. Duval, who watched over the interests of the Paris Omnibus Company at the Hotel de Ville, received a rosette, as did the man who piloted the engine of a train that conducted M. Gaston Doumergue, former president of France, to Cherbourg.
Another who did not have to wait was Dr. Voronoff, who got into the Legion of Heroes in recognition of his famous monkey gland transplantation operation, which has since become discredited. Had the glittering cross been pinned on Georges Carpentier, the prizefighter, some people would not have minded so much, for at least he fought bravely in the ring. But why, they ask, was he ignored in favor of Mr. Jeff Dickson, an American boxing promoter who has become a sort of Parisian Tex Rickard?
Other recipients who have made the French nation groan were Mlle. Carlotta Zambelli, a dancing girl; M. Dranem, a comedian by no means as well known as Charles Chaplin; Baroncelli and Roudes, two moving-picture directors, and M. Georges Marquet, a hotel proprietor at Nice.
But the last straw was when Josephine Baker, colored song-and-dance artist, announced that the same M. Berthelot had promised her the same honor for introducing the “Charleston” and “black bottom” to Paris. Cartoons have been printed in the Paris papers showing both Miss Baker and Cecile Sorel clothed only in their Legion of Honor cross and ribbon.
The sale of the Legion of Honor crosses to Frenchmen has been exposed over and over in the French press, but from patriotic motives little is printed about reasons for which they are given to many foreigners.
While such bribery does not make the best class of Frenchmen proud, at the same time, he realizes that it is done in the general interest of his country and says little about it. However, La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of the Rights of Man) recently protested so vigorously at the way Legion crosses were passed out to bandits of Morocco, Syria, and Annam as a reward for betraying their brothers-in-arms, their race, and religion in the interests of French imperialism that it actually did get into the papers.
Though Charlie Chaplin was called a “clown,” he is fortunate in that nobody thinks that he either paid cash for his decoration or sold out his country or business organization for the bauble. Why, then, did he get it? He deserved it quite as much and more so than many others, but also, once in a while, it must be presented to some foreigner of world-wide eminence, otherwise it would soon have no great value as a bribe for obscure persons in a position to secretly fix something up for France on the back stairs that would cost millions if done openly and legitimately in the front office.
The honor can be withdrawn, and that power has caused almost as much scandal as its bestowal. The Grand Chancery of the Legion is notorious for attempting to protect and to keep in its ranks members condemned for fraud and other offenses in the courts, such as M. Eiffel, convicted of stealing 20,000,000 francs of public funds.
In 1879 the Grand Chancery had to prohibit grocers, haberdashers, and makers of lingerie, perfumes, and liquors, whose “civil merit” had won the decoration, from using it as an advertisement and window display to sell their goods. Like British titles, the crosses were for sale to the highest bidder.
In 1927 M. Marcel Ruotte, of the Ministry of Commerce, together with M. Cams and M. Dumoulin, were tried for selling decorations wholesale, some of them as cheap as $4000. M. Chapgard, a druggist, took one at this bargain figure, and so did a decorator named Dumas, but M. Gossard, big wool merchant, paid three times as much.
In fact, many wealthy men, after receiving the decoration, never wore it nor mentioned it, and are said to have told their friends that they did not want the thing, but had felt obliged to buy and pay for it, in order to enjoy certain political favors in a business way.
The great Napoleon would turn in his porphyry sarcophagus if he knew that the medal for heroism that he founded in 1802 had fallen so low as to be forced by politicians upon rich tradesmen who toss it away in a drawer like tickets they are forced to buy for a policeman’s ball.
New York Herald Tribune
26 April 1931
“Photographing Charlie: The Elusive King Charles of Screenland,
Touring France in State, Agrees in Paris to Pose for a Wandering Photographer Who, He Learns, Is Also An Alumnus of Mack Sennett’s Comedy College—and Finally Fulfills His Promise After Only a Week of Waiting.”
By James E. Abbe
During the entire last week, my camera was set up in one of the sumptuous salons of the suite which CC occupied at the historic old Hotel de Crillon.
Togo, Charlie’s Japanese valet, informed me that it was stumbled over by the most distinguished members of Parisian society, literati, diplomats, and whatnot, as well as by the Duke of Westminster on behalf of the British empire.
Charlie, himself, upon the day of his arrival, told me to set up, that he would pose for me at his first opportunity. This was because he had posed for me ten years on the set in Hollywood and we were both alumni of Mack Sennett’s Comedy college.
While my camera waited stoically for Charlie, I, myself, sat in an outer salon next to the bilingual secretary, who responded, in one way or another, to a telephone call a minute for seven days.
Disposed as he was to be gracious to any and everybody in Paris, Charlie, after all, was only one man and could not be everywhere he was invited, or see everybody who wanted to see him. It devolved upon this efficient and diplomatic Mlle. Lachat to be considerate of all who telephoned without committing the elusive Charlot to anything.
Carl Robinson, who bears the title of Charlie’s “personal manager,” hovered around, receiving from the secretary a sotto voce interpretation of the applicants’ requests and social standing and, as best he could, deciding who might penetrate as far as the outer salon to be given the once-over.
Liveried pageboys entered unannounced with one calling card after another and mail by the bundle.
As the days passed, I became more and more reconciled to waiting to photograph Charlie—reconciled to having been allowed such proximity to the most sought-after man in Paris.
Now and then I would break down at the sound of disappointed voices and saunter over to the big French window to gaze out over the balcony on the Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their pals had been guillotined during the Revolution.
It was from the balcony that Charlot himself greeted his French subjects upon his arrival, and every day about noon I myself would hang over the rail to watch Charlie run the gauntlet of French admirers and newspaper photographers, after having just put me off until “later.”
Merely having the price won’t get you into this special suite in the Crillon. It reeks of tradition. General Pershing, Colonel House, the King of Egypt, Lloyd George, the Sultan of Morocco, the Bey of Tunis—to mention only a few latter-day celebrities—have occupied it.
At the time of Louis XVI it was reserved for the more important guests of the King.
Carl Robinson informed me that it was just one of Charlie’s little unaccountable whims which prevented my camera, my lamps, and me from being thrown out onto the spot where better men and women than I had had their heads cut off.
Carl Robinson’s title of “personal manager” is misleading, from what I observed. I guess no one has ever managed Charlie. Nevertheless, he is a privileged character, as far as the French are concerned, for being Charlie’s right-hand man. Few persons have the distinction of not going to jail if they have socked a French agent de police on the jaw. When Charlie stepped off the train at the Gare de Lyon some ten thousand Parisians were waiting to greet him. A phalanx of picked police battered a path through the gesticulating mob for Charlie to get to his auto. Somehow the personal manager got separated from Charlie, and discovering a lieutenant of police barring his way with outstretched arms, he let the lieutenant have one on the jaw. Jaw, lieutenant, and all went down for the count. But only for the count of two.
By the time the infuriated lieutenant had caught up with his assailant, Carl was linked arm in arm with Charlie, and it was the lieutenant who did the apologizing.
One of the most important jobs of Charlie’s personal staff is to prevent the most colorful instances of Charlie’s trip from getting into the hands of press correspondents. Charlie is obligated to hold back at least 50,000 words of anecdotes for his own story of the trip, which he is to write at $1 a word.
A layman might think that from the grand manner in which Charlie and his entourage travel, that $50,000 wouldn’t cover the cost of the trip. But all Charlie has to do is to accept breakfast, luncheon, and dinner dates, gifts from admirers, receipted bills from hotel managers and private cars on the trains, and what he will put out in actual cash might not be more than you or I would pay on an “all-expense” tour.
Lady Deterding, the wife of the Shell Oil King, who had the apartment next to Charlie’s, gave a dinner in his honor one night. There were ninety guests. This must have cost as much as the Crillon Hotel did when it was purchased by M. de Crillon from the family of the Princess de Polignac in 1870.
The miracle of Charlie’s visit abroad (up to now) is that he hasn’t gotten married again. So far the English press has given much space to photographs of a beautiful bare-back English girl whom Charlie had selected for his next picture.
The front cover of a Berlin illustrated weekly was adorned with the head of an undeniably ravishing German creature who had been selected by Charlie for the same role.
Then, in Vienna, Charlie selected a Rumanian beauty, who has been in Paris all the last week, and according to the ever watchful press, has been undergoing numerous motion picture tests with a view to being Charlie’s leading lady in his next picture.
If Charlie goes through with the trip as planned—does Spain, Russia, China, Japan, and few hundred other countries—one might assume that his next picture is going to be a story of the old Hippodrome chorus with each chorus girl a glorified foreign beauty.
The willingness of these prospective leading ladies to forsake their native lands, firesides, and whatnot on the chance of future fame, fortune, or even alimony, is evidenced by an incident at the front door of the Hotel de Crillon at 10 a.m. one day last week.
Out of the elevator stepped a young beauty in a gorgeous evening gown and wrap. Hall boys sprang to be of service. It seemed she had been waiting all night, outside Charlie’s apartment in the hope of being “selected.” Three of the boys procured her a taxi, and the press photographers, who were camped on the sidewalk the entire week, were so astonished at the apparition that they didn’t even shoot when they saw the whites of her eyes.
City Lights opened in Belgium while Charlie was in Paris. The King and Queen were present. A two-column story of the opening appeared on the front page of Belgium’s biggest daily paper the following morning. It was full of praise, complimentary comments of the King and Queen, and only a paragraph deploring the fact that Charlie had not made the three-hour train ride from Paris to appear at the performance in person.
However, King Albert, having heard that Charlie was extremely fatigued because of demands made upon his time when he had come abroad only for a rest, grabbed an airplane and came to Paris to congratulate Charlie in person.
King Albert received King Charles, at the request of the former, at the Belgian Embassy. That no taint of publicity might possibly be connected with the meeting, it was mutually agreed that no photographers be allowed in. That same dignified avoidance of documentary publicity was observed during the luncheon with Briand. We photographers were barred.
Even though I put in a week to get six photographs, at least I got to talk with Charlie on several occasions.
The first time was when he had just come in from having lunch with Briand and was all aglow with the latter’s pet idea of a United States of Europe. Evidently the veteran diplomat had made Charlie feel absolutely at home on this almost state occasion, because Charlie said, “It wasn’t at all the formal affair I’d feared it would be. As a matter of fact, it was so pleasant, I even enjoyed the food.”
I was sitting in the salon with my camera, in conference with Togo, while Charlie was out getting his Légion d’Honneur decoration. It was the sixth day of my vigil. Togo was telling me that I had gone about it wrong to get Charlie to pose for me, that I should have come to him first. I was about convinced that Togo was right when Charlie walked into the salon through a secret and private entrance.
Charlie called us over to the window, naively produced a little leather case from his pocket, and opened it to show us the gorgeous Cross of the Legion of Honor, which is “le plus beau geste” that the French can make to an individual.
Turning to me, Charlie was almost blushing, “They say it is the first time it has been given to a foreign actor.” Togo and I both congratulated him. Turning the cross over in his hand, as if it were a sacred relic, he noticed that it did not have his name engraved. For a second we were, all three, crestfallen. Then Charlie suddenly bethought him of a mailing tube, which he had under his arm. I held the cross while he extracted from the tube his diploma, which he unrolled. Then we all bucked up. For there it was in black and white—that Charlie Chaplin was a “Chevalier du Légion d’Honneur.” “‘Chevalier’ is the first grade,” Charlie said to me. “You have to be a Chevalier first, then if you are promoted you become an officer or a commander or something.”
I thought to myself—well, anyhow, it’s a start. For the first time since I have known him, I saw Charlie, himself, in the same light as his screen personality.
His expression and his ever-so-slight pantomime as he showed his valet and me his Cross of the Legion of Honor was identical with that of the little vagabond of the screen, who was so touched by the friendliness of the blind flower girl.
There is nothing particularly pathetic in not knowing how to read French, but as Charlie tried to decipher what was inscribed on the diploma I was impelled to come to his rescue—as everyone feels like doing at the sight of him in one of his screen predicaments.
Is it possible that Charlie’s appeal is derived from the source that a famous French journalist, Marcel Espiau, stated in a recent article—that he is not an entertainer, but a symbol of his race throughout the ages, a race that still has its wailing wall, and which, on occasions when it has protested, has always done so with humility.
Charlie is known and loved by the French as the great poet of the screen, but it was as a Chevalier de Légion d’Honneur that he posed before my camera after he had handed Togo the insignia of his office to be locked up for safekeeping.
Judged by the standards of my Broadway and Hollywood days, the last week, devoted to making a half-dozen shots, has been a wash-out. And yet, in the eyes of local photographers, newspaper and magazine editors, I am considered “Photographer, by Appointment, to His Majesty King Charles of Screenland” with the privilege of displaying the Chaplin coat of arms on my bill heads, if any.