It would take long pages to list all the women Charlie Chaplin was on intimate terms with, most of them being young, naïve teenagers who were absolutely taken aback by the fact that a movie star has fallen for them. Paulette Goddard started out that way, but in the end, after a relationship lasting for almost ten years, it turned out she wasn’t anything like it. What made Paulette stand out? Why was their marriage so different from all the others in Chaplin’s life? For goodness’ sake, we don’t even know if they were married or not!
‘The bond between us was loneliness’
The whole thing started in 1932 on Joseph Schenk’s yacht. Chaplin was back at home after his long tour around the world which took him one and a half years to finish. He had no one in Hollywood. His former girlfriend, Georgia Hale didn’t care about him, his children hardly knew him. That was when he met Paulette. She had already been divorced and wanted to start a new life as an actress in Hollywood. The two immediately fell in love and seemed to be inseparable during their first year together.
‘All boats should be called Panacea’
A yacht Chaplin purchased in 1933 played a very important part in their relationship. Chaplin even included the story in his autobiography:
Our most thrilling adventure was to go to San Pedro harbour to look at the pleasure boats. One was for sale, a fifty-five-foot motor cruiser which had three state-rooms, a galley and an attractive wheel-house – the kind of boat I would have.
‘Now if you had something like that,’ Paulette said, ‘we could have lots of fun on Sundays, and go to Catalina.’
The purchase took place in secret and made Paulette extremely happy. They had many joyful trips aboard the Panacea during the time they spent together. Their most frequented destination was Catalina Island, a little isle near the Californian peninsula, which Charlie has been fond of long before their first encounter. In 1933 Alistair Cooke, a young friend of Chaplin joined them on their trip. He shot a home movie on the boat, entitled All at Sea, but it remained hidden for a very long time until it was finally discovered in 2004. It’s worth taking a look at their happiness.
‘Oh, those wonderful weekends’
The happiness was definitely perceptible. Paulette wasn’t a teenager Chaplin was forced to marry, she was his own choice. She loved Chaplin but didn’t worship him and it was a delightful change in his life. They were equal partners and shared interests in many ways – including tennis matches which became a regular entertainment in the Chaplin residence. Chaplin’s sons could also feel the changing times, as they were invited almost every weekend and a strong bond began to form between them and Paulette. Charlie Jr. remembers this way:
“This is Paulette Goddard, boys. Now what do you say to the nice lady?”
“Syd and I lifted our heads and looked into that friendly face with its mischievous conspiratorial smile, and we lost our hearts at once, never to regain them through all the golden years of our childhood. Have you ever realized, Paulette, how much you meant to us? You were like a mother, a sister, a friend all in one. You lightened our father’s spells of somber moodiness and you turned the big house on the hill into a real home. We thought you were the loveliest creature in the whole world. And somehow I feel, looking back today, that we meant as much to you, that we satisfied some need your life, too.”
‘She almost wept when I put smudges on her face’
By 1934 Chaplin was eager to start working again. He was convinced that Paulette was the perfect leading lady for his new film which turned out to be Modern Times. Paulette was nothing like his former actresses; she was ambitious and it was her biggest dream to act in the movies. Still, she had plenty of things to learn, as she only had bit parts in the past. It soon became a routine that Chaplin would help her every afternoon with her scenes. The contract between Paulette and Charlie was signed on September 4th, 1934 and Paulette’s first scene was shot on the 19th of December. That’s the way she remembered her first experience in front of the movie camera.
I walked in and he said, “That isn’t it, baby.” And he took a bucket of water and threw it on me and that’s how I got my hairstyle in Modern Times. It broke my heart. And I cried and cried and cried. And he said, “Cry, damn it, cry! Camera!” And tears were running and it was the best shot I ever had! And that’s how my hairstyle came. It was never set after that.
It took Chaplin one more year to finish shooting and composing the music. Modern Times premiered in February 1936 and it was a huge hit.
‘My one desire was to get as far away as possible‘
Chaplin was too frustrated after the premieres of his films to wait and do nothing, so he preferred to escape after releasing a film. This time he decided to visit an area he fell in love with four years before. The Far East was one of Chaplin’s favourite places and he wanted to share the experience with Paulette. The two decided to invite Paulette’s mother, Alta Goddard, so it wouldn’t make such a big scandal that an unmarried couple travels around the world alone. The places they visited included Japan, China, Hawaii, Indonesia, Vietnam and many more.
Chaplin states in his autobiography that they married during this tour in Singapore, but there’s no proof about that. It would seem totally normal if they did so, but they managed to keep it in such a big secret that it makes the whole business suspicious. The press was full of their supposed engagement and marriage that year but neither Charlie nor Paulette confirmed anything. This is just one of the mysteries in Chaplin’s life that might never be cleared.
‘We were somewhat estranged but we were friends and still married’
Chaplin was not an easy man when he was out of work, but he was even harder when he had work to do. After they were back from the tour in the summer of 1936, he was determined to write a script for a movie that starred Paulette. He was working on a number of different ideas between 1937 and 1938, but Paulette couldn’t wait. After her first success in Modern Times, she wanted to come out with another movie. Chaplin was reluctant to let her go, but he had no choice, and Paulette soon went to different auditions. One of her first ways led to the audition for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Lots of different opinions exist as to who was the second best after Vivien Leigh, but one thing is for sure: Paulette’s screen tests are available and you can check them out here!
In 1938 the relationship came near to an end. Chaplin moved away to Pebble Beach for a long time in the beginning of the year and Paulette was also quite often away shooting. In the end, the idea Chaplin was searching for in the previous years, came to him. He started working as a maniac on The Great Dictator and he wanted Paulette as a leading lady again. The shooting wasn’t as harmonic as it was four years before. There’s a rumor that Chaplin made Paulette scrub the floor of the barber’s shop for long hours because he kept saying it wasn’t perfect yet. In spite of this, the couple looks quite happy in most of the photos taken on the sets.
‘It’s just one of those sad things’
The premiere of The Great Dictator was held in October 1940 and much to a surprise, Chaplin introduced Paulette as his wife. The press went mad again and it was a really surprising event after all the guessing when the couple announced their divorce on June 4th, 1942. On top of a vast amount of money, the settlement gave Paulette the place of the sweetest memories, the Panacea. Jean Renoir, director of The Diary of a Chambermaid, a film starring Paulette, remembered this way:
I asked her how Chaplin could be so mad as to break up their marriage, and she answered that it was not he who had left her but she who had left him. The reason was that genius is hard to live with. It is very exhausting to stay on the high mental level of an exceptional person. One needs to sink back into mediocrity to get one’s breath.
It must have had something to do with Paulette’s desire to be a Hollywood star of her own and Chaplin’s reluctance to accept this. In the beginning her ambitions were what attracted Paulette to Chaplin and in the end that was the reason they departed. Paulette shared the screen with great names such as Fred Astaire and James Stewart in the 40s and she was once nominated to Academy Awards, so she managed to maintain her career after her relationship with Chaplin ended.
Chaplin’s womanizing problems came back as soon as Paulette left. He had serious court trials concerning the matter in the middle of the 40s and the thing that saved his reputation was another love affair with his final wife, Oona O’Neill. Oona was as far from Paulette’s personality as possible, but she managed to make Chaplin happy until the end of his life.
‘Oh my little baby’
Paulette and Charlie met quite often even after their divorce. The press was really interested in their “dinner dates”, but they were probably nothing more than friendly appointments. It’s surprising to know that Paulette also settled in Switzerland towards the end of her life, just like Chaplin did, with her fourth husband, writer Erich Maria Remarque. They even had dinner with Chaplin and Oona once. They met (most probably for the last time) when Chaplin was back in America for the Oscar ceremony in 1972. This was the last conversation in their life:
“Hello Baby” Chaplin’s eyes filled with tears as he replied “Oh my little baby” “Yes, your only little baby” she added
Sources of photos: discoveringchaplin; chaplinfortheages; photo.charliechaplin.com; library.ucsd.edu