Charlie Chaplin’s Tales of Japan Read Like Film Noir

For a star who made his fortune in the silent movies, Charlie Chaplin has a surprising way with words. His “My Autobiography,” published in 1964 and recently reissued, moves along at a quick clip, lit up throughout its many pages by bright anecdotes, easy humor, and a confident way with a good yarn.

From the rags of his childhood on Kennington Road in London to the oft-mentioned riches of his success, Chaplin’s story takes him quickly to Hollywood, but to some less expected locations, too.

On a 1932 trip to Japan that Chaplin details in his book, he was traveling with his brother Sydney (who was also his business manager) and his Japanese secretary, Kono, when suspicious things started happening. Sydney said someone was going through his things, and Kono was agitated about some strangers who wanted Chaplin to come look at some pornographic pictures they had for sale. When the supposed merchants — a “tough element” — accosted the travelers in a restaurant, Chaplin claims to have gotten out of the situation by putting his hand in his jacket pocket and pretending he had a gun.

The next day, Chaplin joined the Japanese prime minister’s son to attend a wrestling match, during which the son found out his father had been assassinated. Chaplin’s brother Sydney was convinced all the strange goings-on were related to the assassination, and that the men who’d come into the restaurant were the killers.

It turns out, he may have been right. Later, Chaplin found out from the book “Government by Assassination” by Hugh Byas that a society called The Black Dragon was responsible for the killing of the Prime Minister, and that at one point, they’d considered killing Chaplin instead. By some strange logic, they thought that killing the famous comedian might bring about a war with the United States.

According to Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of the book upon its original publication, Chaplin plays pretty fast and loose with the facts, so who knows if it’s all true — but in Chaplin’s hands, the story is so well told, and that’s what matters most.

A scene from "My Autobiography" by Charlie Chaplin illustrated by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.

A scene from “My Autobiography” by Charlie Chaplin illustrated by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.