Takeaway

Away from City Lights

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 22, 2017

Reel in: A scene from The Great Dictator, the film that got the actor-director in trouble with the immigration services in the US, at the Chaplin’s World   -  Charukesi Ramadurai

On the shores of Lake Geneva, a vast estate is where Charlie Chaplin, one of Hollywood’s iconic comedians, spent the last 25 years of his life

The gallery of celebrity fans is stunning; from Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein, from Salvador Dali to Sophia Loren, the portraits of luminaries who admired Charlie Chaplin’s work fills the room wall to wall. In another, the piano the actor composed music on rests at the very spot, right by the sofa his wife Oona sat on, as she listened to him quietly.

All this is at Chaplin’s World, the first museum to be dedicated to the life and work of the comic genius. It is a treasure trove of his personal effects, rare family photographs, book collections and video clippings of his travels across the world — “I consider myself a citizen of the world,” he once declared.

The museum is located on the site of his erstwhile home in Switzerland, the Manoir de Ban at Corsier-sur-Vevey, where he spent his last 25 years with his American — and fourth — wife Oona, and eight children. While the exhibits are all fascinating, each collection telling its own tale, my personal favourite is a 3D photograph tucked away in a side room on the lower level.

From one side, it is a young Charlie (born Charles Spencer Chaplin) — the utterly lovable, somewhat awkward tramp — and from the other, it is the mature patriarch, slightly wary of the world by then but not entirely cynical. The caption above the image reads: “We love Switzerland more and more each day” — an extract from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1954, a couple of years after the family had moved to the country.

This room essentially narrates the story of Charlie’s decision to live in Switzerland, and it is like something straight out of a Hollywood film. At the height of his popularity, when he was one of the highest taxpayers in the US, Charlie came under the radar of the immigration services for his alleged communist sympathies — think of that last speech from The Great Dictator, which is essentially an impassioned plea for people to help each other, but could easily be construed as a left-of-centre discourse by someone looking at it from that perspective.

In 1952, when he was temporarily refused entry back into the US, he left in a huff and bought this sprawling mansion in Switzerland, in a place where he was assured he could continue to work without being disturbed or harassed. And that was how this staunch Englishman and fierce admirer of Hollywood was forced to abandon both his homeland and his adopted country to live on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The museum opened its doors to the public in April 2016, with two main parts: the Manoir that showcases his personal life and right across the lawn, the Studio that presents his most significant work.

On a bitterly cold December evening, I have the fortune of an almost exclusive tour of the museum with Eugene, Charlie and Oona’s fifth son, who now lives not too far away from where he was born and brought up. From Eugene, I get a fleeting glimpse of the man and the father, who — gasp! — could have been a bit of the great dictator himself with the children. For instance, family dinners at 6.45 pm sharp and not a moment sooner or later (or risk going hungry). Although the children grew up speaking both French (outside) and English (at home), Charlie himself stayed in a cosy English cocoon forever. But somehow, he managed to charm locals with his rare participation in community events, Eugene laughs.

The next morning, I spend more time browsing around the Manoir before heading to the Studio, which feels a bit like a theme park with its film shows, wax figures and interactive exhibits. Like most good museums, there is too much to take in. Over several alleys, some of the most famous scenes from his movies have been recreated: from the blizzard in the mountain cabin in The Gold Rush to the barber’s chair in The Great Dictator, via the blind beggar girl in City Lights.

In between all this, I walk through installations where my guide for the day has more interesting trivia about Charlie’s other celebrity peers. Stanley Laurel, for instance. Ring a bell? The thin one of the Laurel-and-Hardy duo was a friend in London, who moved to the US at around the same time, seeking fame and fortune.

Why have Charlie’s contemporaries like Laurel and Buster Keaton faded away from public consciousness, while he remains popular even 40 years after his death (he passed away on Christmas Day in 1977). Eugene answers this for me, “I think Charlie is becoming more relevant today than ever, given the political climate all over the world.”

Travel Log

Getting there

Fly direct to Zurich from Mumbai on Swiss and connect to Vevey with the three-hour train journey from the airport on Swiss Rail.

Stay

Modern Times (http://moderntimeshotel.ch/en) in Vevey is dedicated to the Charlie Chaplin theme.

Tip

Visit the chocolate atelier Laederach (www.laederach.com/en/) in Vevey, who pays tribute to Chaplin with specially-crafted shoes using caramel and dark chocolate.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and photographer

Published on December 22, 2017
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