It all started with my visit to Vevey, a pretty little Swiss Riviera town on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life. Not many of us know that he made Vevey his home after he was forced to leave the United States.
It was peak winter in December and I was here to celebrate Charlie Chaplin. A sculpture here, a mural there; at the first glance itself, the town appeared to wear the personality of the evergreen legend, even the hotel I was staying in was named after the legend’s movie Modern Times. The hotel acknowledged the Little Tramp in every way it could. Chaplin portraits in the bar, corridors and guest rooms, TV screens in the lounge area showing clips from his films and a statue of him on a bench outside and a huge cutout on the exterior wall.
Across the town too, there were several high-rise buildings with Charlie Chaplin’s murals. A cafe down the street bore his French pet name, Le Charlot, and a women’s shop had a window decorated with a bowler hat, cane, and a red rose. A chocolate shop Läderach dedicated themed chocolates to Charlie Chaplin. After approaching the Chaplin family for making a confection in his honour, they came up with the actor’s oversized shoes in chocolate. The chocolatier Poyet was careful enough to inculcate the characteristics of Chaplin in these chocolates.
One of the most prominent stars of the early days of Hollywood, Chaplin lived an interesting life — both reel and real. Recognised as an icon of the silent film era, he is often associated with his popular character, the Little Tramp — the man with the toothbrush mustache, bowler hat, bamboo cane, funny walk and funnier expressions. The Chaplin family decided to live in Manoir du Ban, a 37-acre ground with a mansion of the neoclassical style of 1840. Perhaps he wanted a scenic peaceful surrounding of snow-capped Alps and the lake. The palatial house is now transformed into a museum and is part of a complex known as Chaplin’s World, also housing a cinema studio dedicated to his professional achievements and a café-restaurant.
The moment I entered his house, Charlie Chaplin waved at me. Of course we could not converse, for, he was made of wax. The staircase to the first floor was adorned by his framed sketches made by different artists. My favourite was the one gifted to Oona, Charlie’s wife. The house is a collection of his personal belongings, rare family photographs, book collections and loads of video clippings.
The gallery of celebrity fans was equally stunning with wall to wall portraits of people who admired the work of Charlie Chaplin. From Albert Einstein to Mahatma Gandhi, to Sophia Loren and Salvador Dali, everyone smiled at me.
I have seen his commercial movies umpteen number of times but what moved me was a clip where the 70-plus white-haired Chaplin plays with his children in his mansion lawns. A child among his own children, he lived here until his death on Christmas Day in 1977.
“We think it is not precisely a museum, but we haven’t found the word for it yet,” said the communications director for Chaplin’s World.
While the museum showed his personal life, the studio, located in a separate building, displayed his on-screen artistic character. The studio took me through Chaplin’s career journey via a series of themed rooms. In these rooms, about 30 wax figures, props, video clips and sound recordings are placed. Paulette Goddard, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Laurel-Hardy, are all here. There were also replicas of the giant machinery in his 1936 film Modern Times and a cabin similar to the one in The Gold Rush. The museum allows visitors to experience being in a cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff, just as Chaplin did.
Except for a static room with the most valuable artefacts, such as Chaplin’s trademark bowler hat and cane, the certificate signed by Queen Elizabeth II when Chaplin was knighted in 1975 and his Oscar statues, the studio has interactive exhibits. Like most good museums, there is too much to take in. Visitors can take selfies in a barber shop chair of The Great Dictator set or on a bench outside the ‘jail’. He made people think and feel.
Chaplin wanted people to remember him, had a lifelong compulsion to do everything himself. That’s why he did his films in a perfectionist manner.
Later in the day, I walked on the same promenade along the lake Genève, where Chaplin used to go for evening strolls with his wife Oona. And I wondered how it would feel to be Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland. Later in life, Oona pushed the wheelchair-bound Chaplin along the path. Now, a bronze statue of the tiny Little Tramp gazes over the lake, posing for tourist photos.
Fly directly to Zurich from Mumbai on Swiss Air and connect to Vevey with the three-hour train journey from the airport on Swiss Rail.
Public buses from Vevey drop visitors outside of Chaplin’s World.
(The writer is a bilingual travel writer and shares her travel experiences on www.lemonicks.com)