CHARLIE CHAPLIN At home in Switzerland

House of silent film star now is a museum that’s meant to be interactive

Charlie Chaplin appeared in more than 80 films over the course of his roughly 75-year career. But I had to travel to Switzerland to see this one from the 1960s: A home movie in which the silent film star, white-haired and in his 70s, skips playfully on the front lawn of his estate, holding hands with two of his young children. The black and white scene jumps to the great comedian dining with several of his brood, each spooning soup in comic unison, then to Chaplin, wide-eyed, a hat levitating magically above his head to the family’s delight. He is rounder than his film character, the Little Tramp, but he remains impish, a child among his own children.

That is the personal portrait that emerges from Chaplin’s last home, the 37-acre estate, Manoir de Ban, in the small Swiss Riviera town of Corsier-sur-Vevey, about 55 miles northeast of Geneva, where he lived from 1953 until his death in 1977. Restored and refashioned into a museum last spring, it is part of the new complex on the grounds known as Chaplin’s World that includes an immersive cinema museum devoted to his professional achievements, and a restaurant that serves fish and chips in a nod to his London boyhood.

It seems fitting that Chaplin, a perfectionist and multitasker, chose Switzerland, a country famous for precision in matters as varied as luxury watches and Roger Federer’s backhand, as his retirement home.

On an ocean liner bound for Europe with his family in 1952, Chaplin learned he was prohibited from returning to his home in the United States without submitting to an interrogation regarding his politics and morals. Or, perhaps, like generations before him, he had come for the peace and quiet. By the 18th century, Lac Leman, aka Lake Geneva, was already a haven for travellers who found respite between their tours of the great European capitals in slow walks along the shore, especially the 19-mile stretch between Lausanne and Montreux known as the Swiss Riviera. In the early 20th century, Clinique La Prairie spa began dispensing rejuvenating treatments here, and the wealthy continued to spend seasons in formal lakefront hotels. A film fan, I had long been interested in Chaplin the artist, the comic genius, and cinematic innovator who worked on both sides of the camera. That’s the subject of the Studio film museum in Chaplin’s World. The Chaplin mansion, where I started, explores his personal life.

Nearly leaping, a lifelike wax figure of a waving Chaplin greeted me in the foyer. The neoclassical home’s first floor has been faithfully restored as it appeared in Chaplin’s day down to the family furniture, including the cozy, jacquard print sofa on which I was invited to sit in the ornate living room.

Chaplain served as an actor, writer, director and composer on many of his films, and original scores, letters and scripts lie on his desk as if he’d just left the room. He was also scandal-prone, as related in a library wallpapered in newspaper clippings of Chaplin’s controversies.

Somewhat incongruently, a wax figure of his friend Winston Churchill presides in this room, one of a series of celebrity references in the house reminding visitors of the breadth of Chaplin’s worldwide fame in the early 20th century. Black and white photos of past overnight guests, ranging from Salvador Dali to Sophia Loren, fill one former bedroom.

But the most moving rooms attest to the private man. In a former bedroom, the home movies made by his fourth and last wife, Oona, show a joyful Chaplin waltzing with one of his children – he had eight with Oona, 36 years his junior – in his arms, or lying on the floor mimicking the thumb-sucking infant beside him.

If the house embodies the personal Chaplin, the separate Studio film museum on the grounds is the true attraction for cinephiles, featuring an immersive journey through his career via a series of sound-stage-style rooms. Each conjures one of his most famous films with wax figures, props and looping clips.

With the exception of a static room devoted to the most valuable artifacts, such as Chaplin’s trademark bowler hat and cane and his Oscar statues, the Studio encourages playful interaction. During my visit, visitors took selfies in a barber shop chair from the set of The Great Dictator. In a reproduction of the Yukon cabin, poised on a fulcrum, used in the 1925 film The Gold Rush, I shuffled side to side to tilt the set as it had done in the movie.

On the Swiss Riviera, Chaplin’s world isn’t limited to Chaplin’s World. Just beyond his estate, the new Modern Times Hotel salutes the Little Tramp with film clips in the lobby and Chaplin portraits throughout the bar and guest rooms.

In Vevey, where, according to home movies, Oona pushed Chaplin in a wheelchair along the lakefront path late in his life, a bronze statue of the diminutive Little Tramp gazes wistfully over the lake, posing for tourist photos.

Though the family maintains tight control of Chaplin’s image – for example, the only place nearby to buy a postcard depicting him hereabouts is at the Chaplin’s World gift shop – several sites in Vevey pay homage to him, including most notably the Läderach chocolate shop. Almost 20 years ago, its chief chocolatier, Blaise Poyet, approached the family about making a confection in Chaplin’s honour. He modelled it on the Little Tramp’s oversize shoes and rendered them in chocolate.

A café down the street bears his French pet name, Le Charlot, and a women’s ship had a window decorated with a bowler hat, cane, red rose and a number of film stills that harmonised with the vintage-inspired dresses on sale.

Source: The New York Times