John Malathronas finds Charlie Chaplin is fondly remembered in a picturesque Swiss location
It took a long time to build this museum for Charlie Chaplin. His eight children, all still alive, had to be convinced that it would present a true portrait of their father. Investors had to be chased and won over. Neighbours had to be placated. Yves Durand, a museum ‘conceptor’ from Montreal – and Chaplin fan – fought for 16 years to bring the project to a successful conclusion, but the result is a triumph of his vision and tenacity.
Chaplin’s World uses the Chaplin family home overlooking Vevey on Lake Geneva to reveal the man, while a custom-built studio explores the artist.
And it succeeds. From the moment you enter an amphitheatre screening a short film about his life and 1917’s Easy Street, the path through his oeuvre is entertaining and immersive.
I know Chaplin as a comic actor but the sheer detail of his artistry had escaped me. I walk from room to room with an increasing admiration of his genius, surprised, bemused, and always chuckling. He introduced detailed scripts in place of improvisation – previously you put together a cop, a girl, a funny guy and a fat bloke and let the camera roll.
He pioneered special effects. We are shown how one shot of him skating blindfolded at the rim of a precipice was a post-production trick. A tangle of editing machines demonstrates his painstaking perfectionism: he shot 65,215 metres of reels for the 1936 film Modern Times, and ended up using only 2,477. (When rebuked that ‘film is expensive’ he replied ‘ideas are more expensive’.)
The exhibits are all interactive. You’re encouraged to put on a Tramp bowler hat, grab his cane and take a selfie. I sat on a barber’s chair attended by a Chaplin waxwork while his famous barbershop clip played overhead. Faced with the choice of which Chaplin character to dress up as, I went for the Great Dictator and posed for a laugh.
Complementing this is the villa where Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life. Its rooms resonate with his presence. It is filled with photographs from the family vaults and original furniture. Here is his office where he worked every morning.
There is his library with the complete volumes of Punch, which he used as an inspiration. A door leads to his lounge and a Steinway piano. In the dining room, the table is set as it would have been to welcome Chaplin and his family every evening at 6.45pm. (And we are reminded of his influence – Michael Jackson was a huge fan.)
I take a stroll in the huge garden with its grand views of the Alps. This was the location for his annual Easter egg hunt, for a Halloween party with enough candy to upset the strongest stomach and a puppet theatre for rainy weather.
I finish my stroll and walk out through the souvenir shop, which appropriately, displays his bon mot “A day without laughter is a day wasted”. This is not a wasted day.