2017-11-10 06:54:03
Footsteps: Charlie Chaplin, At Home in Switzerland

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 multi-tasker, chose Switzerland, a country famous for precision in everything from luxury watches to Roger Federer’s backhand, as his retirement home.

“A friend suggested Switzerland,” he wrote opaquely in his 1964 memoir, “My Autobiography.”

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. For several years prior, the F.B.I. and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been investigating his links to Communism — “I am a peace-monger,” he told them — during the Hollywood purge of 1947. In his 2014 book, “Charlie Chaplin,” the author Peter Ackroyd suggests the star was attracted by the lenient Swiss tax code.

Or, perhaps, like generations before him, he had come for the peace and quiet. By the 18th century, Lac Léman, a.k.a. Lake Geneva, was already a haven for travelers 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, as captured in the late Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a quiet 1984 novel set in today’s Grand Hotel du Lac in Vevey.

The snow-capped Alps of France and Switzerland that rose up beyond the far shore of the placid lake provided the mountainous backdrop that Chaplin could see from his front yard at Manoir de Ban, a 13-minute uphill bus ride from lakeside Vevey.

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, while the Chaplin mansion, where I started my visit, 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.

“We think we are not precisely a museum, but we haven’t found the word for it yet,” said Annick Barbezat, the communications director for Chaplin’s World, as she guided me on a summer visit. “People say, ‘It’s dangerous to sit on the sofa. It could stain.’ We counter, ‘We’ll wash it and put it back.’”

Chaplin 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. “Chaplin had a lifelong compulsion to do everything himself, even down to wanting to play every role in each of his films,” wrote the film critic and author David Robinson in the forward to “My Autobiography.”

He was also scandal-prone, as related in a library wallpapered in newspaper clippings of Chaplin’s controversies, including allegations of tax evasion and, more damning, affairs with young women, some only teenagers when they met Chaplin and starred in his films.

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 Dalí 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. A baleful Jackie Coogan, namesake of “The Kid,” anchors a cobblestone street corner in the opening set. A laughing Paulette Goddard holds a bunch of bananas as in “Modern Times” with the film running behind her.

A fan and friend, Michael Jackson is also here in an exhibit suggesting Chaplin’s dance moves in “Modern Times” inspired the singer’s signature moonwalk.

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 on “The Great Dictator” set. 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.

“Chaplin said, ‘If you want to know me, see my movies,’” Ms. Barbezat said. “You can read his humanity in movies like ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘The Kid.’ We hope to do what he did. He made people think and feel.”

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 guestrooms.

In Vevey, where, according to home movies, Oona pushed the wheelchair-bound Chaplin late in life along the lakefront path, 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 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 honor. He modeled it on the Little Tramp’s oversize shoes and rendered them in chocolate.

“They have three characteristics based on Charlie,” said Mr. Poyet, seated in the shop’s kitchen. “First, he was strong, hard. So I use dark chocolate. Second, he was very romantic, and for that I use caramel. And third, he was original, so I use pine nuts, which is unusual.”

A cafe down the street bears his French pet name, Le Charlot, and a women’s shop had a window decorated with a bowler hat, cane, red rose and a number of film stills that harmonized with the vintage-inspired dresses on sale. “It’s a homage to the museum,” said a sales clerk. “He was a romantic.”

My own Chaplin-esque — which is to say mischievous — moment occurred on the lakefront terrace of the aristocratic Hotel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey when I put a 20 Swiss franc bill down on an overpriced 10-franc beer and pocketed the unfamiliar change, only to discover later that the waiter had exchanged it for smaller notes and not deducted the tab.

Immoral or lucky? I knew Chaplin’s answer. Like the Little Tramp, who often ended his films by tottering down the road, he’d mentally twirl a cane and wobble lakeward into the sunset.

If You Go

Public buses from Vevey drop visitors outside of Chaplin’s World. Route de Fenil 2, Corsier-sur-Vevey; Chaplinsworld.com. Admission is 24 Swiss francs, or about $24.

On a highway near Chaplin’s World, the new Modern Times Hotel is convenient to motorists. Rooms from 190 Swiss francs. Chemin du Genévrier 20, Saint-Légier-La Chiésaz; Moderntimeshotel.ch.

Lodging lakeside in central Vevey offers easier access to other Swiss Riviera attractions. Rooms at the Grand Hotel du Lac start at 300 Swiss francs. Rue d’Italie 1, Vevey; Hoteldulac-vevey.ch.