By Ursula Maxwell-Lewis,
SWITZERLAND — At Manoir de Ban, the former home of Charlie Chaplin, documents and newspaper clippings from the 1940 McCarthy era attract my attention. Sardonically I speculate on what the legendary actor’s reaction to today’s American political climate might be.
During the McCarthy era (late 1940s to 1950s) Chaplin was one many artists labelled as Communist and interrogated. In 1952, the British-born actor’s US visa was revoked by the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the time Chaplin, 63, and his family were crossing the Atlantic to Britain for the opening of Limelight, one of his most critically acclaimed works. His response was: “I Believe in Liberty – That is All My Politics.”
This year is the 130th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth — April 16, 1889. What better reason to pause at Chaplin’s World to pay my respects to the man who persuaded the world to fall in love with a tramp.
Chaplin’s early life was the stuff of Victorian tragedies. Born into East End London poverty, he was sent to the workhouse twice by the age of nine. At 14 he was parentless due to an absentee father and a mother lost to suicide in a mental institution. Perhaps this partly explains why he was later quoted as saying, “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world — not even our troubles.” Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — his resilience, ingenuity, talent, perseverance and personality made him a world famous celebrity by 1919.
The Tramp, the silent film character with which he is synonymous, reduced audiences to tears in films like City Lights and left them laughing (and deliberating) in Modern Life. The Great Dictator, his Hitler-based anti-fascism satire, earned five Academy Award nominations. His repertoire as actor, producer, writer, director, and businessman is lengthy and legendary.
| The collection at Chaplin’s World tells the story of a fascinating life.
Courtesy of Ursula Maxwell-Lewis
Scandal erupted in 1943 when the thrice-married 54 year-old Chaplin married 18 year-old Oona O’Neill. The successful marriage produced eight children and was what Chaplin called “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Chaplin’s brother, Sidney, recommended seeking refuge in neutral Switzerland. Finding this solid two-story manor house in a perfectly stunning location was the perfect solution for the growing family and Chaplin’s ongoing work. It was his beloved home until his death on Dec 25, 1977. His response to the Congressional action was: “Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America’s insults and moral pomposity.”
In 1972 Chaplin (hesitantly) returned to the US to accept two Oscars and a thundering 12-minute standing ovation. His acceptance was gracious and very moving.
The Chaplin story is told through artifacts and letters in Manoir de Ban. Pictorial insights into family life, a mindboggling array of legendary associates (Albert Einstein was a close friend) and numerous honours and awards — including his knighthood bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975 — are attracting a new generation of movie enthusiasts.
A few steps down the gravel driveway a Chaplin’s World theatre shows Chaplin film clips and offers visitors opportunities to insert themselves into recreated film sets for souvenir selfies. Young children were clearly fascinated by Chaplin’s on-screen antics and were perfectly at home on the sets. I think Sir Charles and Lady Chaplin would be delighted.
Wandering through the manor I was aware of the peaceful expanse of lawns stretching through tall evergreens to Lake Geneva and majestic mountains beyond the long elegant windows. I could imagine why the property captivated the Chaplins.
Chaplin’s World, in Corier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, is 20 minutes by rail from Lausanne with my Swiss Travel Pass and just minutes by Post Bus from Vevey. I regretted not having more time to explore the area, but did stop to enjoy lunch at the very centrally located La Coupole.
Sir Charles and Lady Chaplin are buried side by side in the nearby Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery. I have a feeling, though, that if Sir Charles had known his final journey involved a devious detour it might have inspired another film.
On March 1, 1978, a Polish and Bulgarian duo dug up Chaplin’s coffin in a ransom attempt. Police apprehended the pair in May 1978. The coffin was discovered buried in a nearby Noville village field. It was then re-interred in the Corsier cemetery — securely protected by reinforced concrete. Switzerland remains The Tramp’s refuge.
If you go: Air Canada offers regular non-stop summer Vancouver-Zurich services. A Swiss Travel Pass makes train, bus and waterway services hassle-free right from the airport. Surf www.SBB.ch, www.MySwitzerland.com and www.ChaplinsWorld.com for detailed information.
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the founder of the Cloverdale Reporter, a Surrey-based journalist and photographer. Contact her at email@example.com