A section of the studio at Chaplin's World, Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland.Photo by author
A little child sits outside his door playing when suddenly, his toy is snatched away by an older boy. The two children begin grappling in the middle of the street, much to the inappropriate merriment of onlookers and neighbourhood residents. Chaplin walks right into this drama and attempts valiantly to pull the boys apart. But eventually, he gives in to the entertaining nature of their squabble and joins the cheering onlookers! Of course, all this is happening not on a real American street but on one of the many screens at the shopping area at Chaplin's World, an experiential museum created by Grevin.
The museum, in Switzerland's Corsier-sur-Vevey province, consists of three sections - a studio, housing paraphernalia and recreations from Chaplin's landmark films and personal life; Manoir de Ban, which is where he resided with wife Oona Chaplin and their children for 30 years; and the four-hectare park which offers serene views of the Alps and shelters a variety of trees.
Chaplin the man
Chaplin was not a big fan of Christmas as it reminded him of his difficult childhood days in London, but strangely enough, it was on December 25, 1977, that he breathed his last. To commemorate his 40th death anniversary, Eugene Chaplin, his fifth child, was present at the manor, along with the architects and designers of the museum.
"My father was a very hard worker. Once we'd gone to school and were out of the way, he had the house to himself and would start composing or writing his own biography. He also loved playing the piano, while my mother operated the movie projector. His main message to me was - whatever you do, give it your best," says Eugene, a recording engineer and documentary film-maker.
We learn that while Chaplin was reasonably integrated with the local community, he barely spoke French, though his wife was fluent in the language. He was also a strict disciplinarian who ensured that all the Chaplin children followed a strict schedule. In early December 2017, an ice sculpture of Chaplin was also unveiled at the stunning Ice Palace at Jungfrau - a lasting tribute to the comic genius who made Switzerland his home.
We walk into a likeness of the dreary London streets that Chaplin grew up in, complete with a wax figure of his mother, and a market and a fruit stand. East lane became the backdrop for many of The Tramp's adventures, and Chaplin spent a whopping 10,000 dollars to create a realistic set. We then stumbled upon The Circus, a recreation of Chaplin's 1928 film where a revolving joker performs in the middle and the onlookers consist of famous silent-era actors like Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy.
In the basement, we marvelled at relics from Chaplin's famous films including the teetering cabin from The Gold Rush and the machine from Modern Times. Strewn across the studio are 30 stunning wax statues of known figures like Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Michael Jackson, all of whom impacted Chaplin's life in some way or the other.
At the studio, various exhibits allow a glimpse into the technicalities of producing silent films, the costumes Chaplin used, and the numerous awards he garnered.
The Manoir de Ban is lovely from the outside - a medium-sized white cottage set amidst acres of greenery. We step in and find the living room, library and dining room preserved to such perfection that it would be quite natural to find Chaplin entertaining some friends for dinner or applauding his friend Clara Haskil's prowess with the Steinway concert piano. On the first floor, we confront the more intimate parts of Chaplin's life - the rooms he shared with his wife, family portraits, and the furnishings he picked out himself. Chaplin's love for travel is evident from a room filled with suitcases, and a wax statue of Sophia Loren stands next to a wall covered with black-and-white photographs of Chaplin and his friends.
Chaplin was a true lover of nature, and he writes in his autobiography of being lost in the 'magnificent serenity' of the lawns, the lake and the Alps in the distance. Chaplin and Oona often lunched in the park under the awning of a tree. Deer, foxes and badgers were attracted by the vast collection of trees in the park, including maple, beech, elm, poplar, spruce, cypress, pine and cedar. Walking among these centuries-old trees in the rain-scented air is a rare joy. I find a wayside bench and gaze at the faraway mountains like Chaplin used to. And I feel as glad as he did. The night of the 40th death anniversary commemoration, we even ride a hot air balloon emblazoned with Chaplin's likeness.
Our exploration of Chaplin's World ends at around lunchtime and we are pleased to find a restaurant right on the premises. The Tramp is, as you'd expect, a Chaplin-themed restaurant with kitschy décor elements like hanging bulbs, artistic portraits of Chaplin and muted lighting that complements the wooden tables and chairs. The service is a little slow, but the delicious food and drinks more than make up for it. We gorge on mushrooms in cream, oriental fish and rice, and meringues with sorbet for dessert.
Before leaving, we pick up a few souvenirs from the shop at the entrance area. There are mugs, coasters and posters inscribed with Chaplin's humorous quotes to choose from.
Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life in Switzerland after he was exiled from the US in 1953. Having never possessed the American citizenship, this boy from London ended up being more Swiss than British or American. It's a fact that finds resonance in every nook and cranny of Chaplin's World.