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The Masterpiece

Why Chaplin Spent His Last 25 Years in Vevey, Switzerland

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.

Trailer screenshot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chaplin, with his famous cane in hand, watches over the passers-by at the promenade. Enormous graffiti of his movies cover building facades, while the “Modern Times Hotel,” named after one of his favorite movies, welcomes visitors.

All these are reminders that Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life in Vevey, a lovely small town at the Geneva lake, close to Montreux.

Chaplin’s World museum in Vevey

Chaplin’s house had been converted into a museum called Chaplin’s World a few years ago. Since I was working in this museum, I got a good insight into the Chaplin story.

In the family mansion, you can walk through his workroom, dining room, and bedroom, where he died on Christmas of 1977 at the age of 88.

Apart from the family house, the “Studio” recalls Chaplin’s movies. Wax figures of contemporary actors and family members, photos, and videos make you indulge in the history of cinema and Chaplin.

It is not an ordinary museum. Everybody bursts into laughter just by watching the scenes with the Tramp’s clumsy actions.

From street kid to millionaire

Charlie grew up with his mother Hannah, a singer, and his half-brother Sydney in a backward district of London. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when Charlie was only two years old. They stayed in a tiny attic room of 12 m², and they were living from day to day.

Hannah’s mental health became worse, and she was finally sent to an insane asylum. Charlie spent 18 months in an orphanage where he learned at least to read and write. He and Sydney played music in the street to get some money.

“It seems to me that my mother was the most splendid woman I ever knew… I have met a lot of people knocking around the world since, but I have never met a more thoroughly refined woman than my mother. If I have amounted to anything, it will be due to her.”– Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin was only five years old when he first appeared on stage. During a show, his mother lost her voice, and the show’s producer pushed the little Charlie on stage. In this embarrassing situation, he started to imitate his mother losing her voice. The audience liked it so much that they showered him with coins. Chaplin never forgot this period and often recalled the painful memories of his childhood in his movies.

First, he went on a national tour with a dance company and got discovered in the meantime. He accepted the offer of the Keystone Company and moved to the United States in 1914 at the age of 25. Already that time, he had a weekly salary of 150 USD. His leading figure, the Tramp, was central in his movies. Eventually, Chaplin took over the direction of all his movies.

The Mutual Film Corporation already gave him a decent yearly salary of 670,000 USD plus a bonus. But the real breakthrough came when he founded his studio in 1919.

At the age of 28, he was the best-paid actor in Hollywood. He won his first Oscar with The Circus in 1928.

Chaplin’s movies

He touched severe social, economic, and political problems in his movies. In Modern Times, Chaplin criticizes the conditions of workers at that time and stands for freedom and empowerment.

The Great Dictator directly put on Hitler, for which he got several murder threats, and by no surprise, the Jewish Chaplin’s movies were all banned in Hitler’s Germany. The final speech from The Great Dictator is more actual than ever.

The Immigrant and Gold Rush is about the refugees and the American dream. A King in New York is a critique of American over-consumerism.

The final speech from The Great Dictator

How the figure of the Tramp was born

In 1914, Chaplin had to play a drunken man in a funny outfit. He chose baggy pants, a tight jacket, a bowler hat, and a pair of big shoes. He put on a fake mustache and picked a bamboo cane. After that, the Tramp turned up in most of the movies as a vagabond.

The audience became so attached to the Tramp that they smashed the seats when he did not appear once in “A Woman in Paris.”

The scandalous private life

Chaplin was attracted to much younger women. All in all, he was married four times. His first two marriages didn’t last long, and both of them were underage, 17 and 16-year-old. He married them to avoid being prosecuted for statutory rape. Chaplin was sometimes cruel to his wives. He threatened his second wife to carry out an abortion, which she refused to do.

His marriage with the third wife, Paulette Goddard, lasted six years, but they had no children. He also had to face paternity suits which severely damaged his reputation and partly led to his exile.

He was 54 years old when he married Oona O’Neill, who was 36 years younger than him. They had eight children. O’Neill’s father, the famous Nobel-prize winner (literature) and playwright Eugene O’Neill was so upset about the relationship that he disowned his daughter. But Oona stayed with Chaplin the rest of his life until he died at 88 in 1977.

But why did he come to Switzerland?

The 1950s was the period of fear from communism and excessive patriotism in the United States. Cinema was extremely popular with around 50 million viewers every week and significantly influenced people’s mindsets. The FBI kept files about prominent personalities, including Charlie Chaplin.

The press also attacked him for his non-conformist lifestyle with several relationships, paternity cases, and not being patriotic since he never applied for US citizenship. Chaplin declared at the press conference for the release of his new film:

“I’m not a communist; I’m a citizen of the world”

Despite that, he got informed on the way to London that the United States revoked his visa. As of this time, he was in exile, and he urgently had to find a place to live with his family.

The new family home in Vevey

Just one month after visiting the house of a former American diplomat, he and his wife decided to settle in the French-speaking part of Switzerland in January 1953.

He loved this place with the huge garden, a beautiful view of the lake, and enjoyed his life with his family with a lot of humor and laugh.

“A day without laughing is a day wasted.” — Chaplin

His children went to a local school and spoke French fluently. Chaplin, however, never learned French even after 25 years and made his wife, Oona, read the news to him.

He continued to work in Switzerland and produced two more movies: A King in New York (1956) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) with Marlon Brando and Sophie Loren.

Michael Jackson, Clara Haskil, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin

Michael Jackson adored Chaplin for his multi-talent as a songwriter, dancer, director, and producer. Many say that his famous “moonwalk” was inspired by Chaplin’s dance in Modern Times. He personally never met Chaplin, just his wife, Oona O’Neill, in Vevey.

Chaplin said he admired three persons in his life the most: Albert Einstein, Clara Haskil, and Winston Churchill. Clara Haskil impressed him with playing the piano and was extremely sad when she died in an accident in Brussels.

Chaplin’s coffin robbed after his death

Chaplin was buried in the local cemetery in Vevey. But few months after the funeral, his body was stolen. The thieves turned out to be two unemployed men from Bulgaria and Poland who demanded a ransom of 600,000 CHF from the family. Oona refused to pay, and after 11 weeks, the coffin was found intact, buried in a cornfield.

Most of the children and even the grandchildren inherited Chaplin’s artistic talent and followed in their father’s footsteps. Geraldine Chaplin gained fame with her role in Dr. Zhivago.

Two of his sons, Eugene Anthony Chaplin and Michael John Chaplin, still live in Switzerland.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” — Chaplin

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Agnes Simigh

Agnes Simigh

I’m curious to discover places that seldom catch the attention of the media. Do not only visit but also look behind the scenes! My blog: