Charlie Chaplin was happy at Corsier-sur-Vevey
By Ed Boitano
A warm wind blows across Lake Geneva, which I find both soothing and invigorating. Soon I’m amidst the steeply terraced vineyards in the UNESCO region of Lavaux, the largest contiguous vineyard area in Switzerland.
Terrace after terrace of vines surrounds me. It has been said the vineyards in Switzerland’s Lake Geneva region are blessed with three forms of sun: direct sunlight, second-hand sunlight bouncing off Lake Geneva, and the warmth of the sun contained in ancient Roman walls that terrace many of the vineyards.
The Romans introduced winegrowing on the shores of Lake Geneva, with Benedictine and Cistercian monks continuing the tradition, dating back to the 11th century. My senses kicked up a notch higher, with magnificent views of the deep blue lake below and the snowcapped Alps in the distance above. Who wouldn’t want to live here? I was in the Lake Geneva region to explore its seemingly endless wonders. But the centerpiece of my time would be a journey to the neoclassical mansion, Manoir de Ban in Corsier-sur-Vevey, and the final resting place of Sir Charles Chaplin and his wife Oona in a nearby simple grave.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Chaplin’s middle son, the most gracious Eugene Chaplin. He informed me Manoir de Ban was repurposed as Chaplin’s World by Grévin and expanded as a museum showcasing Chaplin’s work and life as a family man. I was already champing at the bit to see it.
Vevey has long been popular for its sublime tranquility, not to mention its position in a nation serving as a tax haven for wealthy expats. This is where Chaplin spent his last 25 years, which were his happiest, according to the Chaplin family. I recall a scratchy home movie, where Oona, his wife of 36 years and daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, pushed the elderly wheelchair-bound Chaplin along Vevey’s lakefront path, stopping to gaze at the bronze statue of the diminutive Little Tramp. Despite their differences in age, you could tell they were still happily in love.
Upon my arrival at Vevey I, too, gazed admiringly at the Little Tramp statue. Chaplin’s work as a film director and actor had an immense effect on the world, including my life as well. Now I would walk in his tracks, breathe the same fresh air and experience the same enchanting beauty as I reflected on his life.
The magical name of Charlie Chaplin is known throughout the far corners of the globe. Just saying “Charlie” or “Charlo” (popular in France and Spain) is bound to elicit a smile. The positive act of smiling is something for which Chaplin strove, and the world really did smile along with the most famous actor. Despite a horrific childhood right out of Dickens’ bleakest novels, it was his embrace of life that kept him marching onward, taking the world along with him.
His situation, according to his authorized biographer David Robinson, was “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told.”
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born into immense poverty in the slums of Victorian London. His father (who abandoned the family when Charlie was still an infant) was a successful music-hall artist. He died at age 38 from alcoholism when Charlie was 12.
His mother, Hannah, was also a professional musical-hall entertainer, whose career was plagued by ill health. She was a loving mother who performed humorist bits for Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney. Charlie and Sydney’s younger half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, was taken away from Hannah by his father, Leo Dryden, when he was a baby.
Hannah instilled confidence in Charlie, frequently telling him he possessed remarkable talent. She was also overtly sensitive with a very fragile grip on life. Her health continued to decline, and she found herself making a poor living as a seamstress and eventually placed in a mental hospital.
His mother’s tenure in asylums was a frequent occurrence throughout her life, and the children had no choice but to be placed in a series of bleak workhouses and residential schools during her bouts of ill health and psychosis, believed to stem from syphilis and malnutrition.
“There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate,” Chaplin later wrote, and “she remained in my care until her death in 1928.” Critics noted many of Chaplin’s waif-like leading ladies and wives often bore a strong resemblance to her.
The 7-year-old Chaplin took to the streets, performing ingenious comedic routines. Little Charlie’s talent was widespread throughout his neighborhood, eventually leading to stints in the theater and on the vaudeville circuit, where, despite his young years, he rose through the ranks to become a lead performer. Thanks to Sydney, also working on the stage, he was recruited by the British music hall’s preeminent impresario, Fred Karno.
His success with the Karno troupe led to two U.S. tours. Six months into the second American tour, early movie pioneer Mack Sennett of Keystone Film Company was in the audience. Impressed with Chaplin’s performance, he turned to his business partner sitting beside him, and purportedly said, “If I ever make it in this town, I’m going to hire that guy.” And Sennett’s success was achieved shortly after with the advent of his slapstick Keystone Cops, often spelled “Keystone Kops.” Sennett’s comment became a self-fulfilling prophesy, and Chaplin was signed by Keystone Film Company in 1914.
The genesis of ‘The Little Tramp’
The Little Tramp was a man with the toothbrush mustache, undersized bowler hat, baggy pants, bamboo cane and a funny walk, who struggled to survive while keeping his dignity in a world with great social injustice.
Chaplin created a character with a positive outlook on life, where the human spirit always reigns supreme, despite a cruel and unforgiving social order, still existing in Britain’s class system today. The usual bittersweet endings in the Little Tramp films are where the character waddles down a dusty road alone; at first dejectedly and then with a familiar spring in his waddled steps. He created comedies with a deep undercurrent of pathos. At the time of Chaplin’s arrival, Hollywood movies portrayed tramps as villains: housebreakers, street muggers and train robbers. It was a remarkable move to present a vagrant as a hero, or even a romantic lead.
According to Chaplin’s much-quoted recollection, he was hanging around the Keystone lot after having finished his first short film for the studio. Mack Sennett complained the film they were shooting was lacking in big laughs, so he ordered Chaplin to go to the wardrobe department and get into comedy make-up, stressing anything will do. He then returned to the set with new gags. The image of Little Tramp came to him after only a moment’s thought: “On the way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction.” A toothbrush mustache was added to age his 24-year-old face without masking his expressions, according to Chaplin’s autobiography. Keystone employees noted when Chaplin returned back to the set in his Little Tramp costume, he started fooling around, swinging his cane and ad-libbing gags.
To cinephiles, Chaplin is more than the man who created the iconic Little Tramp, but one of the greatest filmmakers. Famed film critic Andrew Sarris places Chaplin in his pantheon of the greatest American film directors in his still groundbreaking book, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions,” which changed the course of film criticism.
Info: chaplinsworld.com/en; myswitzerland.com/en-us, travelingboy.com.