By Bill Harby
Even today, nearly 39 years after film legend Charlie Chaplin’s death, who among us doesn’t know “the Tramp” with his signature mustache and big floppy shoes, twirling his cane as he loveably bumbles through a world of comedy and pathos?
Whether you only know the Tramp for his slapstick, or you’re a film buff who already knows why Charles Chaplin exiled himself to Switzerland in 1953 after the U.S. revoked his re-entry permit to the U.S., you’ll be fascinated by the new museum devoted to his life and work, Chaplin’s World.
The museum features two parts: the grand old mansion with its cypress-shaded lawns where Chaplin, his wife and eight children lived in his later years; and the modern multimedia “Studio” which brings to life his extraordinary career in movies.
Both parts of the museum that opened in 2015 are remarkable in their inventiveness, and how they combine historical settings with modern multimedia displays.
When you walk in the door of the mansion, you’re startled to see a welcoming wax figure of the elder Chaplin right in front of you. Throughout both parts of the museum, all the wax figures – of Chaplin, historical figures and other comedy geniuses whom he inspired (plus, somehow, Michael Jackson) – were made by the world-famous Musée Grévin of Paris, which runs Chaplin World. These wax figures, so detailed down to the wrinkles around a person’s sparkling glass eyes, are either astonishingly life-like or creepy – or both – depending on your taste. In any case, they don’t give autographs.
Each room of the mansion is beautifully decorated in period furniture, much of it original from when Chaplin’s family lived there until his death there in 1977. Each room also has a screen showing home movies and news footage of the times, including reports of when Chaplin, a British citizen living in the U.S., was named persona non grata by the rabid anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee because, during World War II, he had been vocal in supporting the Soviet Union against the Nazis.
One room even has wax figures of Charlie and his wife Oona (daughter of American playwright, Eugene O’Neill) watching the home movies – again, delightful or downright weird, depending on your taste.
Next to the mansion is “the Studio,” 15,000 square meters on two floors featuring replicas of old-time Hollywood sets from Chaplin’s movies, peopled with more wax figures and enhanced with screens large and small showing scenes from the artist’s films. Displays show original artifacts, including the famous shoes, cane and hat the Tramp always wore. There’s also a copy of the uniform from “The Great Dictator,” the 1940 movie satirising Hitler.
All the artifacts, displays, sets and scenes, as well as the mansion, create a memorable portrait of Chaplin, his life and times, and of course his career as, not only one of the world’s greatest comic actors, but also as the perfectionist director, producer, writer and even composer for his films.
But ultimately, all the elements of the museum serve as context for the many wonderful clips from his movies, where you get to see a genius at work and play.