In 1952, Charlie Chaplin and his family sailed from America on the Queen Elizabeth for the London and Paris premieres of his film “Limelight.” The U.S. State Department, caving in to the McCarthyist hysteria of the era, banned Chaplin’s re-entry to America. Chaplin’s alleged Communist sympathies were the reason for the action, even though Chaplin himself was not a Communist and never espoused that political theory.
Although Chaplin had lived and worked in America for the previous four decades, he was still a British citizen; his wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin and their children were American citizens and were not under the State Department ban. Not willing to be separated and angry at the American government’s actions, the Chaplin family settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Chaplin lived until his death in 1977.
Felice Zenoni’s wonderful documentary: “Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years” traces Chaplin’s final 25 years in self-imposed Swiss exile. Tapping into very rare Swiss newsreels and press photographs, plus never-before-seen home movies from the Chaplin family, the film offers a complex and compelling tribute to a comic icon in his twilight years.
Chaplin’s adjustment to Switzerland was not entirely smooth. He tried in vain to learn French, but only wound up massacring the language. He purchased a stately mansion during winter, only to discover that the Swiss army had a firing range next door which was in constant use during the spring and summer. The Swiss government, clearly influenced by the Cold War climate, kept him under surveillance for years and paid close attention whenever he met with visiting artists from the Soviet bloc nations. The government also declined to present him with honorary citizenship, although other nations offered him that distinction.
Chaplin’s home life was also somewhat chaotic. His children Geraldine and Michael recall how they left home at a young age due to the frequently difficult atmosphere at home (Geraldine states she was thrown out, although she later reconciled with her family once she obtained her own success as an actress, while Michael left on his own when he was still a teenager). Chaplin hired a secretary who later sued him, stating he drove her to a nervous breakdown. Chaplin created two films during his Swiss years, “A King in New York” (1957) and “A Countess from Hong Kong” (1967), but both productions (made in London, not Switzerland) were both major commercial failures; clips from the rarely-seen films are included here and confirm their poor reputations.
But even with these problems, Chaplin’s later years were mostly happy. His marriage to Oona (his fourth wife) was an extremely happy union and the home movie footage of them is very touching for the genuine love they share. Chaplin’s home was open to many important and exciting people, and Chaplin ventured around Switzerland to ingratiate himself with his new homeland. Newsreel footage of Chaplin in the audience of a Swiss circus watching an acrobat made up like his beloved Little Tramp character is an amazing discovery to behold.
Chaplin also proved that old age was not a reason to withdraw from his life’s work. He created new scores for his classic silent films (a selection of his composition for “The Circus” is featured here) and he even enjoyed a Top 10 pop hit with the love theme from “A Countess from Hong Kong”: the ballad “This is My Song,” which Petula Clark successfully recorded and which she returns on film to perform once more. At the time of his death, Chaplin was working on a screenplay which he hoped to bring to production.
Of course, Chaplin eventually returned to America 20 years after being barred to accept an honorary Academy Award. Geraldine Chaplin recalls how she initially tried to dissuade him from returning, citing the humiliation he experienced in 1952. She even pointed out to her father how his American travel visa was for a brief 10 day period. But Chaplin noted the ultra-minimal time period on his visa for his own brand of humor: “They’re still afraid of me!” he told his daughter, winning her over with his wry observation of his old reputation.
The film, strangely, fails to mention why Chaplin settled in Switzerland rather than his native England: the Swiss tax laws were more beneficial to the wealthy Chaplin, who would’ve had his fortune taxed away by the British government. It is no surprise that other British celebrities such as Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov (who is featured in this film) and Peter Sellers would follow Chaplin to Swiss residence rather than pay Her Majesty’s tax collectors. But even without this obvious fact, “Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years” provides a fascinating tribute to cinema’s funniest artist. This Swiss production is currently not in American release, but with luck it will find its way into American channels in the very near future.