Mr. Verdoux, I presume?
In a bomb-proof concrete vault beneath one of the more moneyed stretches of Switzerland lies something better than bullion. Here, behind blast doors and security screens, are stored the remains of one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. You might wonder what more there is to know about Charles Spencer Chaplin. Born in London in 1889; survivor of a tough workhouse childhood; the embodiment of screen comedy; fugitive from J Edgar Hoover; the presiding genius of The Kid and The Gold Rush and The Great Dictator. His signature character, the Little Tramp, was once so fiercely present in the global consciousness that commentators studied its effects like a branch of epidemiology. In 1915, “Chaplinitis” was identified as a global affliction. On 12 November 1916, a bizarre outbreak of mass hysteria produced 800 simultaneous sightings of Chaplin across America.
Though the virus is less contagious today, Chaplin’s face is still one of the most widely recognised images on the planet. And yet, in that Montruex vault, there is a wealth of material that has barely been touched. There are letters that evoke his bitter estrangement from America in the 1950s. There are reel-to-reel recordings of him improvising at the piano (“I’m so depressed,” he trills, groping his way towards a tune that rings right). A cache of press cuttings details the British Army’s banning of the Chaplin moustache from the trenches of the first world war. Other clippings indicate that, in the early 1930s, he considered returning to his homeland and entering politics.