A strange combination of class and kitsch, “Charlie Chaplin — The Forgotten Years” is a reverent, sometimes moving, sometimes maudlin look at the last 25 years of the consummate film pioneer’s life which he spent in exile in a 15-room manse in the quaint Swiss town of Corsier-sur-Vevey. Parade of talking heads complements vintage newsreel footage and uninspired narration. Charlie’s children Geraldine, Eugene and Michael provide frank memories of their brilliant but mostly distant dad. TV production, made in observance of the 25th anniversary of Chaplin’s death on Christmas Day 1977, is wholesome tube fare with an undercurrent of melancholy.
Branded a Commie sympathizer during the Cold War, Chaplin left America for Switzerland and essentially never came back — except in 1972 to collect an honorary Oscar. Daughter Geraldine expresses her disgust that he was only given a visa for 10 days. The FBI had kept a file on Chaplin starting in 1922 which by the early 1950s ran to 1,900 pages.
As presented here, tantalizing hints of sinister Swiss surveillance of Chaplin from his arrival in 1952 amount to an underfed tease. Chaplin was made an honorary Italian citizen but was never granted Swiss citizenship despite several applications.
Interviewees range from Peter Ustinov — who is incapable of recounting a dull anecdote — to the less-than riveting gravediggers who shoveled the earth for Chaplin’s grave.
Docu recounts Chaplin’s outrage upon learning that rather than being a quiet refuge, the Manoir de Bain, which he’d bought in winter for wife Oona and their growing brood, was nearly next door to a rifle range that reverberated with constant gunshots come spring. Chaplin turned his annoyance into a gag in a subsequent film.
Doc pays special attention to Chaplin’s love of the circus and his friendship with pianist Clara Haskil, whom he described as one of three geniuses he’d known — along with Einstein and Churchill.
Geraldine elaborates on how her father desperately tried to learn French in his 60s but failed: “For the first time in his life he found something he could not do — and he could do everything.”
Doc emphasizes Chaplin’s self-taught composing skills — he couldn’t read or write music but played piano with a tape recorder running. He wrote some 500 melodies — more than 200 during his exile in Switzerland. Petula Clark, who had an international hit with “This Is My Song,” the theme song from “The Countess From Hong Kong,” says he showed her songs that were quite good and whose current whereabouts intrigue her.
Color home movies shot by Sydney Chaplin are a highlight — although not as striking as rediscovered footage in Kevin Brownlow’s “The Tramp and the Dictator.”
Documakers asked Chaplin’s grown children and select friends to speak personal messages to the deceased and the results, although sincere, are borderline cringe-making, until Geraldine advises her daddy to stay where he is since his optimism about the world has not been borne out. “Don’t come back,” she says, adding, “but leave the Little Tramp here.”