[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Charles Chaplin’s 1956 English movie A King in New York begins with a mob surging into a palace shouting “We want the head of Charlot!” Or so the auteurist ear registers it for a moment—actually it’s Shahdov, not Charlot, the people want the head of. But Shahdov is played by Charlie Chaplin. Same difference. A King in New York has long been spoken of as Chaplin’s cinematic kissoff to the country that turned thumbs down on him and his Monsieur Verdoux in the late Forties when he became too politically outspoken—the wrong sort of politics—and found himself in a paternity suit as well; an assistant Attorney General of that country denied the British-born Chaplin a reentry visa after he’d gone abroad in the early Fifties, and so the man who was once the best-loved figure in the United States and probably the world elected to sit out the rest of his life in Switzerland.
A King in New York certainly reflects some kind of vision of America, and not a wholly flattering one, but the character Chaplin plays—a deposed monarch with “hopes of revolutionizing modern life and creating a Utopia”—has nothing but glowing words for the land of the free. On the other hand, the repulsive little marionette whose Communist (or Communist-duped) parents get in trouble for peddling atomic secrets is played by his son Michael, and through him some half-pulled punches are thrown at McCarthyism and the notion of patriotic heroism. Both Shahdov and the boy hold themselves as apolitical, even anti-political; and Chaplin’s gibes at the U.S. of A. have more to do with the brave new world of technology than ideology. The Chaplin whose most magical moments are frequently compromised by contemporary projection techniques that lop off the top and bottom of his academy frames has an hilarious encounter with CinemaScope, and from the front row of a movie theater yet; a bookshelf in his New York hotel room proves to be a mockup concealing a TV screen, and the insidious omnipresence of TV commercials provides the comedic raison-d’être of the other funniest bit in the movie, when the king’s charming dinner partner, really a video hostess tricking him into performing before a hidden camera, segues into an earnest pitch for deodorants in mid-chitchat.
Most of the film testifies all too eloquently to the proposition that if Chaplin didn’t happen to be Chaplin, what he doesn’t know about motion picture directing would have landed him on the scrapheap long ago. But Chaplin is Chaplin, and Chaplin’s movies are inescapably about that phenomenon, and in this way A King in New York lays claim to an historic and aesthetic interest nothing in its structure or realization has anything to do with. In some kind of wish-fulfillment the deposed monarch becomes “the most popular man in America” by spraying a Congressional committee with an improbably handy firehose.
A KING IN NEW YORK
Screenplay and Direction: Charles Chaplin. Cinematography: Georges Perinal. Music: Charles Chaplin.
The Players: Charles Chaplin, Oliver Johnston, Dawn Addams, Michael Chaplin, Maxine Audley, Sidney James, Harry Green.
Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson