A KING IN NEW YORK
(directed by Charles Chaplin, 1957)
***** (out of 5)
> This was Charlie Chaplin’s final film as unparalleled auteur. As usual, he was screenwriter, director, producer, lead actor and composed the score as well. (A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG followed ten years later, but his last screen appearance only a small cameo.) And this KING is a mixed-bag.
. There are some truly classic moments, followed by bits that now fall as flat as a lead balloon. From the familiar recurring clownish schtick, one would think poor Mr. Chaplin lived his later life entirely in the past. The very same sensibilities are at work that were evident in his silents: the sly, self-conscious preciousness, batting his eyelashes like a coquette, with that “ain’t I cute?” attitude that was always a little grating. This was a flawed persona. There is even a sequence where he peeks through a keyhole to watch a woman bathe. (We have a term for that now: Peeping Toms are now considered sex criminals. Here, it’s played for laughs!)
. No, this is not a great film. So why 5-stars? THE KING OF NEW YORK is an historically significant film. In his transparently leftist way, Chaplin uses this film to satirize modern life, big city superiority, a lowest-common-denominator mass media, severe political correctness, government-stoked paranoia, insincere celebrities and fawning paparazzi. (He even takes a jab at the movies- with the pointedly inane “coming attractions” his character watches in a theatre.) The main focus of Chaplin’s comedic anger? Human scum Joe McCarthy and The House Committee on Un-American Activities- a criminal enterprise if there ever was one.
. It’s a good story: The King of “Estrovia” is overthrown in a popular revolution. He flees to the U.S., but in the process, all his wealth is pilfered. He is tricked into being on a TV show without his knowledge. (It’s a staged “party” with hidden cameras. He is naturally flummoxed when his “hostess” begins talking in commercial messages.) Though he detests all the vacuous vapidity she stands for, he cannot help but feel attracted to her, and she helps him become an American celebrity- hawking whiskey in ads looming over Time’s Square. While touring an extremely liberal-minded boy’s school, he meets a young firebrand who spouts aggressive arguments for Socialism that befuddle and infuriate everyone. Through this very fun adolescent character, he gets hauled before the dreaded committee. But the great clown could not resist making this a gag, arriving with his finger stuck in a fire hose!
. The ending is too abrupt and cursory by far, calling into question the very need for there to be A KING IN NEW YORK at all. You can bet if this film were made today, it would have a better ending- studios and focus-groups would have demanded it! But there are signs throughout this film that if he had been able to keep going, Chaplin did indeed have something relevant to contribute to the modern world. This is actually pretty adult stuff- a long way from the Little Tramp, though Chaplin himself seems unaware of this. And it presents a morally-ambiguous look at the world that is pretty evolved for a Hollywood picture. Instead of a neatly-packaged and conveniently resolved romance, we get something far more complex. His queen never loved him, marrying him only to fulfill her duty. Now that he is no longer the King, divorce is an option she considers. But when he is informed that she is not opting for divorce at the present time, Chaplin muses aloud, almost to himself: “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
> Why exactly did the iconic storyteller go into a decade-long hiatus after this film? It’s a shame. It’s clear that the mature Chaplin still had something significant to offer the world.
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