(A King in New York is being broadcast on Wed., July 9, at 4:30 a.m. EST on Turner Classic Movies.)
Due to the hostility that still revolved around Charlie Chaplin’s name at the time, A King in New York (1957) wasn’t shown in America until a major re-issue of all of Chaplin’s feature films occurred in 1972. Until then, Americans who hadn’t seen the movie believed it to be Chaplin’s vitriolic hate letter to America. Watching it now, the saddest part is how benign most of the movie’s anti-American sentiment really is.
Chaplin plays King Shahdov (note the first syllable), a European monarch seeking asylum in New York after being deposed from his country. Shahdov is unusually confident about his future, until he finds out that his former prime minister has absconded with the funds of both Shadhov and his former country, leaving Shahdov practically broke.
As luck would have it, Ann (Dawn Addams), the hostess of a gossipy celebrity TV show, gets Shahdov interested in her after moving into the hotel suite next door to his. Under the pretext of having Shahdov as a guest at her formal party, Ann furtively gets Shahdov to provide the entertainment for an episode of her show. Before long, TV and advertising offers come pouring in to Shahdov, who tries to maintain royal decorum before succumbing to the big bucks.
In a subplot, Shahdov visits a progressive children’s school, where he meets a socialist-spouting student named Rupert (Chaplin’s real-life son Michael). It turns out that Rupert’s parents have appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and are about to be jailed for refusing to “name names.” With the politicos turning to Rupert as an alternative for “name-getting,” young Rupert faces his own moral dilemma.
Like its predecessor Limelight, A King in New York suffers much from Chaplin’s latter-day indulgences. The movie could probably stand to lose about a half-hour of dead air, especially when its pacing suffers from fits and starts. (Also, Chaplin’s musical scoring, which at the very least usually sounds elegant, here sounds as though it was recorded on the run, almost.)
And where the earlier Chaplin was content to stage a gag and just assume we’d pick up on it, here Chaplin practically underlines things with a red pen. His potshots at HUAC and American pop culture are the most obvious examples (though one shining moment is his mock-trailer for a gender-change movie that would have done Ed Wood proud). But a lot of little moments suffer similarly. At the children’s school, a young would-be chef briefly picks his nose before vigorously handling some pastries, and Chaplin can’t get enough close-ups of Shahdov’s revulsion. (And look who’s talking; that kid would have been right at home in Chaplin’s 1914 short Dough and Dynamite.)
And yet, there are worthwhile moments here and there, and most of the acting is quite good. Oliver Johnston is wonderful as Shahdow’s long-suffering ambassador Jaume; the best scene in the movie is (naturally) a long pantomime where the two men take turns spying on voluptuous Ann through an open keyhole. Dawn Addams is good, too, setting off very lively, just-this-side-of-platonic sparks with Chaplin.
The movie’s weakest link is young Michael Chaplin as Rupert. According to one source, Chaplin gave Michael the role after seeing him do a pastiche of Dad’s final speech from The Great Dictator. And unfortunately, that’s just the way the role is written and the way that Michael plays it — as though he’s an eleven-year-old socialist. Michael has only two notes here, alternating between speechifying and sobbing over his parents’ troubles. (And in a couple of close-ups, the way Michael is lit and made-up, you’d swear Chaplin wants him to come off as Little Tramp Jr.)
A King in New York has enough worthwhile moments to warrant at least one viewing. But we know how far Chaplin has descended when you’re advised to watch a movie of his in spite of its big moments rather than because of them.