“A King in New York” (1957)

by A.J. Hakari

"A King in New York" poster

Charles Chaplin had the privilege of lasting longer than the great silent comics were usually allowed after the advent of sound. Where it took the 1930s all of a few years to chew up and spit out poor Buster Keaton, Chaplin flourished, answering the challenge to adapt with a string of films that are considered by many to be his very best. But not even he was immune to time and circumstance taking the punch out of his material, and though at what point this exactly took place is a matter of debate, A King in New York is a strong suspect. It’s not that the premise is completely out of its creator’s wheelhouse; with its social commentary and compassion for the downtrodden, this film is undeniably Chaplin. But with A King in New York, he lets fancy run rampant way too much, relegating his observational humor into choppy snippets that undermine the greater narrative.

Shahdov (Chaplin) is a king without a country. A revolution has forced him to flee the land he once ruled over, along with his valet (Oliver Johnston) and however much of the treasury he could hoard. But soon, Shadhov barely has a penny to his name, after a scheming advisor makes off with the loot and leaves the king’s plans to revolutionize atomic power high and dry. In the meantime, His Majesty takes a crash course in American culture, confronting the horrors of teenage girls whipped into a rock ‘n’ roll-fueled frenzy and smart-alecky moppets with an affinity for Karl Marx. He also becomes a prime target for ruthless advertisers, including Ann Kay (Dawn Addams), who tries recruiting the king for commercials but ends up falling for him. What we see as commonplace, Shahdov finds utterly bewildering, a position that leads to serious consequences when the Red Scare comes to call.

Considering the craftsman Chaplin proved himself to be on so many occasions, it’s hard to imagine A King in New York turning out as sloppy as it did. Though the movie came about long after he was scrutinized for beliefs many saw as tantamount to Communism, one wouldn’t expect a rebuttal this weak from the furious satirist who made The Great Dictator. Cries for social justice can be heard here, albeit faintly, drowned out in great part by Chaplin’s conspicuously hands-off storytelling. Those moments in which he does take a stand are almost indistinguishable from his cutesy little commentaries on the culture of the time (which, admittedly, hasn’t changed very much today). There is a subplot in which Shadhov befriends a young boy (played by Chaplin’s own son, Michael) whose folks have been pegged as Commies, but it’s paid about as much mind as an extended scene involving the king’s wacky adventures with plastic surgery. Though Chaplin’s intentions are noble, the film is sorely lacking the bold wit and invention with which he presented his lessons in the past; here, he stops just short of carting around an “UNFAIRLY PERSECUTING OTHERS IS BAD” sign for 100 minutes.

Even A King in New York‘s comedy is in a state I dread to call lazy. Where Chaplin in his prime would comment on society through visually-novel and beautifully-executed little sequences, this film simply points at stuff and goes, “That’s weird, huh?” Just about every scene and subplot plays out like this, with Chaplin jumping ship whenever he feels like it and leaving an erratic, virtually nonexistent narrative in his wake. Shahdov argues with a kid and sits on a pie — end of scene. Shahdov sees outlandish movie ads in a theater — that’s it. Just about the entire movie is comprised of episodes like these, and while they’re not without their laughs or valid points declared, the stop-and-go pacing makes jumping aboard the plot a tiresome enterprise. Chaplin applies what grace and beauty he can to these scenes, but it’s disheartening to see their ultimate effect be no different than a comic just listing off things he doesn’t like.

There is worth to A King in New York, just on a very minor scale. It’s an amusing little picture, but when you see its hesitance compared to the level of passion Chaplin previously brought to his productions, a chuckle here and there just doesn’t cut it. A King in New York was Charlie’s last leading role, but one almost wishes he’d have called it quits before having to make it at all.