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The penultimate film by Charles Chaplin, A King in New York (1957) was the 68-year-old filmmaker's reaction to the inhospitable treatment he faced in the United States during the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy Era. As did many left-leaning Hollywood celebrities, Chaplin openly supported Communist causes during World War II, and suddenly faced political persecution once the Cold War commenced and the Soviets were no longer America's allies. In 1952, Chaplin attended the New York premiere of his film Limelight, and immediately afterward departed to attend the European debut. Once his ship was at sea, however, U.S. Immigration officials notified the actor/director (who had never traded in his British papers for American citizenship) that his reentry permit had been revoked. He remained banished from the United States for twenty years.
A King in New York is a fantasy of what might have happened had Chaplin been allowed to return to the States after five years of exile. It is filled with fascinating references to Chaplin's own painful experiences, and is flavored by the aging filmmaker's curmudgeonly views of mid-century American pop culture.
After being ousted by a revolution in his homeland of Estrovia, King Igor Shadov (Chaplin) lands in Manhattan -- deprived of wealth and power -- to start his life anew. He is quickly surrounded by status-seekers still impressed by the exiled king's nobility. Shadov encounters a seemingly sophisticated woman, Ann Kay (Dawn Addams), only to find that she is a straight-talking television producer who is capitalizing on the King's notoriety to sell deodorant and toothpaste. He attempts to play along with this consumer-crazed society and even agrees to perform a commercial for an alcoholic beverage, but spoils the spot when he actually tastes the vile concoction.
No stranger to social commentary, Chaplin had brilliantly skewered Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) and had dramatized the madness of Modern Times (1936). With A King in New York, Chaplin returned to political satire, as Shadov is exposed to some of the most marvelous phenomena of 1950s America: CinemaScope, rock'n'roll and plastic surgery.
A few episodes of A King in New York were directly inspired by Chaplin's own difficult experiences, and these grim memories are envisioned as comedy, laced with more than a trace of bitterness. The scene in which King Shadov jests with reporters as he is being fingerprinted by American immigration officials was inspired by an incident when Chaplin was arrested in 1944 (ostensibly for violation of the Mann Act, but in reality as a form of harassment for his Communist affiliations). Photographers were invited to attend the fingerprinting, which resulted in public humiliation of the once-cherished actor/director. In another scene of King, Shadov is stalked by a sinister stranger, who is ultimately revealed as a mere autograph hunter, an incident that occurred in New York shortly before Chaplin left the United States.
In the course of Shadov's American tour, he visits a progressive children's school, where he befriends a young student, Rupert (played by Chaplin's son Michael). Rupert is an angry liberal, a radical socialist who preaches gloom and revolution to the even-tempered and tolerant Shadov. Because of his friendship with the child, Shadov is brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and reduces the solemn proceedings to chaos when he becomes entangled with an unruly fire hose.
Michael Chaplin later recounted that his father offered few insights into performing for the camera, "The only advice my father gave me on acting was: 'What you have to try to achieve is to be as natural as possible.'" Although eleven-year-old Michael was praised for his role, his acting career was sporadic and small. He had an abrasive relationship with his father, and rebelled by dropping out of school, becoming a high-profile bohemian and winding up on National Assistance in 1965. When the media reported this ironic fact (the son of a wealthy filmmaker on the dole), Mrs. Oona Chaplin wrote an open letter to the press in which she proclaimed herself unwilling to "indulge him as a beatnik...the young man is a problem...he has stubbornly refused an education for three years and therefore he should get a job and go to work."
When writing A King in New York (originally titled The Ex-King) Chaplin employed a very unconventional working method while strolling and pacing about his Swiss mansion (at Corsier-sur-Vevey). His secretary, Isobel Deluz, recalled, "he would begin to prance around, talking at the top of his voice, repeating the same sentence over and over again, and then, when he was at the farthest corner of the room, with his back to me, he would whisper something I could not hear, and bounce round with a, 'That's it -- that's it. Fine. Got it at last.' But I had not! Then he would fall into silent brooding, sometimes for half an hour on end, with a faraway look in his eyes. Or he would gesticulate madly, his mouth forming noiseless words. Every possible expression would cross his moving face -- joy, sadness, courage, irony, tragedy, contempt."
Even though New York was the locale of the film, Chaplin was unable to film there, due to his involuntary exile. With the exception of a few sequences of stock footage, none of the film was shot in the United States. Instead, New York City was recreated on a soundstage at England's Shepperton Studios.
Since he had been banished from its shores, Chaplin decided he would withhold the film from American release. He even banned American journalists from a press conference announcing the completion of principal photography. In order to exclude the American market, Chaplin formed the Attica Film Company, to release the film to his exact specifications. This caused a rift between Chaplin and his usual distributor, United Artists, which he had co-founded in 1919. A King in New York was at last commercially screened in the U.S. in 1973, when bygones were bygones and the critical reevaluation of Chaplin's career overruled the political grudges that had doomed it to American obscurity.
"I cannot help but be bitter about many things that happened to me," Chaplin told New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, "but the country and the American people -- they are great." Even though it was inspired by Chaplin's bitter battles with the American media, HUAC and the Immigration Department, A King in New York is not angry or anti-American. It is instead bittersweet and mournful...an aging man's fantasy of a homecoming, a Quixotic comedy of errors in which all his problems (and the problems of blacklist-era America) are ultimately solved through the all-conquering power of comedy.
Producer: Charles Chaplin, Jerome Epstein
Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: John Seabourne
Art Direction: Allan Harris
Music: Charles Chaplin, Eddy Marnay
Cast: Charles Chaplin (King Shadov), Maxine Audley (Queen Irene), Jerry Desmonde (Prime Minister Voudel), Oliver Johnston (Ambassador Jaume), Dawn Addams (Ann Kay), Sid James (Johnson).
by Bret Wood
A King in New York (1957)
In the early 50s, Chaplin, deeply affected by his political and legal wrangles with the United States government, sought a way to resuscitate the Tramp character within the body of an old man. A King in New York was Chaplin's penultimate feature, and the last film in which he appeared. For director Jim Jarmusch, "this film is political, there is no way you can say it is not..."
Producer: Serge Toubiana
Director: Jerome de Missolz
Cast: Jim Jarmusch
BW & C-27m. Closed Captioning.