Friday, April 6, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York Movie Review

A King in New York is probably Charlie Chaplin’s most deeply personal film. Though he claimed he was just trying to make people laugh with another comedy film, there is no denying the overt political arguments he makes with his screenplay. The film is undoubtedly critical of the United States and its policies in the 1950s regarding political party affiliation. A King in New York was Chaplin’s first film made outside America because he’d already been exiled from the country he called home for almost forty years. His exile was the result of allegations that he was a member of the Communist Party. By all accounts, Chaplin loved America and was devastated when he was not permitted to return. With that in mind, we can read A King in New York as a cathartic experience for Chaplin to have made it when he did.


Chaplin’s character is King Shahdov of a fictional European country. A revolution at home spurs him to take refuge in New York City along with his Ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston). Unfortunately, his trusted Prime Minister has absconded with the royal money he was entrusted to hold. Shahdov resorts to tacky appearances in TV commercials, lending his celebrity to name brand products for tens of thousands of dollars a pop. He gets lured into this by Ann (Dawn Addams) who invites him to a soiree while unbeknownst to him, the whole thing is being broadcast on live television. No wonder Ann periodically breaks into advertising descriptions of deodorant and toothpaste.

But this is not a simple fish-out-of-water comedy (although that is part of it). Its real focus is the House Un-American Activities Hearings that were designed to embarrass people and subvert the foundations of freedom of political expression in the United States. When Shahdov visits a progressive private school he meets a young boy named Rupert Macabee (played by Chaplin’s son Michael), who has a lot on his mind and the will to say it while reading Karl Marx. “Are you a Communist,” Shahdov asks. “Do you have to be a Communist to read Karl Marx,” Rupert responds. Good point. And so is the point of the film. Your associations don’t sum up your political agenda and even if they did, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a threat.

Shahdov meets Rupert again later after he’s run away from school to avoid being questioned by HUAC about his parents, who have Communist affiliations. Rupert is eventually encouraged to speak out and give names of his parents’ associates in order to save his parents from criminal prosecution, an impossible choice for a child to have to make. This also marks the second time (after The Kid that Chaplin shows an example of society using a child as a pawn and ignoring their humanity in order to achieve its own useless aims). This act leaves the boy broken where he was once feisty and spirited. Michael Chaplin’s performance is incredibly good for a boy with no prior acting experience. In his first scene at the school he has to go toe to toe with his own father without letting him get a word in edgewise. He just rants about politics and the plight of the oppressed. Later, after naming names his expression has changed from enthused to dejected and he barely speaks. It is a devastating indictment of the policies of the United States Congress in the 1950s to tear down the will of the people and strip the Constitution of one of its most important provisions.

The biggest problem with A King in New York is that Chaplin tries to take on too many targets making the film broad where it should be more pointed. In the early scenes his targets include advertising and television (products are marketed via a TV screen while Shahdov has a bath), American action films and CinemaScope (he and Jaume take in a western that includes gratuitous violence while audience members have to shift their glances back and forth to see the action on opposing sides of the screen) cosmetic surgery and rock music. These scenes have the added detractor of not being particularly funny, thus cheapening the entire experience of the film.

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