31 May 2009

A King in New York (1957)

d. Charles Chaplin / UK / 105 mins.

A King in New York is the film where Charles Chaplin gets to hose down HUAC — literally. When his character, the disposed ruler of an unnamed European country, is called before the House Un-American Activities Committee near the end of the film on the false accusation that he is a communist, he has become tangled a hose that turns on and gives the red-baiting mongers a douse of pressurized water. It is a thrilling moment, particularly when one knows Chaplin suffered his own disposal in America due to alleged communist sympathies, but it would be unfair to pronounce A King in New York has a revenge film, or even one whose overall mission is the delivery of political satire. This film is forlorn, yes, and humanist too (as they all are). In many ways it's merely a film fueled by the act of stepping back and observing the postwar world gone amok — the loud and bursting sounds of rock n' roll, a generation of cheap exploitation films, the abundance of television and advertising, plastic surgery, the squandered possibilities of atomic power, and investigations into allegiances.

In the great Chaplin tradition of inverting reality for his own needs, his first film made after he wasn't allowed back into America involves a foreign character going to America. King Shahdov (Chaplin) flees his country after a revolution and ends up in the United States, his treasury swindled and his wife in Paris. He is broke and looking for capital, which he sees as a large potential in the safe and peaceful use of atomic energy. But while he waits for the bureaucracy, he bides his time in American society, scenes in which Chaplin pokes fun at commercialism. Seated next to a rock band at dinner, he jitters and shakes from the noise; at a movie theater, he sees a trailer for an exploitation film called "Man or Woman?," in which a man as a woman's voice and vice versa. Most of these are substantially weak, but there is something eerily prophetic and witty in a scene where he is invited to a grand dinner and coaxed into performing Hamlet's soliloquy to entertain the other guests. Although broke, Shahdov has resisted offers to use his fame in commercials, but the dinner is a covert trick to have him appear unknowingly on live television. (His dining partner occasionally turns toward a hidden camera to deliver commercial messages.)

But commercialism is a rather broad topic, and while the first half of A King in New York is relatively humorous and a moment like the dining party is relatively sharp, it lacks a central focus to help all the pieces come together. Once the second half arrives, Chaplin selects politics as his singular cohesive theme, but now at the sake of sharpness. To connect Shahdov to HUAC, Chaplin uses a boys' boarding school. As the king tours the facility, he meets an exuberant young man, the son of left-wing activists (and Chaplin's actual son, Michael) who argues politics with the king. Shahdov develops a soft-spot for the little spunky radical, who he later sees wandering the winter streets of the city, and he takes him in to warm him while trying to get him back to his parents. But when the parents are called before HUAC, Shahdov is guilty by association and pulled in as well. Although Chaplin could have a fine ear for satire, the political edge here is nowhere near as sharp as The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, or Modern Times. Never one to prance around subtly, the young leftist becomes an exceedingly transparent surrogate for Chaplin's own views. The choice of making the child the moral epicenter is interesting in its dichotomy — the boy represents a hopeful future and also a static and meek force at the mercy of others; but the child also invokes a level of naivete that works against Chaplin's message, and worse, the kid is often rather irksome in his self-righteousness (just as Chaplin's own pontifications could become, and this is coming from a guy that typically doesn't mind the director's long-winded pedantries).

McCarthyism provoked numerous responses in the creative arts, from Arthur Miller's The Crucible to the film High Noon, but never had it been called a spade a spade before this film, believed to be the first to use HUAC by name and stand in direct opposition to it. Like The Great Dictator, which fought against the Nazis and fascism, there is a certain brazenness in his approach (although certainly easier to accomplish filming in Europe with the penalty of going unreleased in America). When that hose is unleashed on the committee, it should be a triumphant moment. Instead it's a bit of a letdown.

Although Chaplin was born and raised in England, he'd never made a film there until A King in New York. But his involuntary exile from America (after having his reentry visa was revoked during his publicity tour in London for his previous film, Limelight) forced him to work in England if he wanted to continue making movies. Neither Limelight (1952) nor A King in New York weren't shown in the United States until 1972. Of course the great irony in all of this is that Chaplin was one of the most creative forces working in America during the early part of the twentieth century, a man who did more to launch the comedy movement in Hollywood cinema than many and a man who will probably be known centuries from now. By the time he reached A King in New York, he lacked the astute humor or the rousing occasion. There's enough to admire here, particularly some of the antics in Chaplin's last on-screen leading role, but it feels only significant in terms of completing an entire viewing of Chaplin's works.


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