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Chaplin in Review – PART X – A King in New York

11 07 2011

Copyright 1957 Charlie Chaplin Productions and Attica Film Company

★ ★ ★ 1/2

For good reason, Chaplin’s bitterness towards the United States was very high during the late 1950s.  His persecution under the Red scare and constant tailings and pressure from the FBI resulted in Chaplin being exiled in 1952.  Along with the forced sale of his personal assets, Chaplin also lost his beloved studio, Chaplin Studios, which was located at the corner of La Brea and and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.  For over 30 years, Chaplin had the convenience of working at his own studio, with crew members who were familiar with his work and style and, most importantly, on his own time.  In Europe, once Chaplin decided to move forward with another film, which, at first was a slight consideration of returning to Shadow and Substance, but later settling on A King in New York, Chaplin had to rent a studio in which to shoot which greatly hindered his normal process.

A King in New York was Chaplin’s return parry at the United States government.  The story centers around Chaplin’s character of King Igor Shahdov, a recently exiled king from a small, unnamed European country.  For reasons unknown, his prime minister has drained the country treasury and disappeared, leaving the king stranded and broke in New York City.  Trying to the make the best of his situation, Shahdov tries to present an appeal towards the peaceful use of nuclear power, in addition to settling into life in America in the 1950s.  Chaplin satirically takes jabs at much of American popular culture of this era including wide screen movies, rock and roll music and cosmetic surgery, among other things.  One night at a dinner party, which is unknowingly being broadcasted live on television, Shahdov alludes to the fact that he has had some theatre experience.  Because of this, he is eventually conned by young, pretty T.V. Specialist Ann Kay (Dawn Addams) into doing a deodorant commercial, which is filmed secretly and without his consent.  The commercial becomes a success and the king is offered many other opportunities for doing commercials and plugging various products.  At first he rejects all the offers, but, eventually, because of the need for money, ultimately accepts.  Soon after his newfound commercial successes, Chaplin runs into a small boy named Rupert (played by Chaplin’s older son with Oona, then 10-year-old Michael Chaplin), whose parents are about to be jailed for communist sympathies by the House of Un-American Activities.  Shahdov gives Rupert refuge in his hotel room, causing himself to become a suspect in communist sympathy.  In the end, Shahdov is disillusioned with the United States and leaves the country.

It would be 16 years before A King in New York was released to American audiences because of the obvious attacks on the country at the time; in Europe, the film received decent, but not glowing reviews.  Because of Chaplin having to rent studios and work with a crew he was not accustomed (and, for that matter, one that was not accustomed to him), Chaplin rushed the production and filmed this movie in record breaking time for a Chaplin film (12 weeks).  Also problematic to the production value was having to shoot London locations and in-studio sets to double for New York City.

Though Chaplin said he never set out to make a political film with this motion picture, it definitely has an underlying political tone that stands out to the viewer.  Furthermore, because of this, the somewhat lackluster production value and a script many say is not as generally tight as most Chaplin scripts, this film has been lamented by some audiences as not being very good.  For me, personally, I enjoyed the movie.  It is definitely not his best work, far from it in fact; however, it has it’s own place in his body of work and I can clearly see his reasons for making a film of this manner.

My only qualms about the film were the verbose political rants given by young Rupert.  To me, these became a little tiring and heavy handed, and I felt Michael’s performance was a bit stilted.  Apparently, Oona and Charlie constantly went back and forth as to who was the better child actor Chaplin had worked with, young Jackie Coogan in The Kid or young Michael in this film.  In my opinion, Coogan is the hands down winner of this verbal bet, but maybe Michael’s performance garners more praise than I feel due.  All film criticism, after all, is subjective.

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