Release Date: 12 September 1957
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 110 minutes
With: Dawn Addams, Michael Chaplin, Maxine Audley, Oliver Johnston, Jerry Desmonde, Sid James, Phil Brown, Frazer Hines
Story: Deposed King Shahdov seeks refuge in America, only to discover the modern metropolis of New York is not to his taste…
Production: Everything that had happened to Charlie Chaplin in his final years in America came pouring out in the final film he would star in, A King in New York, made in London and released in 1957. Ironically, his commentary upon contemporary mid-1950s American mores would not be seen widely in that country for several decades (it was finally released in 1973). Although much of the film is tied, inevitably, to the time and place of it’s making, the majority of what it has to say is just as relevant today as ever before.
The writer-director had decided not to return to London permanently as he felt the extradition arrangements with the United States meant he could not be sure of his own long-term safety. He turned in his void re-entry permit at the US consulate and issued a statement: ‘It is not easy to uproot myself and my family from a country where I have lived for 40 years without a feeling of sadness, but since the end of the last war I have been the object of vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.’ This ‘persecution’ of ‘liberal-minded individuals’ and America’s ‘unhealthy atmosphere’ would be the backdrop for A King in New York.
Early in 1953 the Chaplin family had settled into the Manoir de Ban in Corsier-sur-Vevey, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The new multi-room mansion was a far cry from the poverty in London in which Chaplin had grown up and exceeded even the homes he’d lived in when working in the United States. Chaplin sought seclusion, both for himself and his large family.
A year after the move, Chaplin first announced plans for a new movie to be centred around a king in exile—the echoes of his own situation were only too obvious. As usual, the development process of the story and the actual script was a lengthy one, taking up much of Chaplin’s creative energy over the next two or so years. Towards the end of 1955 he had something he was reasonably pleased with and confident enough about to schedule filming for the following spring. He resolved to film at London’s Shepperton Studios and the Chaplin family were removed to Egham’s Great Foster Hotel for the duration.
As well as his own exile and a broad-brush satire of the modern United States (television, advertising, cosmetic surgery, McCarthyism), Chaplin drew upon the presence of several former monarchs in Switzerland in researching his film. He travelled to Lausanne-Ouchy to meet with the former Queen of Spain (who advised him on royal etiquette) and had a meal with an Italian Prince at his home in Italy. The third factor that played into A King in New York was the atom bomb, the instrument of destruction that had brought to an end the Second World War but now in its proliferation across the globe was threatening to bring to an end all humanity.
Chaplin’s deposed monarch, King Shahdov (his name suggests a ‘shadow’ personality; curiously it is depicted as ‘Shadov’ on the film credits) of Estrovia, has been overthrown by a cabal within his government following his plans to use atomic power to improve the lot of his people. Having fallen on hard times (the money looted from his kingdom has in turn been looted by his prime minister), the King becomes a celebrity and takes on advertising contracts in order to pay off his expensive hotel bills. He encounters modern culture, such as movies, and decides it’s not to his taste. A relationship with Dawn Addam’s advertising advisor continues Chaplin’s infatuation (on- and off-screen) with women far younger than he was—Chaplin was in his mid-60s, Addams in her mid-20s.
As with Limelight, family became important to the making of A King in New York with Chaplin casting his son Michael in a major role as Rupert Macabbe, a young victim of America’s anti-Communist blacklist that was continuing to rage through the end of the decade. Ten-year-old Michael gives a creditable performance, even if in his first scene where he meets the king, he is clearly mouthing along with Chaplin’s lines in order to keep himself straight on his bits. This lessens as the film goes on, suggesting that these scenes at least may have been filmed in order.
‘I had a wonderful time working with my father,’ recalled Michael Chaplin, who later rebelled against his father’s stern parenting. ‘It was the only time, really, that I had any relationship with my father—with him coaching me and acting with him. I was able to become part of his creative world … My father acted out every gesture and every inflection of my performance. As with everything and everyone else on the film, he was meticulous. I recall the advice he gave me on acting was “What you have to try to achieve is to be as natural as possible”. It was a wonderful time. As a young man, I rebelled. I was only able to come to terms with my father—and appreciate him and understand his personality—much later.’
Many of those caught up in accusations of Communism relocated to Europe with several prominent American filmmakers working in 1950s London on both film and television projects. Chaplin’s leading lady this time was Dawn Addams, who first made her mark in 1952’s MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain and had married a Prince in 1954 (she had previously auditioned for Chaplin’s Limelight, losing out to Claire Bloom). Incongruously, for modern British audiences more used to his later Carry On… film bawdy comedy roles, the film features Sid James in a minor role (apparently cast as a replacement for Sam Wanamaker!). Featured in the final scene as Rupert’s school headmaster was American actor Phil Brown, himself a victim of the blacklist working in London (he was later better known as Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen in 1977’s Star Wars). Given his own political beliefs, his dialogue is doubly ironic.
Working in a studio other than his own was discomfiting to Chaplin who found the unfamiliar environment and technology of Shepperton Studios somewhat alien compared to the long-used and very familiar facilities at the Chaplin studio in Los Angeles. Another factor that hampered his free-wheeling filmmaking approach was the strict enforcement of union rules, which set the hours that could be worked and specified particularly timed breaks. Chaplin was more used to working simply to his own inspirations, muse, and provocations. In practice, Chaplin felt like a stranger among his own countrymen.
The film was completed relatively quickly across a tight nine-week period, with an additional week devoted to location filming. Chaplin himself was under a strict limitation as to how long he could stay in Britain, largely for tax reasons and because he was in fear of attracting the attention of the American authorities who might decide at any moment to have him arrested. It is little wonder, then, if he was somewhat paranoid and irritated when filming A King in New York. As soon as the filming wrapped in summer 1956, Chaplin left for the relative quiet and solitude of Switzerland once more.
While initially happy enough with A King in New York upon its completion (‘It’s good, it’s my best picture, it’s entertainment, don’t you think?’ he told a friend), he later became unhappy with it, perceiving his attempt to make a modern 1950s movie as something of a failure: ‘Perhaps I didn’t quite understand it,’ he said. ‘It started out to be very good, and then it got complicated and a little heavy handed.’
American audiences and critics would not officially see A King in New York for 16 years after its release, although some critics did sneak in a viewing, with the New Yorker dubbing it ‘maybe the worst film ever made by a celebrated film artist.’ British critics were more welcoming if not universally positive. ‘Never boring,’ was the conclusion of Kenneth Tynan writing in The Observer. ‘The points that are made—about the withdrawal of passports and the abject necessity of informing—are new to the screen, and it is about time somebody made them.’ For the Daily Mail, Chaplin’s latest was ‘a lumpish mixture of subtle slapstick and clumsy political satire’. In The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell described Chaplin’s character in A King in New York as the final step of his discarding of the Tramp guise, now he was simply playing himself onscreen. Some critics missed the ‘old-fashioned’ slapstick Chaplin and decried his ‘message-crammed’ later movies like The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York.
In interviews promoting A King in New York, Chaplin explained his reason for shelving his character of the Tramp. ‘The world in which he lived just doesn’t exist anymore,’ said Chaplin, lamenting its loss as much for the Tramp as for himself. ‘There is such a thing as an anachronism, and a satire about the Tramp today would be just that.’
Chaplin—unusually for the 1950s—was aware of the economic value of his back catalogue. Many other film comedians, especially of the early silent years, did not control their own material, and Chaplin in fact did not have any say over future use of his Keystone and Essanay films, either. Everything else post-1918, though, had been produced at studios under licence or via his own studio. In 1954, Chaplin called his long-term camera operator/cinematographer Rollie Totheroh to clear out the vaults of his old studio and ship all the film material stored there to Switzerland. He had special adjustable temperature controlled storage vaults built in the basement of his Swiss home to store the material.
Totheroh also personally brought Chaplin’s original hat, baggy pants, and cane from Los Angeles to Switzerland (Chaplin’s one-time home is now the Chaplin museum and much of the collection comes from Chaplin’s own material). Totheroh was paid off with a ‘generous bonus’ (according to John McCabe) and ended his decades-long relationship with Chaplin then. He would die in 1967. Having sold his studio and sold off his interests in United Artists, Chaplin had finally severed all ties, business and professional, with the United States.
Trivia: Several scenes and moments in A King in New York directly reflected events in Chaplin’s life. Arriving in the United States, King Shahdov is fingerprinted by officials of the immigration department, directly recalling what had happened to Chaplin during the Barry trial in front of photographers, a humiliation he never forgot. Scenes of the King attempting to outrun a subpoena from HUAC (in fact, a mere autograph hunter), recalls Chaplin’s own actions just before leaving America when he was desperately trying to avoid writ-servers, only to be confronted by an autograph hunter who had pursued him for days. As Chaplin never actually appeared before HUAC, Shahdov’s dousing of them thanks to a firehose is merely wishful thinking.
Charlie Says: ‘It was with trepidation and uncertainty that I ventured onto the stages at Shepperton Studios: I felt like an old horse in a different stable. Everybody was so English and slightly diffident … I felt I was the only vulgarian … The atmosphere was quite different to American studios—at least, to my own studio in Hollywood. There the environment was like a family; and there I was treated like a spoiled child. There I was reassured by everybody, the property man, the carpenters, the electricians, the cameraman … Naturally, I am nervous when starting a picture, and irritable…’—Chaplin’s Private Notes, 3 July 1957.
Chaplin does not even mention A King in New York in his My Autobiography; perhaps it was too recent for him to be concerned with. Towards the end of the book he says this: ‘My life is more thrilling today than it ever was. I am in good health and still creative and have plans to produce more pictures—perhaps not with myself, but to write and direct them for members of my family, some of whom have quite an aptitude for the theatre. I am still very ambitious; I could never retire. There are many things I want to do; besides having a few unfinished cinema scripts, I should like to write a play and an opera—if time will allow.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.
Verdict: A film of two halves (a satire on advertising and an attack on McCarthyism) A King in New York takes aim at a scattershot targets but misses many of them. Occasional laughs and a more mature Chaplin performance are the compensations in this late work.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: A Countess From Hong Kong (5 January 1967)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.