King Shahdov (Charlie Chaplin) is a monarch forced into exile by his subjects when there was a huge disagreement over atomic power and atomic weapons, but he didn’t leave empty handed, having taken his fortune with him. And where has he gone? To the United States, New York City to be exact, so on disembarking the plane he makes a point of proclaiming it the greatest country in the world as The Land of the Free, though the reporters’ questions are impertinent to his ears when he is quizzed about the missing cash and riches. Getting out of the press conference as quickly as possible, he takes up residence in the swankiest hotel he can find as he tries to rebuild his reputation with only the Ambassador (Oliver Johnston) for company…
It’s safe to say A King in New York – not to be confused with the Abel Ferrara gangster flick of almost the same name – did not receive a warm welcome when it was released in the late nineteen-fifties, and put the capper on a pretty terrible time for its creator; this was all he needed, his reasonable attempt to put his side of the story rejected out of hand by all those who labelled the film tedious and the worst kind of special pleading. Chaplin was one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and while there were examples of his comedy here, indeed the whole thing looked like a succession of sketches that happened to feature the same King character, for the most part he was desperately trying to get back in the good books of the public.
The American public, that was, for his left-leaning politics didn’t bother those in his native United Kingdom as much as they did the United States in the throes of their anti-Communist witch hunts which saw countless careers ruined, and Chaplin’s was one of the most high profile. From being possibly the most famous man in the world thirty years before to being thrown out of his adopted land for his deeply held, humanist beliefs in the fifties, it was quite the comedown and despite his protests all his excuses fell on deaf ears. He could deny being a Communist till he was blue in the face, the fact remained the authorities and the public thought that was what he was and they were not about to change their minds.
Except of course they did change their minds, come the sixties when the damage was repaired to an extent, though probably not enough to rescue the creative lives of many talents. Back in 1957, Chaplin was forced to make his film in London having been barred from the States, and all these autobiographical details were included in the supposedly fictional world of King Shahdov, but that wasn’t all. Along the way Chaplin had pops at advertising, modern movies and the news media, but more pertinently he had his grand finale at a court hearing when his character was accused of being a Red, all very well if you were anticipating getting the actual Chaplin point of view when faced with tough questions, but that’s not the way it played out as what you got was self-aggrandising (it’s not called A Tramp in New York) yet weirdly evasive.
For the climax, Chaplin preferred to fall back on what he knew best, comedy, yet it was an unmistakable cop-out considering the gravity of the situation both he and his protagonist faced. Before then, he had an actual Communist spouting ideology, but he was a little boy (the director’s miserable-looking son Michael) whose parents were in the same trouble the King was, and he didn’t identify with that label either. While the critics of the time had a field day with the supposed fumbling of the humour that Chaplin had become so hugely famous for, some of it was actually pretty funny: the movie trailers were suitably ridiculous (and included a Christine Jorgenson joke), and there was enough variety in the skits to keep things interesting (though his concept of cosmetic surgery was very strange). On the other hand, that needy quality was somewhat difficult to take, and prevented the work from being a proper movie when it was more of a tract; fine, the man who had presented one of the most sincere anti-fascist efforts the screen ever saw did not deserve to be treated like this, but it was all too clear Chaplin was at a serious disadvantage. You did see him act with Sid James, however.
[The Curzon Blu-ray has a featurette, deleted scenes, an introduction, trailers and more as extras.]