Criterion Prediction #158: A King in New York, by Alexander Miller
Title: A King in New York
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Maxine Audley, Charles Chaplin, Jerry Desmonde, Michael Chaplin
Synopsis: When revolution erupts in his native country, King Shadov (Chaplin) escapes the hostile populace of his homeland to the modern landscape of New York City. When Shadov’s funds begin to run low, he starts appearing in television commercials to earn some extra money. Meanwhile, he’s engaged with a young, Marxism-spouting child of communist parents, which lands Shadov in hot water with the anti-red fervor of the times.
Critique: A King in New York is one among the many Chaplin films with an exciting life around it; like the movies he made in exile, the saccharine melancholy that embodied his silent classics is absent. The trepidatious aptitude for the growing dependence on machinery is couched; the streak of misanthropy that made Monsieur Verdoux so delectably wicked isn’t immediately visible either but the politics and worldly concerns that landed the prolific comedic auteur in hot water during the virulent red scare are turned up to eleven.
I’m sure Chaplin isn’t the first to make the fish-out-of-water, riches-to-rags story but he’s most likely to first to take the material and shape it into an anti-capitalist, fascist allegory that also waves a heavy-handed condemnation of commercialism and media influence. While all of Chaplin’s satirical gesturing here is a three-step process, at first it shows a punchy mind ready to offer a vigorous response to a society that outed him, then it feels like a cathartic release in response to a nation ensnared in the web McCarthyism, and as the film goes on Chaplin’s rhetoric grows preachy and tiresome. While most of the more self-righteous orating come from the director’s own son, Michael Chaplin who plays a substantial role as the son of a couple of parents, who are on the lam for being card-carrying communists, becomes a Marxist sounding board. Michael Chaplin is well spoken and offers some interesting, but broad insights, if his father was so concerned with making poignant socialist declarations, maybe he should have elevated his haughty dictions rather than carry on with armchair Marxist rhetoric. While this might be an error in execution, it seems like a near-fatal aesthetic sidestep; considering the tear-jerking passion that emanated from his revolutionary The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s energy and emotional vehemence is felt in A King in New York, even if it isn’t carried out with the confidence and vigor of the directors preceding efforts. A King in New York isn’t a flawed masterpiece; it’s just a masterpiece from a director with many under his belt.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the longest time, Chaplin’s presence on home video felt kind of sterile, in an academic, “you rent it at the library” sort of way. While the inclusion of a Charlie Chaplin movie in The Criterion Collection at this point feels like an inevitability, the case for A King in New York feels a bit more urgent seeing as it’s an overlooked, critically maligned title with political over/undertones that still apply today. This is one of those cases where a spine number would definitely give the movie a second life and provide cinephiles with a compelling title that would shine a light on an absorbing film and the history around it. The Image Entertainment DVD offers some solid bonus features, including the 1923 silent feature A Woman of Paris, as well as some deleted footage from A King in New York. Luckily in the past, Criterion has transplanted the supplements from the early Chaplin DVD’s, a standout example being the inclusion of the 2001 documentary The Tramp and the Dictator with their The Great Dictator DVD/Blu-ray.