A King in New York (1957): Chaplin Directs Himself (and Son Michael) in his Last Lead Role, Made in Exile

Charlie Chaplin played his last leading role in A King in New York, a British made movie that presents a satirical view of the McCarthy communist-hunt era and other aspects of American politics and society.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

A King in New York
A King in New York (poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film, produced in Europe after Chaplin’s exile in 1952, did not open in the U.S. until 1972.

“One of the minor annoyances in modern life is a revolution.” Deposed by revolution in his home country of Estrovia, King Igor Shahdov (Charlie Chaplin) comes to New York broke, his securities stolen by his own Prime Minister. He tries to contact the Atomic Energy Commission with ideas for using atomic power to create a utopia.

At a dinner party, some of which is televised live (unbeknown to him), Shahdov reveals he has had experience in the theatre. He’s approached to do TV commercials but does not like the idea. Later, he does make a few commercials in order to make money.

Invited to speak at a progressive school, Shahdov meets Rupert Macabee (Michael Chaplin), a ten-year-old historian and editor of the school paper who doesn’t want to disclose his political affinity due to fear of McCarthyism.

Although Rupert says he distrusts all forms of government, his parents are Communists jailed for not giving up names at a McCarthy-type hearing.

Shahdov, suspected of being a Communist, has to face one a hearing. He is cleared of all charges, but not before he accidentally directs strong stream of water from a fire hose at the members of the “House Committee on Un-American Activities” (HUAC), who scatter in panic. He decides to join his estranged queen in Paris for reconciliation.

The authorities force the child to reveal the names of his parents’ friends in exchange for their freedom. Grieving and guilt-ridden, Rupert is presented to King Shahdov as a “patriot.” Shahdov reassures him that the anti-Communist scare will be over soon and invites him to come to Europe with his parents.

In addition to its condemnation of HUAC’s methods, the film takes potshots at commercialism, popular music, and celebrity culture.

A dinner party scene includes satirical portrayals of actors and public figures of the period, such as Sophie Tucker.

Though A King in New York targets the socio-political climate of the 1950s, its satiric commentary aimed at going beyond that particular time.

The film did well in Europe, but its lack of U.S. distribution for many years hampered its commercial impact. A King of New York was eventually released in the US in March 1972, opening at the Little Art theatre in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was shown at UCLA in November 1973 and then opened at the Playboy theatre in NY on December 19, 1973.

Critical Status, Then and Now

The film divided critics. Variety called it “tepid disappointment” and “half-hearted comedy with sour political undertones” with some “spasmodically funny scenes”

The film topped Cahiers du Cinéma’s list of 1957’s Ten Best Films.

Cast
Charlie Chaplin as King Shahdov
Maxine Audley as Queen Irene
Jerry Desmonde as Prime Minister Voudel
Oliver Johnston as Ambassador Jaume
Dawn Addams as Ann Kay – TV Specialist
Sid James as Johnson – TV Advertiser (billed as Sidney James)
Joan Ingram as Mona Cromwell – Hostess
Michael Chaplin as Rupert Macabee
John McLaren as Macabee Senior
Phil Brown as Headmaster
Harry Green as Lawyer
Robert Arden as Liftboy
Alan Gifford as School Superintendent
Robert Cawdron as U.S. Marshal
George Woodbridge, Clifford Buckton, and Vincent Lawson as Members of Atomic Commission
Shani Wallis as Cabaret Singer
Joy Nichols
Lauri Lupino Lane
George Truzzi

Credits:

Produced, written, directed by Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by John Seabourne
Music by Chaplin

Production: Attica Film Company

Distributed by Archway Film Distributors (UK); Classic Entertainment (US)

Release dates: September 12, 1957 (UK); March 8, 1972 (US)

Running time: 120 minutes (UK première); 110 minutes (1957 general release); 105 minutes (1972 US première)

 Note:

I was able to refresh my notes when TCM presented the rarely seen movie on October 20, 2022.