A King in New York (1957)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Satire, Comedy of Manners  |   Run Time - 105 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom , United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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A King in New York is a work of spellbinding genius, functioning on so many levels -- personal, political, and artistic, all interwoven so carefully and elegantly -- that it's a delight simply to appreciate what Chaplin is doing as one watches it, as well as the particulars of what he does. His final starring film, it manages to sum up all of the best elements in his work from the silent era on, and combines them in a work that is consistently comical, yet piercing in its satirical edge and savage in its commentary -- a sweetly sentimental yet fiercely angry film that was so open and honest in what it was saying that it wasn't allowed to be released in America until 1973, 16 years after it was made. The basic plot of A King in New York was rife with comic possibilities, which Chaplin exploits brilliantly in the first half -- his encounter with the rock & roll generation is funny, graceful, and quietly sophisticated; and the scene in which filmmaker Chaplin's king encounters CinemaScope for the first time as a filmgoer is a more savage comment on that elongated film format than anything ever uttered by the likes of filmmaker-critics such as George Stevens, as well as being excruciatingly comical. Lest anyone think that A King in New York is too much of a "message" film, however, amid his jaundiced, skeptical look at the advertising and television business, Chaplin also manages to work in a libidinous side to the movie, in his cavorting with Dawn Addams in a comical scene of seduction (and Chaplin the director makes sure that Addams is one of the most cheerfully sexy characters seen on the screen in all of the 1950s). And then, just when it seems as though A King in New York is shaping up as a multilevel comedy, Chaplin adds another twist, suddenly (yet not awkwardly) confronting the Red Scare of the 1950s and, all at once, revealing its tragic and absurd sides for all to see. Chaplin himself was more than a little familiar with the anti-Communist hysteria of the era, having been driven into exile from the United States over it, and this is his answer to those who drove him out of the country. He presents his case with an astonishing degree of grace given the passions that must have been driving him, making it seem easy -- sweetly sentimental (almost in the manner of his silent era work such as The Kid) and searingly angry in the very same shots and scenes. A King in New York is one of Chaplin's least-known talking films, owing to the 16-year delay in its opening in America, and that is a tragedy, because it is arguably not only his final masterpiece, but perhaps his greatest, most ambitious, and personal film, and the movie that best presents his art developed to its highest level of purpose and sophistication. Satirizing Hitler and the Nazis in The Great Dictator was brave but not difficult -- they were absurd figures on their face (lethal but absurd); satirizing Red-baiting American politicians was a tougher job, because they had an audience and did present some justification that swayed reasonable people, or else they wouldn't have gotten as far as they did without force of arms. Moreover, A King in New York is a film with a great deal of heart as well as sentiment -- the king's wistful farewell to the United States not only reflected Chaplin's own relationship with America, but resonates in a manner similar to the closing lines of Shakespeare's The Tempest, as the author's adieu.