Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie — A King in New York: An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin

A King Without a Crown

“Oh for the halcyon days of Pearl Harbor!” Charlie Chaplin exclaimed in 1951, writing to Clifford Odets. Not many Americans shared Charlie’s sentiments, but to a leftist it made sense. For a few brief years it seemed that America and the Soviet Union had joined hands to destroy “fascism.” One could be both a patriot and a comrade! But now all of that had fallen apart. The Soviets were universally feared and detested. There was an actual shooting war in Korea, a war that most Americans did not want to fight, and millions were happy to listen to Joe McCarthy’s big lie that, if we got rid of the commies at home, we wouldn’t have to fight them abroad. It’s simple, really. Just get rid of all the traitors!

Chaplin felt increasingly uncomfortable in the U.S. and in Hollywood, where anti-communism was now very much in fashion. In the eyes of many, Chaplin was no longer the beloved Little Tramp; rather, he was a hoary old reprobate who chased after teenage girls and sneered at the country that made him rich and famous. Even more to the point, he hadn’t had a hit in ten years. As the release date for Limelight approached in 1952, Charlie made plans to visit London for the premiere, and he also made financial plans — putting some of his holdings in his wife Oona’s name, for example — suggesting that he didn’t plan on coming back.

Once he actually made the trip, the Truman Administration took the option of returning away from Charlie, announcing that he would not be allowed to do so. There are all sorts of “inside” stories about why this happened — Harry was mad at Charlie for making fun of daughter Margaret’s lack of singing ability, for example — but in fact it was an easy way for the administration to score political points while taking advantage of the fact that Chaplin wasn’t interested in returning in the first place.1

Even more than now, Switzerland was the place for the misunderstood rich, the whole country a virtual spa for those in search of low taxes, mountain scenery, good food, and well-trained servants. Chaplin settled in, spending as much of his time as possible in London, where of course he was widely feted, but leaving periodically to avoid being declared a British resident against his will.

Despite the slowness of his working methods, Chaplin was never happy unless he had a project — usually several. One of them — the story of a king driven from his country seeking refuge in New York — made it to fruition. A King in New York, released in 1957, is a lazy, awkward film, made by a frustrated old man, but by all accounts Chaplin had a lot of fun making it. At least he was working again, which was the important thing.

To the uninitiated eye, A King in New York will appear as an odd, scarcely comprehensible B-movie, devoid of motive or competence — a comedy, probably, but so poorly made that it’s difficult to be sure. To someone with a good knowledge of Chaplin and of the circumstances under which the film was made, A King In New York is, in essence, a home movie in which Chaplin fitfully works out various grudges and piques, making fun of the America he left behind, and it seems, does not remember very well, an America seen through the wrong end of a telescope, everything narrow and compressed, with all the context left out. Although often denounced as “bitter” and “anti-American” when first released, if the film were more bitter and more anti-American, it might be more entertaining.

In some of my earlier reviews of Chaplin’s films, I’ve spoken disdainfully of A King in New York as the worst of Chaplin’s films. It’s certainly the clumsiest technically, but otherwise — well, sometimes I talk too much. There’s no point in seeing A King in New York unless you care about Chaplin, but if you do care, well, you won’t hate it. At least, you won’t hate all of it, if only because Charlie, despite his age, despite his wounded vanity, despite his desire to shock, still retained traces of his old playfulness, to the extent that, occasionally, he satirizes not Uncle Sam but himself.

The film begins with a shot of a small crowd besieging a palace gate, with text informing us that “One of the minor annoyances of modern life is a revolution” — scarcely the sentiments of a comrade. The swinish multitude rushes into the palace only to discover that, not only has the king fled, he’s emptied the royal treasury as well! Rather like the way Chaplin fled America while protecting his assets from seizure by the IRS!2

Asking us to sympathize with a king who robs “his” people so he can live, well, like a king, in New York — it’s not exactly the sort of commie propaganda I was expecting from Charlie the Red! Charlie, aka “King Shahdov,” makes the journey from his vaguely described homeland via some painfully stock footage, leaving “Estrovia” in a BOAC Vickers Viscount and arriving in a Pan American Boeing Stratocruiser.3 Once he arrives he’s confronted by a gang of boorish, nosy reporters. But, as it turns out, the King isn’t adverse to a little press, and he struts eagerly for the photographers, the clacking of the cameras simply music to his ears. One more? Of course!

As the cameras flash, Shahdov is joined first by his ambassador to the U.S., “Jaume” (Oliver Johnston), who will be his faithful confidante throughout the film, along with his sleazy prime minister, “Voudel” (Jerry Desmonde),who, we will soon learn, has stolen all the money Shahdov stole from his people.

In the meantime, the King is ready to enjoy exile, particularly since he’ll be staying at the Ritz. His homeland, wherever it was, appears to have been pretty much Hicksville, and the King is ready for a change: “If you knew what it means to breathe this free air,” he exclaims. “This wonderful, wonderful America. Its youth, its genius, its vitality! The glamour of it all! New York!” This is not the voice of a man who hates America but rather one who wishes to be loved by it, who wishes to be loved as Chaplin was loved more than forty years before.4

After this peroration, we cut to glimpses of the Great White Way via more stock footage, a good seven years old this time around, as evidenced by a shot of a theater marquee advertising Three Little Words, the Fred Astaire, Red Skelton, Vera-Ellen vehicle released in 1950. Once again, Charlie’s penny-pinching destroys any sense of continuity.

Things get worse when Shahdov and Jaume actually hit the street. They decide to see a movie, and another side of Chaplin appears — not Comrade Charlie or Aristocratic Charlie but Get Off My Lawn Charlie, because the film is preceded by that most ghastly of American imports, Rock & Roll. Charlie’s notion of R&R is pretty funny — among other things, he didn’t know that it’s played on the guitar — so we get a small swing band playing “wild” music that sends a crowd of bobby-soxers into paroxysms of joy.

Once the rockers are done, the picture gets even funnier, as the previews start, and we get Chaplin’s idea of “modern Hollywood” — hilariously lame parodies of the Mickey Spillane/Robert Aldrich/Mike Hammer classic Kiss Me Deadly, Cinemascope westerns, and, yes, Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. It’s enough to drive anyone out of the theater, and Shahdov and Jaume split without waiting for the feature.

The next morning, the guys get the news we’ve sort of been expecting: Voudel has decamped with all the funds, leaving Shahdov penniless. Well, he still has his plans for the peaceful use of atomic energy that will create a utopia for all mankind. If the Atomic Commission will just give its thumb’s up, he’ll be rolling in dough, right along with the rest of the world.5

With long-term prospects looking up, Shahdov gets an unexpected visit from his queen, “Queen Irene” (Maxine Audley), displaying the fashionable European woman of the world look that is now clearly Chaplin’s preferred taste. Shahdov greets her with elegant, though distant formality. “Ours was an arranged marriage. You were very young, and very much in love. Unfortunately, not with me.”

This sort of condescending, self-congratulatory banter goes on for quite a while, Shahdov showing himself to be the perfect host as they discuss plans for their divorce. A king without a throne has no need of a “royal” marriage and therefore he wants her to be “free.” Naturally, he conceals the state of his finances, while she impresses him by refusing his offer of alimony. No alimony! The perfect woman! If only they were all so easy to get rid of! Touched, Shadov accompanies her to the airport to see her off, bringing her chocolates with nougat and “those banal movie magazines you’re so fond of.”6

Returning home, Shahdov and Jaume hear a strange noise emanating from the bathroom. It sounds like a woman singing! Unusually, and conveniently, this hotel bathroom has a door connecting it to the bathroom in the adjoining suite, and so we have the not very pleasing sight of a couple of old men fighting for the right to spy on a young woman (Dawn Addams as “Ann Kay”) taking a bath. Ann, looking quite a bit like Queen Irene, proves to a bit of a coy miss. Once she knows she has the boys’ attention, she makes a splashing sound and starts calling for “help.” Shahdov gallantly rushes in, putting a towel over his head for modesty’s sake. Ann, who’s gotten a towel around herself by this time, tells him she fell and hurt her foot. Shahdov, still gallant, offers to massage her foot, and she agrees, the absurdity of the scene not diminished by the fact that the foot Charlie is massaging is clearly not attached to Dawn Addams or, it is likely, any other woman.

The purpose of all this is to get Shahdov to agree to attend a dinner party of wealthy American philistines, a dinner party that is, in fact, a TV show, though naturally this will be concealed from Shahdov.7 Shahdov exits Ann’s bathroom dancing as Charlie did in The Gold Rush thirty years before when “Georgia” accepted his invitation for a New Year’s Eve party. The only difference is that thirty years ago it was both touching and funny, while now it just seems ridiculous.

At the party Shahdov is baffled by Ann’s dinner conversation, which consists largely of commercials — another ghastly American invention8 — for deodorant and mouthwash. When she’s done, Ann asks the King to give them one of his famous recitations — Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, for example. So, if you were wondering if all comics want to play Hamlet, the answer is “yes.”9

Unsurprisingly, Chaplin doesn’t have the nerve to give a “straight” rendition, letting the crowd urge him on to give the “bombastic” version instead. What we get is half-way between a meaningful performance and an outright parody — Chaplin both wanting to be taken seriously yet unwilling to admit it. He breaks things off after “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” to great applause. When he’s finished he flirts unattractively with Ann, dispensing lame double entendres with immense self-satisfaction

He returns to his hotel suite only to learn from Jaume how Ann has exploited him. Too angry to sleep, Shahdov insists on going to a nightclub, where they encounter more rock n’ roll, in the form of a young woman in a short skirt throwing herself around and singing about how hot she is. Apparently, Chaplin felt the need to “sex up” the picture, though God knows why. Once the little rocker shuts up, Shahdov is surrounded by autograph hounds wowed by his Hamlet. All of a sudden, he’s a star!

The next day, Ann comes around to tell Shahdov that his performance “electrified” the country — a preposterous statement that demonstrates how deeply Chaplin longed for the huge public he had enjoyed twenty years before. She brings with her a check for $20,000, which Shahdov scornfully discards, but later hastily reassembles10 when Jaume informs him of the state of their finances.

Later, Shahdov tours a progressive boys’ school, where Chaplin makes the same kind of bad jokes about progressive schools that bad standups were making in the U.S. Kids “express” themselves with pea-shooters and naughty drawings. One student, however, is special: Rupert Macabee11 ( Charlie’s young son Michael Chaplin12), earnestly reading an enormous volume of Marx. “Are you a communist?” demands Shahdov. “One can read Marx without being a communist,” Rupert replies, in a harsh, mechanical voice and begins a non-stop “progressive” tirade about the special Hell that is life in these United States. “The government denies us passports. How can we travel without a passport?13

A flustered Shahdov tries to argue with the kid. “There is no free speech!” Rupert bellows. “No, you’ve got it all,” Shahdov replies. Rupert, caught up in a world of his own, pays no attention to the King’s comebacks. A distraught headmaster ushers the King away.

Back at the Ritz, Ann convinces Shahdov that if he wants to keep living at the Ritz (and he does), he needs to exploit his fame by doing commercials. First of all, of course, he needs some head shots for the newspapers. A woman of many talents, she offers to photograph him herself, and Shahdov agrees.

We cut to the studio, where we see Ann bending over her camera in some very tight slacks. “You’re nothing but a delusion and a snare,” Shahdov tells her fiercely. Sure, fascism is bad, but the real enemy is Woman!14 Then he leaps on her and they roll improbably on the floor, Dawn Addams definitely earning her paycheck in this one.

Shahdov’s first commercial is a TV spot for Royal Crown Whiskey, the whiskey fit for a king. The commercial is shot live, so that, of course, Shahdov will gag on the air in front of a national audience when he takes a shot of the stuff. Luckily for him, the public loves him and (somehow) the sponsor does too! His face is on billboards all over the country! When you’re hot, you’re hot!

Shahdov’s next ad is for “hormones.” What we need for this, Ann says, is a “before” and “after” shot, Chaplin bravely allowing Ann to make fun of his “wattles.” The hormones themselves, of course, don’t do the job. What is needed is yet another modern American horror, plastic surgery. In an extended, unfunny bit, Shahdov gets plastic surgery, which to my aged eyes doesn’t seem to alter his appearance very much, though everyone else recoils in terror at the sight of him. Trying to calm him down, Ann takes him to a nightclub, where, happily, a couple of comedians make him laugh so hard his face returns to normal. Truly, laughter is the universal language and the best medicine!

The act that cracks Shahdov and the rest of the audience up is a remarkably explicit tribute to Laurel and Hardy. The “Hardy” character is obviously Hardy, a fat man in bib overalls and a derby, while the “Laurel” character is disguised, a tall, young “leading man” type in a tuxedo. But their act, a tit-for-tat retribution involving lots and lots of wallpaper paste, is classic Stan and Ollie. Though Laurel had been Charlie’s understudy with Fred Karno back in the early, early days, they were not been close at all (when Chaplin’s autobiography came out in 1972, he was widely criticized for making no mention of Stan). But Charlie had obviously been watching, and, for whatever reason, felt like making this gesture.

Charlie’s hot, but Rupert is freezing. His parents, public school teachers, have been fired from their jobs for being communists, so he’s left his school and he now wanders the streets, passing in front of the Ritz just in time to encounter Shahdov. The king has less than fond memories of Rupert, but when he sees the kid is cold and wet and shivering he takes him in. After sending him off to take a hot bath,15 Shahdov tells Jaume that their new guest is “rude and obnoxious, but a genius” — an odd way to characterize the outpouring of cliches and half and quarter truths that come from Rupert’s mouth whenever he speaks.

Later, in conversation, Rupert tells Shahdov that he and his parents are or at least were communists — a bit of bravery on Chaplin’s part, because in virtually all the films and TV shows attacking McCarthyism, the victims “just went to a few meetings.” However, that’s as brave as Chaplin gets. Rupert never explains why the revolution is “necessary,” nor what’s going to happen to people like Shahdov when it comes. And if you were expecting an explanation of why Stalin “had” to murder millions of innocent people and lie about it, well, you won’t get it.

While Rupert’s clothes are still drying, Shahdov gets word that a delegation from the Atomic Commission is at last on their way to listen to his plans for a utopia based on free energy from the atom. Elated, he and Jaume rush off to obtain the plans, locked up in a safe deposit box for safe-keeping, and to buy some new clothes for Rupert.

The “Atomic Commission,” aka the Atomic Energy Commission, was notorious on the left for its 1954 humiliation of left-leaning Robert Oppenheimer,16 the father of the atomic bomb, denying him security clearance in a bitter political grudge fight that helped make Oppenheimer a martyr in the eyes of many, though not all.17 Naturally, the commission delegation shows up while Rupert is in the suite alone, and naturally he gives them an earful of his “no free speech” rant, conflating the right to advocate Marxist ideas and the “right” of members of the Communist Party to be employed in government jobs, which are two different things.18

The commission itself is in no mood to split hairs. This kid talks too much! He must be dangerous! Shahdov and Jaume return to discover that their plans for a worldwide utopia have been rendered moot.

Even worse. Rupert’s parents have been hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee after being identified as communists by an ex-com. They confess to having been communists but say they have left the party They refuse to identify other party members19 and are cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to two years in prison. Shahdov’s involvement with Rupert strongly suggests that he is suspect as well and may soon be the target of a congressional subpoena. In some broad, not very funny slapstick, Shahdov and Jaume worry about bugs and tails and Shahdov rushes wildly away from a suspicious character who, as it turns out, only wants his autograph.20

Eventually, Shahdov does get his subpoena and, after more labored slapstick, first gets his finger stuck in a firehose and then ends up spraying the committee with water, reprising his act in both The Property Man and A Night in the Show to little effect. Unfortunately, the ills of McCarthyism couldn’t be washed away with a fire hose.21 As we in 21st century America have been reminded, to our shame and sorrow, once the fires of paranoia have been lit in the U.S., they burn for a long time.

But in Chaplin’s improbable world, a little cold water does the trick. In the aftermath, Ann tells him “You’re the most popular man in America,” words that Chaplin clearly wanted to hear, just as he wanted young women to fall in love with him. Ann begs him to stay, but he feels that, for the time being, the air is freer in Europe. When America’s madness passes, he will be happy to return, but not before.

Ann graciously assures him that he doesn’t have to feel any guilt on account of her: “You know we never meant that much to one another.” She’s as shallow as he is! How sweet! And, anyway, the Queen says she doesn’t want a divorce after all. So he’s still got a babe in Europe! Even better!

But some things aren’t so sweet. Rupert’s parents are still facing two years in jail. To get them out, he agrees to “name names,” to identify friends of theirs whom he believes were communists — a bit of a dubious task since he was presumably about five when his parents left the party, but the feds are willing to accept it. Shahdov pays the poor boy a visit to comfort him in his hour of grief and shame and then flees to a continent where the humiliation of children is not a standard government practice.22

Chaplin’s slow working methods cost him dearly in the timing of the release of A King in New York. If the film had been released in 1953, it might have had some bite. In 1957, McCarthy was dead, and the frenzy of his anti-communism had died with him.23 Soviet Premier Khrushchev had given his “Secret Speech,” that was no longer secret, revealing some of the immense crimes of Josef Stalin, and the Soviets’ bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 had taken a great deal of the bloom off the Soviet lily. Chaplin’s vague, self-congratulatory, self-indulgent leftism was painfully out of date.24 It was a sad, awkward way for Chaplin’s career to end, a long way indeed from those heady days in 1915, when the world was young, when everyone had to go to the movies, to see that funny, funny little man, that funny, funny little man, who did the most wonderful things.

  1. Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton and others believe that Chaplin could successfully have fought the order barring his return to the U.S. Chaplin was endlessly litigious, but this was one fight he avoided. In any event, the negative reaction that Limelight received in the U.S. — demonstrations against the film caused cancellations in many cities, including Los Angeles, where it never played until 1972 — surely suggested to Chaplin that he’d run out his welcome in the U.S. He did, however, get a rave review from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: “Neither comedy nor tragedy altogether, it is a brilliant weaving of comic and tragic strands, eloquent, tearful and beguiling with supreme virtuosity.” []
  2. Chaplin was, of course, involved in extensive litigation with the IRS at the time of his departure from the U.S. He finally settled up in 1959, paying $425,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest. []
  3. Neither the airlines nor the planes are still in existence. Since Shahdov is (presumably) traveling from somewhere in eastern Europe, a non-stop flight would in fact be unlikely. The film looks sloppy not because the planes don’t match but because the film stock doesn’t. []
  4. Chaplin tells us in his autobiography that he left England in large part in disgust with its oppressive class system, desiring indeed to breathe America’s “free air.” This line suggests that, even though he had adopted the neo-aristocratic lifestyle of a Swiss grandee, he still remembered the difference between the Old World and the New. []
  5. By 1957, early dreams of unlimited free energy from the atom had pretty much dissipated. Chaplin is really imagining the world as it was when he left the U.S. back in 1952. []
  6. Dunno if this is a dig at one of the four Mrs. Chaplins or even Edna Purviance. If not, it’s remarkably specific. []
  7. In the early Fifties there was a live TV show supposedly broadcast from New York’s once-famous Stork Club, allowing you to watch celebrities have dinner. I don’t know if there ever was a TV show that was a private dinner party. []
  8. Since European television was entirely state-run in the Fifties, Europeans never saw TV commercials. However, American commercials did turn up in movie theaters. []
  9. I remember that Johnnie Carson used to ridicule public television back in the day for putting on Shakespeare. “Whenever they do, it bombs.” A couple of years before he retired, he showed up in Elsinore drag and recited, yes, “to be or not to be.” []
  10. Shahdov asks for “sticking plaster,” which is English English for adhesive tape or a Band-Aid. I guess Charlie didn’t have to reassemble many checks. []
  11. The reference, of course, is to Judah Maccabee, the legendary Jewish hero who led the revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Chaplin pretends to recognize “Macabee” as a Scottish name. The use of a heroic Jewish name is probably intended as a salute to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as Soviet spies in 1953. The Rosenbergs, though certainly guilty of espionage, were in fact executed as scapegoats by an hysterical America seeking “revenge” for all the bad things that happened in the late Forties and early Fifties — the Soviet takeover in Eastern Europe, the Soviets’ acquisition of the atomic bomb, the victory of the communists in China, and the Korean War. Ethel Rosenberg was chiefly arrested as a means of putting pressure on Julius. J. Edgar Hoover recommended that President Eisenhower reduce her sentence, but Ike refused. The execution of the Rosenbergs horrified Europeans as a symbol of American barbarism. []
  12. Michael is, not too surprisingly, the author of I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn (1966), a book that Charlie probably did not want him to write. Two of his daughters, Carmen and Dolores, are actresses of some success, and look like they spend a lot of time hanging out on the Riviera. Two more of Chaplin’s granddaughters, Oona Chaplin and Kiera Chaplin, are actresses as well. One grandson, James Thiérrée, operates a theater company in Paris. []
  13. In the early Fifties the government would not issue passports to “dangerous” people like W.E.B. DuBois and Linus Pauling. []
  14. Like any number of short skirt-chasers (e.g., Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, and Norman Mailer), and probably some tall ones too, Chaplin was intensely suspicious of women, resenting the fact that he could not control the desire they aroused in him. The man must be master! Old age only exacerbates the problem. “You want to but you can’t,” groaned Pablo, looking at cheap porn while in his eighties. []
  15. Charlie joins Rupert while he is still in the tub and sits on its edge, all but staring at the boy’s crotch, a rather disturbing image. Charlie’s mother suffered an emotional collapse when he was seven, and he and his brother were taken to an orphanage. The school would not allow him to bathe himself. Instead, he had to submit to being bathed by older girls, surely an immense humiliation. Possibly, he is recalling this experience in some manner. Or maybe not. In any event, his taking Rupert in is reminiscent of both his own experiences and his “reconstruction” of them in The Kid. []
  16. During World War II, both Oppenheimer’s brother and wife were members of the communist party. At the time, he gave false testimony under oath, in part to protect them and, it appears, in part to make trouble for other people. But in 1954 his security clearance was set to expire. The commission’s decision to deny him clearance was a deliberate act of intimidation by right-wingers in the Eisenhower Administration, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss in particular, who had a personal grudge against Oppenheimer. []
  17. Oppenheimer was, it appears, brilliant and arrogant in equal measure. When Italian physicist Enrico Fermi heard the news about the denial of his clearance, he said “Too bad. Now we will have to feel sorry for him.” []
  18. The McCarthyites, of course, treated everyone who discussed Marxist ideas, or who had been a member of the Roosevelt or Truman administrations, as a Soviet spy. []
  19. “Naming names” before a congressional committee was used as a ritual to humiliate communists and former communists and had the added benefit of turning non-compliance into a criminal act. Witnesses could refuse to testify by pleading the Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to testify against one’s self, but this of course branded them as communists, which was likely to lead to job loss and social ostracism both for themselves and for family members. []
  20. In real life, of course, Chaplin surely hated autograph hounds, but when they stopped coming around, he missed them. []
  21. There is no “McCarthy” character in the film. The House Un-American Activities Committee members are loud, anonymous bullies. Chaplin makes no effort to satirize or even characterize them in any way. []
  22. Joyce Milton, in her excellent biography of Chaplin, Tramp, protests that “while the FBI may have visited the schools of children of suspected communists, it didn’t grill twelve-year-olds for hours on end.” One can observe that “may have visited” should be “did visit,” and I doubt if Milton can offer proof of the second half of her statement. I would also point out that the FBI did advocate the arrest of the mother of two small children, Ethel Rosenberg, simply to put pressure on her husband to testify, as Milton and her co-author Ronald Radosh discuss in detail in their classic work, The Rosenberg File. Milton and Radosh convincingly argue that the evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was extremely thin, and that she was prosecuted, convicted, and ultimately executed because she and her husband called the government’s bluff by refusing to testify. []
  23. Intense anti-communism was still a fact of American life, but the endless charges of “treason” and espionage had largely disappeared. []
  24. Once when Chaplin was asked why he never visited the Soviet Union, he said “fear of disillusion.” Chaplin’s films were never shown in the USSR because he refused to give them a “comrade’s discount.” []