Released 12 September 1957, A King in New York was Chaplin’s final starring role, his swan song proper. The film wasn’t released in the U.S. till 8 March 1972, the same year he received an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”
While the film satirizes too many targets, instead of focusing on one or two things, it’s nonetheless a brilliant comedy. I think it might be my second-favorite of his talkies, after Monsieur Verdoux.
The film opens as a mob storms the palace of King Igor Shahdov of Estrovia (Chaplin), calling for his head. Their attempt at vigilante justice is denied, as he’s already escaped by air and taken everything with him.
After Shahdov lands in New York, he gives a press conference where he reveals he was overthrown because he wanted atomic energy for domestic use instead of bombs. He dreams of creating an atomic utopia.
On his first night out on the town, Shahdov is thrust headfirst into 1950s pop culture and current events. In a scene harkening back to his silent days, he has to mime what he and Ambassador Jaume want for dinner over the impossible noise of the house band behind them.
In the morning, Shahdov discovers Prime Minister Voudel has taken off to South America with all his funds and securities. Jaume wants to expose him as a thief and liar, but Shahdov realizes they have no legal claim without records. All the books and records were left behind in Estrovia when they fled.
Jaume reminds him he still has his atomic plans, but Shahdov says it’ll be difficult to finance blueprints. Shahdov doesn’t want word of this to get around, since he’d rather be thought of as a successful crook than destitute monarch.
Shahdov’s estranged wife Irene then comes for a visit. Though they’re divorcing, they have a very cordial relationship. Irene doesn’t even want alimony.
Shahdov eavesdrops on a woman next door (Dawn Addams), Ann Kay, singing in the bathtub, and comes to her rescue when she shouts for help. While he’s massaging Ann’s hurt ankle, he discovers she’s attending a dinner party he begged off. His smittenness makes him change his mind.
Unbeknownst to Shahdov, this dinner party is being televised live. Between Ann’s deodorant and toothpaste commercials, Shahdov is talked into reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.
The public is quite impressed with Shahdov’s performance, and he’s asked to do TV commercials. Angry and feeling tricked, he turns down all the offers, and even rips up a check.
Shahdov digs through the garbage for the check after realizing what dire straits he’s in. He also accepts an invitation to speak at a progressive school (think Montessori or Waldorf).
By the school, Shahdov meets 10-year-old Rupert Macabee (Chaplin’s son Michael), editor of the school paper. He’s very advanced for his age, and gives Shahdov quite the lecture.
The visit to the school ends in humiliation for Shahdov.
Since he’s so deep in the hole, Shahdov accepts $50,000 to act in a whiskey commercial. The ad is a smash hit, and leads to many more ads with large payouts.
Ann convinces Shahdov to have a facelift to increase his appeal and salary, but no one is happy with the results. To try to cheer him up, Ann takes him to see a slapstick comedy show. This scene too harkens back to Chaplin’s silent roots.
Shahdov’s new face comes undone when he’s laughing, and he has to have his old face restored.
Shahdov runs into Rupert without a coat in the snow, and invites him to his hotel room. Rupert admits he ran away from school because his parents were arrested for being Communists.
Shahdov’s friendship with Rupert lands him in lots of trouble. There are chilling parallels to the real-life activities of the HUAC.
I highly recommend this if you’re interested in Chaplin’s later years. Whatever you might think of his politics or personal life, there’s no denying he was a genius.