September 12 is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy A King in New York (1957). I was rather kind to this uneven film in Chain of Fools, not having seen it in a while. But I watched it again a couple of weeks ago and now I think I would be rather less so. I used to think of it as “Almost as good as Verdoux“. Now I would characterize it as “Almost as bad as A Countess from Hong Kong“.
What’s good about it are the elements of satire and autobiography. In the conformist 1950s there are very few good, strong, unsweetened depictions of the ugly elements of American culture to be found on the screen (except of course for the unknowing examples of it). Kicked out of America five years earlier for entirely political reasons, Chaplin was good and steamed and this film was an outlet for his bile. And if he could have stuck closer to the point as he had in Verdoux, this film would be better for it. The premise is clear enough: he plays an exiled European king who gets railroaded by HUAC for being a suspected communist. In case we are apt to lose the point, his character says it outright “Imagine a KING being a communist. It’s absurd!” The point was obvious to him, but not to plenty of Americans. Chaplin (a European immigrant, an exile as it were) was one of the richest men in the world and he had got that way through American capitalism, and he was cognizant of that fact. But, much like the king in his film, he was willing to listen to all points of view, and wasn’t going to be pushed or bullied into not doing so by a bunch of oafish politicians. And he was rich and powerful enough to stand his ground, unlike most. His mouthpiece on this point is played by his own son Michael Chaplin, as an unruly, heresy-spouting boy, who says something like “I don’t believe in anything, but because you say I shouldn’t be a communist, then I’m a communist.” Plain enough.
I find Chaplin’s ridiculing of American culture (or lack of it) in his parodies of Hollywood movies, pop music and the advertising industry all highly entertaining. This stuff occurs mostly in the first act. But then the film gets all bogged down for purely formal reasons. The characters spend all their time trapped in a hotel room talking, talking, talking, and the plot gets away from us until we forget what it is, and, much as in A Countess from Hong Kong we begin to feel like we are just wallowing in one stagnant pool, begging for some stiff breeze to get us out of the doldrums.
The worst is a huge digression having to do with plastic surgery. Chaplin always thinks symbolically; that’s the way his mind works, so I know WHY this lengthy detour is in there. Hired for a series of television commercials, the king is advised to get a face-lift and he does so. Unfortunately, his face is pulled so tight that he cannot smile or laugh, or if he does so “his face will fall”. (I don’t think that’s how it works in real life, but it’s good enough for comedy). Naturally, he is taken to a nightclub where a comedy act is presented and he eventually has to laugh, ruining his face. The bit sounds great, classic BIG Chaplin — in theory. But somehow it’s not, it’s merely grim and grotesque and weird and disturbing. It’s conceived as a visual moment, and that’s to the good, because it’s one of the few times he remembers to do that in this film, but he doesn’t manage to make the visuals funny. (Ya want funny plastic surgery visuals? See Charley Chase’s Mighty Like a Moose). Worse, and equally thought-provoking, is the comedy routine the characters are watching that provides all that laughter. They are watching a floor show featuring PHYSICAL CLOWNS FOOLING AROUND WITH A LADDER. This too ought to be better, given that this is how Chaplin made his fortune! Not only that, it’s how this entire movie ought to be made! (As I pointed out in Chain of Fools when talking about the mime segment in Red Skelton’s Bathing Beauty, it is an example of a two minute scene that ought to be the whole point of the movie, but instead it’s being presented as a sideshow, as though it were beside the point). And worse still, the comedians in that segment aren’t funny at all (even though they are the gifted clowns George Truzzi and Lauri Lupino Lane of the Lupino family, so they damn well ought to be funny), so it is just weird and off-putting when the audience is convulsed in hysterics. What the hell is anyone laughing at? (Even stranger — where in hell was an act like this being performed in any New York nightclub in 1957? Earth calling Charlie!)
Another interesting segment, because it was done silently (or MOS as it is called in the sound universe) is the bit where the king and his aid (Oliver Johnston) spy through a keyhole on a beautiful naked woman (Dawn Addams) taking a bath. This too doesn’t come off. First because Chaplin, it should go without saying, is a dirty old man, and he’s never been sexually creepier than he is in this film. But secondly the mime that he and Johnston engage in is completely inorganic, and it doesn’t suit the film except to remind us of the better days that preceded this.
In short it is a film of really interesting ideas that don’t really hang together. As I watched this movie I kept asking myself “Who is this movie for? Who would go see this? Like, what’s the market for this?” Only the die-hardest of die-hard Chaplin fans, I’m afraid. I’m one, and because of that I’m certain to see this flawed film many more times.
To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc