Original release: September 12, 1957
Running time: 110 mins
Writer and director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Johnston, Dawn Addams, Mona Cromwell, Michael Chaplin
The craze of celebrity in the modern world is, at times, somewhat overwhelming. It’s likely wherever you go you will see a celebrity advertising something, as surely someone famous owning said product means we must have it.
The media supports and propagates this celebrity-centric universe whether it’s by plastering their front pages with photos of the latest wedding or the juiciest gossip for the hungry masses.
It is ironic then to look back at this 1957 film, A King in New York, where we see King Shahdov (Charlie Chaplin), a recently-deposed monarch of an unidentified European country, arriving in New York. He’s seeking refuge from the inconvenience of revolution and the claims of embezzlement and so on. Shahdov has masses of money in a bank account and plans to live quite stably in America while proposing for a new nuclear power source.
However, after his nefarious Prime Minister escapes with his fortune, Shahdov is left mostly penniless in a country he doesn’t know or understand. Soon enough he’s having to frequently refuse the advances of Mrs Cromwell (Joan Ingram) who desperately wants him to attend a dinner party she’s hosting.
Tricked into attending by advertising specialist Ann Kay (Dawn Addams), the king enjoys the dinner party but starts to suspect something odd when Ann seems to advertise products based on the conversations that are occurring. Little does Shahdov know, but the dinner party is a reality TV program upon which he is unwittingly the latest guest star. His appearance hurtles him into the celebrity limelight.
What follows are a series of comedic moments in various locations that are a mixture of visual and verbal comedy. The king tries to avoid the celebrity spotlight at first, but when his ambassador, Jaume (Oliver Johnston), reveals the money is running low and their bill at the hotel is high, Shahdov begins to embrace the lifestyle.
The payment for the dinner party show is good start but soon Shahdov is also doing commercials while still attempting to get the relevant people together to talk bout his plans for the new power source. In the midst of all this, Shahdov visits a school for delinquent boys where he meets a curiously communist older-than-his-years youngster called Rupert (Michael Chaplin). When Rupert runs away from school, the king gets embroiled in a scandal of misunderstanding that has him on trial for being a communist.
A King in New York is not as funny as many of the earlier Chaplin films I’ve seen, nor does it have the same awe-inspiring invention of things like The Great Dictator or Modern Times. It’s still a funny film with many moments worthy of the greatest comedy performers in cinematic history. As with the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Chaplin can fall over like few others and so, even when the film feels a little flat, it’s saved by his performance giving the same kind of overblown reactions and great pratfalls he always had.
A great deal of the film is also given over to rather serious themes, with the exploration of Rupert’s parents and their trial for being communists being a surprisingly dark undercurrent. Along with suggestions that Shahdov was deposed because he didn’t want to make nuclear weapons, there are these serious veins in a film that’s otherwise a rather gentle comedy.
I suppose though that the film, whilst a comedy, had a number of things that it wanted to say and the most obvious of these was about celebrity culture which we see Shahdov keen to escape. This theme makes A King in New York feel entirely relevant today despite dealing with these issues over 50 years ago.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.