A King in New York Review
King Shahdov (Charles Chaplin), exiled from his European country Estrovia, arrives in New York with his ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston). Living in a hotel and managing to avoid paying the bill, Shahdov is persuaded by advertising agent Ann Kay (Dawn Addams), whom he clearly fancies, to earn money by appearing in television commercials. Meanwhile, Shahdov meets a homeless boy, Rupert Macabee (Michael Chaplin).
Not permitted to re-enter the United States after attending the premiere of Limelight. Charles Chaplin settled in Europe with his wife Oona and their growing family, eventually making their home in Switzerland. He had thought that Limelight might have been his final film, but it did not prove to be the case. A King in New York was his first film made in his native country and, while he again financed it himself, he had to come to terms with his different circumstances. In Hollywood, he had had his own studio and a regular crew and had been able to improvise and try out ideas, and make efforts to get things right, which went some way to explaining the protracted production schedules of some of his earlier feature films. In England, he had to hire the studios (Shepperton) and to use an unfamiliar crew. Sudden inspirations were hampered by the fact that they could not be carried out if particular props he wanted were not on that day's list. More and more, time was money. He clashed with his cinematographer, the distinguished French DP Georges Périnal, who was, Chaplin felt, taking too much time with his lighting. London locations stood in, not always convincingly, for New York City. The supporting cast features such well-known British names as Sid James (playing an American advertiser) and Jerry Desmonde (as Shahdov's Prime Minister).
A King in New York premiered in London in September 1957 to a lukewarm critical and commercial response. American distributors took exception to the negative way the film portrayed their country and A King in New York did not see a release there until 1973. The film has a sour edge to its comedy, with many people not unreasonably seeing it as Chaplin firing potshots at the country which had rejected him, and in particular the House Un-American Committee which had targeted him as a Communist sympathiser, due to the humanist political sympathies which are quite evident in his earlier work. He had also attracted resentment for being a foreigner who had never taken US citizenship. It's hard to avoid a sense of the boot being on the other foot when King Shahdov lets fly with a firehose in a courtroom, and there are also the political speeches he puts in the mouth of Rupert Macabee. You can't also avoid a sense that this is an old man's film, with the now sixty-eight-year-old filmmaker taking satirical aim at aspects of modern American life: rock 'n' roll, widescreen films, commercial television, cosmetic surgery and so on. Chaplin's shooting schedule of twelve weeks was the shortest of any of his features to date, but the haste does show. Chaplin clashed with Périnal over the lighting, which resulted in many scenes being overlit, and the film is far from the most visually distinguished of either men's work. Chaplin clearly thought that the film should have been tighter: for the American release in 1973, he re-edited it, shortening it by some three and a half minutes.
His leading lady this time was twenty-seven-year-old Dawn Addams, English-born, she had acted in Hollytwood, previously appearing (uncredited) in Singin' in the Rain, and with credited roles for Otto Preminger in The Moon is Blue and the first CinemaScope film The Robe. She mostly appeared on British television after the mid-Sixties, ending her career with a role in the misbegotten 1983 BBC cross-channel-ferry-set soap Triangle. She died in 1985 at the age of fifty-four. It's fair to say that she's not the most distinguished of Chaplin's leading ladies – especially following Claire Bloom in his previous film – and once again we get hints of romance between Chaplin and a woman significantly younger than him: forty-one years younger this time. In the key role of Rupert Macabee he cast his own son, Michael, who had previously appeared in Limelight alongside his sisters Geraldine and Josephine. He gives an assured performance in a kay role, intentionally precocious and obnoxious but also vulnerable.
While A King in New York is certainly flawed, and somewhat dyspeptic in tone, it has enough to make it worthwhile. The best parts are those which remind us that Chaplin's comic genius is rooted in mime. He made one more film, 1967's A Countess from Hong Kong, his only film in colour. He no longer played a leading role, but gave himself a small one as a ship's steward. By then, he was seventy-eight and in failing health, and Countess seemed quite old-hat at a time when changes were afoot in the film industry and society at large. Chaplin spent his remaining years concentrating on reissuing (and in many cases re-editing) his older films. He was knighted in the 1975 New Year's Honours List. He died at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, on Christmas Day 1977, at the age of eighty-eight.
A King in New York is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye. The former was supplied for review.
As with the other Chaplin releases, A King in New York was originally released on DVD in 2003 by Warner Home Video as part of one of two box sets, with transfer and extras then as now licensed from the French company MK2. The 2003 DVD was a two-disc edition combining the present film with Chaplin's 1923 A Woman of Paris. (As I write, A Woman of Paris is due its own Blu-ray release from Curzon Artificial Eye on 26 October.) As with the previous discs I've reviewed, most but not all of the extras from 2003 have been carried forward, but as with Limelight they are mostly complete. All we are missing are a stills and poster gallery.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which is also the case with the 2003 DVD. The widescreen era began in 1953 and within months studios and cinema chains had began making and exhibiting films not in anamorphic Scope processes in wider ratios, usually achieved by shooting the film full-frame (the old Academy Ratio, 1.37:1) but composing so that the frame could be cropped in projection to achieve the intended ratio. Chaplin was certainly aware of this and in the cinema sequence inserts a gag at the expense of CinemaScope. By 1957, when A King in New York was released, Academy Ratio was commercially obsolete, and cinemas other than arthouses and repertory/revival cinemas could no longer show it. Many sources (the IMDB for one, though that's certainly not infallible when it comes to aspect ratios) claim that A King in New York is an Academy picture, and was clearly shot open-matte, so that it could be and was shown in 4:3 on television at a later date. But if you didn't have evidence from those who saw it at the time that it was widescreen, the evidence of your own eyes is there: there's plenty of headroom in every shot. I zoomed the image to 16:9 to no adverse effect. By 1957, the most common ratio in the UK was 1.75:1 (not 1.66:1 as is popularly supposed, though that was also used) and A King in New York is most likely in that or 1.85:1, which may have been used given that the film was aimed at international audiences – including the United States, even though it didn't play there at the time.) As for the transfer, it's again rather too bright, though not as much as the Limelight transfer, and the greyscale looks fine. Screengrabs follow, first from the 2003 DVD and then from the present Blu-ray.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing present, though there were on the 2003 DVD, along with a 5.1 remix (of which the less said the better) and French and Italian dubs, with subtitles in several other languages. The sound mix is fine: clear and well-balanced.
The extras begin with a David Robinson introduction (5:19), which is critical but fair to the film, and the latest "Chaplin Today" featurette (26:47). This again runs through the film's history from inception to completion. The guest filmmaker this time is adoptive New Yorker Jim Jarmusch, and we also hear from Michael Chaplin. He watches his own performance (in a version with French subtitles) and speaks to camera in French, with an English voiceover, perhaps because this featurette is French-made.
When it was originally released in the UK, A King in New York ran 112:13, as per the BBFC website. The version on this disc is the one released in the USA in 1973, running 108:57. Chaplin took the opportunity to re-edit the film, mostly removing material that seemed redundant. One casualty is a song sung by Shani Wallis (better known, a decade later, as Nancy in Oliver!), and Wallis was not pleased that her appearance had been removed, although her name remains in the opening credits. The deleted scenes are presented with the final version followed by the original, with the deleted material brighter and slightly letterboxed at the bottom, from the opening logo of the original British distributor Archway (followed by the original BBFC U certificate) onwards, totalling 17:41.
Also on the disc is "Mandolin Serenade" (2:42), a short film, most likely promotional, showing Chaplin and his orchestra as he conducts them during the recording of Chaplin's score. Three trailers also follow (8:53), first what appears to be the original British trailer with a pseudo-Ametican voiceover, but with captions and subtitles in Dutch. Then there is a German trailer, with dubbed dialogue (English subtitles provided), with scenes interspersed with typed-out quotes from German critics. Finally, there is an American trailer from the 1973 US release. Also on the disc is the same compilation of extracts from films in the Chaplin Collection (10:44) which is on all of Curzon Artificial Eye's discs.