Charlie Chaplin: A King in New York

A King in New York
A King in New York

I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually seen a Chaplin movie in its entirety before A King in New York, and it was not at all what I expected. There are parts of it that are almost Monty Pythonesque, such as when King Shahdov stumbles into a theater and sees Coming Attractions. Here Chaplin skewers (bad) genre pieces in a way that is hilarious. In one sequence a hit man burst from behind a screen to shoot an ingenue on the bed. As the music reaches a crescendo, she sits upright on the bed and declares in a hyper-dramatized voice, “You missed!” The fake coming attraction then moves to the marketing text that says, “But you won’t want to miss…” I almost snarfed my beverage.

The second half was this very pointed sentimental thing about the McCarthy trials, and there is a fascinating scene in which an older Chaplin (as the King) has plastic surgery that keeps him from laughing and smiling and then goes to a dinner theater where he sees two guys doing slapstick (of the kind old Chaplin would be known for). It was very strange to watch everyone in the scene laughing hilariously except Chaplin and speculating what that meant, especially in what seemed so obviously autobiographical a film.

Zizek suggested in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema that the end of City Lights was metafictive, with the tramp’s uncertainty about the blind girl’s acceptance mirroring Chaplin’s own uncertainty about his audience. It was easy enough to read such unease into the plastic surgery scene, and there was something (at least for me) uncomfortable about the scene that was specifically tied to the actor in it. I’m just not sure watching Jim Carrey or Robin Williams doing a remake would have the same emotional effect.

Margaret Hinxman’s interview with Chaplin (originally published in Sight and Sound) is much more of a puff piece than some of the other interviews Andrew Sarris includes in his anthology. We get descriptions of the hotel, of how they greeted one another, of how Chaplin looks. It strikes me as the precursor of modern celebrity journalism rather than criticism. It was helpful to be reminded by Sarris in the introduction that Chaplin was nearing the end of a long career, and he was a celebrity. Having been in the limelight himself for over forty years, Chaplin can comment about the costs of fame and the questions of celebrity without coming across as whiny or pretentiously introspective.

The nature of a celebrity interview is that it can be hit or miss. Surely it is interesting to hear Chaplin opine in 1957 that this new kid, Marlon Brando, has “something.” But that doesn’t relate much to the film.

More resonant for me was his comments about Catholicism: “All the other Lancashire lads were Catholics, and how I envied them with their beads and crosses and religious statues. It all looked so mysterious and exciting. I never did change my religion, though–it would have hurt my mother too much.”

Slapstick and poltical commentary.
Slapstick and poltical commentary.

For the purpose of psychological criticism, this quote might be more useful in thinking about A King in New York. Chaplin constantly appears to explore the connections between surface theatricality and deeper human relationships. Perhaps his genius is to see and acknowledge just how powerful the former is and just how fragile the latter. In the quote above, he longs for assimilation, participation in the group, the comfort that is provided by ritual. Yet he recognizes that he is tied to a particular relationship more strongly than the desire for group acceptance. A King in New York has a lot to say about the superficial power of mass acceptance–whether it be in suspicion of the McCarthy trials or bemusement at advertising. At the core of A King in New York is a young boy, unofficially adopted by King Shadov (and played by Chaplin’s real-life son) who humorously recites socialist polemics but bittersweetly longs for the authentic embrace of a parent–who wants to be loved for who he is and not just for performing well.

“Americans have no sense of humor about themselves, not like the British” (88), Chaplin opines. Is this true? Maybe, but I think it is Chaplin’s seriousness rather than his humor that gets misread or simply lost. Zizek points out that the crowd response to the humanitarian plea at the end of The Great Dictator is disconcertingly similar to their response to the fascist rhetoric. There is a sort of “it can happen here” distrust that lingers around Chaplin’s ruminations that is antithetical to the way Americans like to think of themselves and their system of government. So, while I agree that Chaplin’s not trying to be revolutionary, the very act of pointing to flaws in the American system (or character) that make America more vulnerable to fascism could easily be viewed as anti-social in the 20th century “you’re with us or against us” American landscape.

Chaplin was less silly and more thoughtful than I expected. He reminds me most of Swift, but without all the bitterness. Maybe the Swift of part 1 of Gulliver’s Travels. The indulgent, Horatian satire of Lilliput must eventually give way to more serious critique, and it is not surprising that we like the satirist less when we stop laughing and start bristling.

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