Chaplin moves up the social ladder from being The Tramp to A King. He plays the part of a European monarch, King Shadov, who is booted out of his kingdom and has to live in exile in New York City. He trusts his Prime Minister Voudel (Jerry Desmonde) to move the money from the national treasury, but Voudel double-crosses him and runs off to South America with it.
Given his exile and bankrupt status, the King remains very cheerful and lively, although on exploring New York he is appalled by the noise, the screaming fans of pop music and the trailers for the latest films, which include Man or Woman?, a reference to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda transgender movie.
Undeterred by his circumstances, the King pins his hopes on selling his dream of using atomic power to create a utopian future for humanity, rather than use it for warfare. As his futuristic ideas are rejected, the King is unwittingly embroiled in starring in a TV show and is offered vast amounts of money to appear in more commercials. More importantly, he comes into contact with a 10-year-old boy, Rupert (Michael Chaplin), who preaches Marxism and by association the King is accused of being a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
Like his earlier film The Kid (1921), Chaplin’s character seems most at home interacting with young children. From our modern-day perspective, it is uncomfortable to see the Tramp share a bed with the kid when they go to a flophouse, and later on in a dream sequence a 12-year-girl (Lita Grey) flirts with him.
In this film, the King and his Prime Minister peep through a keyhole to watch a young woman in her bath. They fight over viewing her, and when she calls for help the King quickly goes to her rescue. It’s not good watching him stroking her naked foot - perhaps it’s just us?
We must, of course, remember Laurel and Hardy always slept together without the slightest hint they are more than just friends, so we have to be aware of how we view and ‘read’ older films. Though, the charge of opportunistic voyeurism does still stand against the King, it is slightly mitigated by the fact that she engineers this situation to get him to attend a dinner party. This tends to reflect Chaplin’s own life experiences when he was easily seduced by young women and felt used and exploited after the initial flirtation.
As an exile from the US in real-life, this film gives Chaplin the opportunity to poke fun at its culture, commercialism and condemnation of ‘commies’. There are some very funny scenes in it, for example when his face-lift goes wrong, but it lacks the combination of charm and humour of his best silent-era productions.
A KING IN NEW YORK / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHARLES CHAPLIN / STARRING: CHARLES CHAPLIN, MAXINE AUDLEY, JERRY DESMONDE, MICHAEL CHAPLIN, OLIVER JOHNSTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW