Considering all that happened to him, Charlie Chaplin felt compelled to make a film about the McCarthy hearings and the turbulent cold-war political dramas of the 1950s. But rather than make a realistic, documentary-style film, Chaplin made a very amusing farce in 1957 called “A King in New York.” In this film, Chaplin plays a monarch of a European country, King Shawdov, who gets deposed in the first scene and travels to New York. King Shawdov immediately becomes a sensation as American advertisers seek his endorsement for products ranging from deodorant to whiskey. Playing an old-world denizen of class, style and tradition, Chaplin’s King Shawdov manages to skewer both runaway commercialism and political witch hunting.
While relaxing at the Ritz Hotel in New York, King Shawdov hears a woman in the adjoining room taking a bath. He peeks through the keyhole to behold the beautiful Ann Kay (Dawn Addams), a TV specialist and advertising spokeswoman. He then unwittingly attends a surprise dinner party, which is being filmed surreptitiously and includes scheduled commercials spoken directly to the hidden camera by Ann Kay. This completely puzzles the clueless King, but he nevertheless decides to perform scenes from Hamlet for the party guests. When his antics go on live television, he becomes even more of a sensation.
When King Shawdov realizes his moneymaking potential, he drops his old-world reticence and buys into his commercial potential. This produces a lot of laughs as he agrees to do a whiskey commercial. Despite his utter failure at hawking the product, the public loves his antics and this leads to even more success. A series of hilarious scenes occur when the King takes Ann’s advice and makes a profound change in his appearance. It doesn’t quite work as expected when his new look horrifies all around him.
Chaplin’s son Michael provides the political storyline; he plays a schoolboy named Rupert Macabee who is prone to communist and anti-government rants. Michael does a remarkable job voicing this character, producing the effect of a highly-energetic puppet; but he also seems natural later as a intelligent and sensitive boy. He fits in well with the high level of physical humor in this movie.
Charlie Chaplin does a few highly entertaining and pantomimes, including a scene where he manages to get attached to a fire hose. In another hilarious bit, the King must keep from laughing while watching a very broadly played slapstick routine at a nightclub. I won’t explain why he mustn’t laugh, but the payoff for the scene left me laughing. Whatever bitterness presents itself in A King in New York, Chaplin balances it with some wonderfully funny scenes.