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Tuesday, 17 April 2007

A King in New York (1957) Charles Chaplin

Made after his exile to Europe during the Communist paranoia in the US at the time, this was made at Shepperton studios in London and not even released in the States for another sixteen years. It opens with a note, 'One of the minor annoyances of modern life is a revolution,' which while not having a card all to itself demonstrates how rooted Chaplin still was in the silent era, and the cries that the crowd want the head of Shahdov highlight how he was still feeling the sting of exile, of a people turning from love to hate almost at the behest of the powers that be. Soon as King Shahdov, naturally played by Chaplin himself. Soon we discover that he's escaped to New York and the comments about the US while going through immigration are dripping with venomous satire.

Anyway he finds that his funds have been whisked away to South America by his crooked former prime minister, leaving him broke; he's conned into a dinner party given in his honour but which was surreptitiously filmed and broadcast live on TV; and from then on is deluged by advertisers eager to have him as their spokesman. The faults are minor: some creaky sets, some terrible American accents, things like that. Mostly it's a success, both as comedy and as social comment. The sight of Chaplin desperately trying not to laugh at a slapstick routine, obviously inspired by the little tramp, is priceless, and the discussion he has with a young genius (played by his own son Michael) about Communism is powerful.

Communism is of course everywhere, as it's a very deliberate film, consistently funny and highly astute in its satire, but very deliberate. Pay attention to any critic on any film and they're reading something or other into it: some are incisive and others have to stretch, but usually they see stuff we the viewers don't. Here it's almost impossible not to read Chaplin's real life at the time into it. Whole sections are obviously tailored around his experiences and bitterness at what the United States had become and what it did to him.

The more I learn about the US the more I realise that it went completely nuts in the fifties and hasn't recovered yet. It wasn't just McCarthyism and the whole red scare thing that caught Chaplin up in its paranoia. It ran far deeper than that: somehow the ideal of American manhood changed from being an engineer capable of anything to an advertising executive capable only of selling things to people who didn't want them in the first place. Chaplin saw this in the fifties: the hate without understanding, the switch from substance to surface, the importance of appearance over decency. No wonder they couldn't release it Stateside for sixteen years!

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