Probably the most undervalued film ever made by Charles Chaplin (though none of his talkies get the kudos they deserve), A King in New York (1957) spent 15 years of its life being vilified by people who had never even seen it.
Several years before A King in New York, when Chaplin was told he would have to face questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee before re-entering the U.S. upon his return from promoting Limelight (1952) in Britain, the veteran filmmaker opted to stay aboard the ship and sail straight back to England. The conservative factions in the U.S. had been after him for years—they didn’t like his politics or his sex life—and his refusal to appear before HUAC gave them the opportunity to not only get rid of him, but to smear his name as well. This was compounded in 1957 with the release—in Europe—of his anti-McCarthy comedy, A King in New York. Since the film was known to attack HUAC, it was immediately denounced as anti-American, “reviewed” as bitter and unfunny, and consigned to the scrap heap. It remained unknown and unshown on these shores until 1972, when Chaplin was officially “forgiven” and brought back for his honorary Oscar.
With Chaplin no longer a pariah, the film finally played here—and it turned out to be rather different than it had been painted all those years. Yes, it openly attacked McCarthyism (by 1972 not too many were upset by that) in a way no American film of that era would have dared. And, yes, it spoofed the “fads” of the day—rock
n’ roll, television, wide-screen movies—in that way that many artists who are “out of date” tend to adopt. But it was also something of a valentine to the country that had given Chaplin his great success, an affirmation that America was a wonderful place with generous people, and that all the witch hunting was but passing madness. It also proved to be one of Chaplin’s funniest films and one of the most moving. As the deposed King Shadov, Chaplin, in his last performance, proved that he had lost neither his comic timing nor his physical agility. Though constrained by budget (Chaplin was always a bit on the cheap side) and the unfamiliar methods of British studios, the film is nonetheless Chaplin’s last great gift to the world. And it’s a film the politics of which are worth remembering—as much now as ever.