Chaplin, Metastasis

A Film of a Free Man : Charlie Chaplin’s A King In New York

 | Essay |

  BY Sudarshan Ramani

It is now 100 years since the beginning of the First World War, the true start of the 20th Century. Eric Hobsbawm described the period of 1789-1914 as a prolonged 19th Century. 1914 was also the year of Chaplin’s first appearances in the cinema, Making A Living and Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), the first appearance of “the Tramp”. The cinema as we all know is the art of the 20th Century and Chaplin was perhaps the most famous figure in the 20th Century, renowned even today among people across the world. A shabby black suit, white shirt, a cane, a hat and a mustache is a formula as clear as 2+2. Add it together, you get Chaplin.

Yet, the association between Chaplin and the 20th Century has for a while been a matter of debate.

Chaplin’s critics argued that his films were steeped in Victorian and Edwardian clichés. It is this charge against Victoriana that led to a brief decline of Chaplin in favour of Buster Keaton in the 60s-80s. Keaton made movies about machines – steamboats, electric houses, trains movie cameras. The cinema of Chaplin as critics from David Thomson to Roger Ebert have pointed out is rooted in Victorian melodrama. Keaton and Harold Lloyd were urbane, focused on the quest of adolescents to seek work and love. Their silent comedy was rooted in an emerging modernity and in the case of Keaton, geared toward creating a comedic idiom entirely in the visual language of cinema. This was different from a tramp who seems to be a bum as a condition of nature, and Chaplin’s mise-en-scène and storytelling is rooted in the performance and gag based dramaturgy of the vaudeville and pantomime theatre. As such if Chaplin is of importance, it is merely as an eminent precursor, a classic and a pioneer, but not someone with a lot to offer to the future.

The problem with this criticism is not so much the issue of form. Chaplin’s films are inspired by vaudeville and Victorian melodrama. But the implication of this argument is that Chaplin’s being rooted in dated forms of entertainment, is primarily of nostalgic appeal. This is patently not true.

Chaplin’s films are utterly bereft of nostalgia. There is no longing in these movies for the poverty of Chaplin’s youth. There is no paradise lost. Chaplin’s characters have never known paradise. They have no reference point for when things were so good that they wish to return to it and so they go forward instead. In The Immigrant, the goal is to come to America, in Easy Street, the goal is to survive the violence and turmoil of the streets. His short The Rink celebrates the skating parlor as a new form of activity that unites people in modern times, finding in skates, a prop and visual gag that simply can’t be used in any medium but cinema. The one exception perhaps is the fantasy of The Kid, which is again an overtly sentimental fantasy rather than any real longing. In Modern Times, the fantasy that unites Paulette Goddard and the Tramp is triggered from a billboard advertising promising the comforts of bourgeois consumerism. Not a return to the past but a fantasy of a future they can never have.

Chaplin’s films are not against progress or modernity. Rather they deal with the people to whom modernity does not come. The road to progress is narrow and only few will walk it, while most will stand by the side and wait in line. It is with them that Chaplin stands with. His Tramp was an eternal anachronism, an embodiment of a bygone age from his first arrival, out of place no matter in every era and any era.

This made Chaplin’s films, for all the criticisms of Victoriana and traditionalism attributed to him, one of the most attentive observers of modernity and its discontents. City Lights is in essence about city life, the vast chance encounters that binds citizens to one another, the informal and involuntary community established between drunks and flower-sellers. For all the raucous satire at the opening about the dedication of the statue, the film is not against urbanity, rather it grapples with it, explores what it means and how it affects his characters. Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, form an informal trilogy. They are Chaplin’s most topical films, most tied to a certain period of the 20th Century – the Depression (Modern Times), the War (The Great Dictator) and the world between and after the war (Monsieur Verdoux).

So we arrive at the Chaplin contradiction – On one hand his style and worldview was 19th Century, on the other hand he had a keen eye for how the 20th Century’s rapid and furious changes were transforming people on a basic level. This makes A King in New York a film of great importance mainly because it is Chaplin’s most 20th Century film, his most extended examination of contemporary life. The film was made in 1957, shot in English studios and made at a time when Chaplin was a political and cultural exile from America and yet, as noted by Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Rosenbaum and several others, it’s one of the most perceptive films ever made about American culture.

A King in New York begins with a revolution. We see a crowd marching into a Palace, shades of the Storming of the Tuileries. The palace is empty, the King and his government have flown to New York, and they have also taken away all the money with them [1]. When the King arrives in New York, he finds out in due course that he’s been robbed as well. His fellow ministers, responsible for the financial crisis that caused the revolution, have left him high and dry. The King is a tramp and at the same time he’s not a tramp. The Tramp was always out of place but the King still commands a suite in the Plaza, still travels around New York in comfort and gets invited to the parties. And yet in America, the King is an object of scorn and ridicule, a regular joke. A news-reporter (Dawn Addams) hounds him, tempts him and ensnares him into becoming an object of ridicule so as to serve as a leg-up in her career. Shahdov is later pursued by advertisers to shill for commercials, with degrading copy to read and lame gags on TV. He is reluctant to do so, but eventually he does submit. In effect, the King prostitutes his kingliness, another commodity to sell in the world of mass media capitalism. 

In Modern Times, there is this famous sequence of the Tramp being swallowed by the machinery. In A King of New York, this gag has become the world; the machine has the name that we identify as “hegemony”. Whether it’s the bad rock music, bad commercials, the crass hidden cameras at parties (a gag that was originally an exaggeration of TV at the time, but today anticipates reality TV and YouTube videos of gaffes and other private exhibitionism). The party sequence, a hilarious gag where Dawn Addams conducts a conversation with Shahdov and amazingly advertises products, by slipping references to it in conversation is breath-taking for its set-up, for its detailed blocking and movement and for the incredible punchline. In a short space, Chaplin maps out a world of surveillance, observation, lost privacy and the deceptive surface of social interactions. In this, it is highly similar to Fritz Lang’s The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, set in a hotel under constant surveillance, with characters who are unaware of the cameras and characters who are aware simultaneously crossing paths in essentially dubious encounters. Both movies, in addition to what has been said, also feature the actress Dawn Addams. 

The King is the innocent, the one not aware that he’s on TV, while Dawn Addams is aware of the camera and looks to it repeatedly. She’s a new kind of figure that can only exist in the age of mass media. It is to Chaplin’s immense credit that she isn’t a simple caricature of the woman working in media; unlike say the shrill and sexist character played by Faye Dunaway in Network. Rather she identifies a kind of power that she can assert over all who behold her. She uses her body, her smile and her charm as a way to control the people around her. It’s an ironic vision of the triumph of democracy, the King in thrall of the TV glamour gal, the new opportunities provided along with the commercial shrillness. The other remarkable scene, and one of Chaplin’s boldest in the shameless way he puts across his famous sexual appetite, is the one where Shahdov realizes that he and Ann share rooms connected with a bathtub. After a servant gazes through and sees her in a bathtub through a keyhole, Shahdov also looks and without breaking from the peephole, slowly puts a small makeshift stool and sits and gazes, while she continues singing until coyly looking forward in a similar way to the party scene. She is both exhibitionist and voyeur, she invites you to see her but she gazes right back.

These sequences and ideas are of course put forth in a manner of utmost sophistication and rich elegance. A word one doesn’t usually associate with Chaplin the film-maker. Yet, this is the director of A Woman of Paris, one of Lubitsch’s favorite films.

A curious fact about Chaplin is that his films generally lack villains. Of course, the early shorts feature the Brute (famously played by Eric Campbell), but once Chaplin shifts to feature length films, villains stops appearing altogether in his films. From The Kid to The Great Dictator, there aren’t really any single villains. The enemies are the impersonal forces of society itself. In The Gold Rush, the Tramp struggles with poverty, hunger, extremity, loneliness, heartbreak and disappointment. The antagonists at various times are Mack Swain (who later becomes his friend), the Bear (who later becomes food), Georgia Hale’s girl (who eventually comes to love the hero). It’s only with The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux that we find villains again, and this time the villains are played by Chaplin himself, both of them being based on real-life figures – Adenoid Hynkel/Adolf Hitler and Henri Verdoux/Henri Desirée Landru. The true villainous figures after that is the House Committee of Unamerican Activities in A King in New York and unlike Hynkel/Verdoux and the Brutes played by Eric Campbell, the HUAC win. Sure they get hosed down with water by Chaplin’s Shahdov, a scene that should justly make you get up and cheer, but the HUAC do what nobody else in Chaplin’s films and nobody else in American cinema did. They killed innocence in the cradle.

A King in New York has a series of vignettes throughout the film, typical of Chaplin’s style (the exception is Monsieur Verdoux, with its more cohesive structure, perhaps stemming from the influence of the original writer, Orson Welles). The key vignette is the character Rupert Maccabee, played by Michael Chaplin (Charlie’s son with Oona O’Neill). Rupert is the son of parents who are under investigation by the HUAC. He studies at a progressive school in New York, which the King is escorted through. In a deadly parody of middle-class bonhomie, the Principal describes how the school teaches students to be independent, to think and to create, but naturally does not appreciate Rupert Maccabee offering cogent criticisms about capitalism.

Amazingly, the boy communist and the deposed ex-monarch, the classic revolutionary antagonists form a friendship. Shahdov’s natural decency makes him feel protective of the boy, going as far as to hide him in his hotel room to keep him away from authorities. Naturally this earns the King an invitation to the HUAC because of “his” suspected communist beliefs. The view of the media and its hegemony, elsewhere applied to the world of TV and advertising, extends to news coverage as well, as can be brilliantly seen in a truly cruel gag. The hearings are played on TV and the minute the father voices criticism, the microphones are shut off on live feed, instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest familiarity with contemporary news coverage.

Rupert Maccabee is coaxed by the authorities to testify against his parents, Shahdov gets into trouble for helping him but eventually the HUAC realizes it made a mistake and he walks away. He also finds out his problems are solved. The movie seems to end on a light note, and then on the way home he stops at the school where he met Rupert and learns from the unassuming, tolerant Headmaster that Rupert’s problems are solved to. How, well it turns out that Rupert finally did testify on his parent’s trial.

François Truffaut considered this a moment of great cruelty. He stated that the movie by showing this scene stated, in effect, that if Jesus Christ came back in the 50s, he would be a rat for McCarthy and sell out the Apostles to HUAC. The heartbreaking coda sees Michael Chaplin’s Rupert, brilliantly directed by his father, holding back tears as he gets praised as a model student, stripped of his spirit, his idealism, and his precociousness and leaving behind a hollow shell of adolescent discontent, his youthful illusions stamped in the cradle.

A King in New York is the true culmination of Chaplin, the final vision of his vision of the tragedy of common man, which more than anything is what defines and unites the films with The Tramp, and with the films without the Tramp. His early movies are about people who did not fit in modern times, who were excluded by progress, but his vision at the end is about modernity taking things away from everyone. There’s no single Tramp because we are all tramps, we are all vagabonds without any real fixed identity and place, constantly slotted into different roles as and when needed.

Roberto Rossellini famously defined it as a “film of a free man”. This freedom is hard to understand. The closest is perhaps Edward Said’s “late style”. His idea that composers such as Bach or Beethoven towards the end of their lives and career reached a point where the coming of death and the fading of youth, rather than inducing decay, provides a complete freedom from societal and commercial expectations. The freedom comes from a sense of urgency, so these final works are more primal, more personal and most masterly. A King in New York along with films such as An Autumn Afternoon, Gertrud, The Dead, The Innocent, A Prairie Home Companion is filled with this urgency, this mastery and this freedom.

On the other hand, maybe this isn’t late style. It’s true that Chaplin planned more films after this. His actual final work A Countess from Hong Kong is a curiosity in itself and entirely different. Indeed at various points critics expected The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator to be Chaplin’s final films, seeking a capstone. If one can reject the notion of Chaplin as a 19th Century film-maker in 20th Century garb, that probably includes doing away the idea of a single film that ties Chaplin together.

A King in New York can in another light as the start of a new phase in Chaplin’s filmography, albeit one that was prematurely aborted and an indicator of the kind of films that Chaplin would make had he lived to the present day, providing solutions and ideas with which we can engage our reality today.