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A King in New York/A Woman of Paris: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou,
Carl Miller, Dawn Addams, Oliver Johnson, Maxine Audley

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


With these two examples of Charles Chaplin's non-Tramp features, you could hardly find a more bipolar pairing to represent sharply different moments in their writer-director's life and career. The thirty-four years between A Woman of Paris (1923) and A King in New York (1957) might as well be measured in geologic epochs. A Woman of Paris marked such an impressive step forward in Chaplin's directorial artistry that it still stands as a reasonably significant milepost in silent cinema. However, by the time he shot A King in New York, Chaplin was an embittered exile more at home in the past than in modern times.

*          *          *

With A Woman of Paris Chaplin set out to prove that, after some 70 comedies, he could direct a "serious" drama, one displaying broader psychological range and moral complexity than motion pictures had so far. He scored on both counts. Part Victorian morality tale, part elegant comedy of manners, A Woman of Paris stars Chaplin's longtime leading lady, Edna Purviance, in a Henry James-like story of a penniless girl who leaves her provincial hometown and becomes the mistress of a cynical Parisian millionaire (Adolphe Menjou). When the destitute artist she left behind (Carl Miller) discovers that she has become a wealthy toy among the uptown playboy set, their doomed love triangle takes a spin around the melodrama block toward a tragic/sentimental finale.

Before A Woman of Paris, Chaplin had appeared in every scene of every comedy he wrote and directed, but here he gave himself only one quick cameo. The movie belongs to Purviance, an actress of greater timber than the comedy shorts had allowed her to reveal. And it made a star out of Menjou, who forever after was typed as a silky French sophisticate. During the silent era, acting relied heavily on histrionic gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. In A Woman of Paris Chaplin reined in the performances to deliver a more naturalistic realism than silent-screen audiences were accustomed to. Similarly, his directing developed techniques of screen storytelling and editing that emphasized elliptical suggestion and nuance over stagy obviousness. The result is a melodrama that still packs some emotional heft and, despite a plot that turns too much on coincidence, displays memorable grace and style. Although its innovations are now so commonplace as to be overfamiliar, its subtleties and ingenuity were striking in their time.

After its release, praise from critics and Chaplin's fellow filmmakers made A Woman of Paris one of the most lauded features of the silent era. The New York Times hailed Chaplin as "a bold, resourceful, imaginative, ingenious, careful, studious and daring artist.... the more directors who emulate Chaplin, the better will it be for the producing of motion pictures." Unfortunately, A Woman of Paris wasn't at all what the public thought a "Charlie Chaplin film" should be. Also, thanks to its then-daring suggestions of licentious decadence among its characters, several states banned the film on grounds of immorality. So this bold experiment was the young and applause-hungry director's first commercial flop. Its failure dealt Chaplin a personal blow as well as a professional setback. A Woman of Paris wasn't seen again publicly until 1976, when critic Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice ranked it #1 on his Top Ten list for the year.

A Woman of Paris is not as visually impressive as, say, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). Its vintage melodrama does creak with age nowadays. But it remains a Chaplin masterwork that deserves rediscovery. It shows us a vanguard director capable of pushing forward the young medium to good ends, and who could coax from his actors performances that offered the emotional content and truth that he demanded from his own Tramp character.

After the public's dismissal of Chaplin's step onto a new path, he returned to the Tramp with The Gold Rush. There's no denying the brilliance displayed in The Gold Rush and the other Tramp features to come, but we can speculate about the positive turns Chaplin's career might have taken if A Woman of Paris had received public acclaim. Would he have kept on advancing his directorial skills as movies grew beyond their infancy? Of course, we'll never know.

Instead, Chaplin eventually let the medium overtake and surpass him, refusing to learn from its new directions and techniques. That calcification shows most clearly in his final films. 1957's A King in New York is a case in point.

*          *          *

Made in London after the United States government forced Chaplin into bitter exile (see Limelight), A King in New York was decried as anti-American. It's nothing of the sort. Rather, this splenetic satire is observant and critical, which is a different thing. It's a minor film, no question. Chaplin's approach to his concerns is thuddingly adolescent. Still, A King in New York is memorable for being his response to (or score-settling with, take your pick) an America in danger of having its freedoms and greatness eaten away by rot from within, particularly its anti-Communist hysteria and hypocritical puritanism. Chaplin was one of McCarthyism's most high-profile victims. His personal life and (unaffiliated) leftist political views were fodder for the God-bothering pecksniffs and witch-hunters who smeared him with invectives that would make Ann Coulter grin. So the film spoke from his experiences and the humanism he shared with "radical" intellectuals and others whom the political right-wing had declared enemies of society. This was the first film to take on the House Un-American Activities Committee and lampoon the McCarthyites without blinking (similar to Chaplin's treatment of fascism in The Great Dictator). Unlike Martin Ritt's The Front, Chaplin didn't wait until a generation after the fact to tell HUAC what it could do with itself. However, this example of one movie-maker's passionate speaking-up wasn't released in the U.S. until 1972, fifteen years after its premiere elsewhere.

Chaplin plays a gentle king deposed from his own country and so comes to New York to find a peaceful new life. Instead he finds a fearful, intolerant, willfully distracted culture "protected" by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. His treasury looted, King Shadov is now broke, so he takes demeaning work as a product spokesman in television commercials. That's also where he meets a sexy and vivacious young advertising specialist (Dawn Addams), who is wholly a participant in, and product of, this strange new world. Shadov falls under political suspicion for meeting with a spirited boy whose parents are left-wing activists. The film's most off-putting moments come when the boy (ten-year-old Michael Chaplin, the director's irksome son) breaks the fourth wall to deliver strident pamphleteer rhetoric about the oppression of American freedoms and the tyranny of the controlling elite. Chaplin had valid points buried in his pontifical speech-making, like seeds in a truckload of manure. But by making a child his not-even-veiled surrogate — presumably to invoke some idealized "purity" — he crushed any value they may have possessed with piled-high slop and grotesque exploitation. That said, the boy's fate is affecting and devoid of the sentimentality that had been a Chaplin core trope. The film ends on a melancholic note. Even after a climactic gag in which Shadov drenches the HUAC members with a fire hose, the bad guys are still in power. All Shadov can do is speak for "all of us" and hope that times will change soon.

We can legitimately criticize "my most rebellious film," as Chaplin called it, for being a poorly made movie, period. It is plodding and shabby-looking. It is didactic and patronizing and self-important. As Richard Schickel put it, "this terrible movie" offers "no evidence however minor or brief of his comic genius.... it is more like an émigré political tract, something an old revolutionist, alone and far from home but obliged to pretend he is still a movement, a force, would crank out on his dim mimeograph machine." Less poetically, but more succinctly, Pauline Kael said that it's "maybe the saddest (and worst) movie made by a celebrated film artist."

As a director in the post-Tramp decades, Chaplin could have learned pointers from his successors such as Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. As a writer, he never got past scattering platitudes like flower petals at a wedding. Besides the FBI and HUAC, other targets for King's often stale humor are commercialism, television, widescreen movies, cosmetic surgery, social pretensions, and modern popular music. Because of so many ducks in this shooting gallery, the narrative is woefully episodic and out of focus. Its star and writer-director, at 68 years old, comes across as a grouchy old fart waving his cane and bitching that things were better back in his day. Taking a fire hose to HUAC is an impulse worth applauding, but the overall movie is so tone-deaf and tired that the method sinks the message.

But while the film misfires disappointingly in a dozen ways, it's not quite the unwatchable horror that its reputation suggests. Despite its tendentious windbaggery and flawed execution there's something to admire in the old auteur's brazen directness. As always, his heart was in the right place even when his head wasn't.

A King in New York marks Chaplin's final screen performance.



The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

This double-feature release presents A King in New York and its special features on Disc One, and A Woman of Paris and its special features on Disc Two.

How's the picture and sound quality?

A King in New York arrives with a pristine, flawless print displaying excellent black-and-white contrast, marred only by rare signs that the transfer is slightly overcompressed. A Woman of Paris shows off a restorative polishing that's up to par with the exemplary work seen throughout The Chaplin Collection's other films from the '20s. It's sometimes a touch contrasty, but it's clean and sharp enough to show all the detail.

The audio for A King in New York comes in its original monaural (DD 2.0) and a new DD 5.1 remix. Like most of the other 5.1 remixes in The Chaplin Collection, that option is front-dominant with the satellite speakers providing only perfunctory support without directional effects. A French language track comes in DD 2.0. Likewise, A Woman of Paris receives similar mono and remix audio options that deliver nothing to complain about, and its remix track is again only nominally 5.1. Of course, given Woman's vintage, expect little frequency range, although both options are ably restored, clear, and strong.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Special features

Disc One — A King in New York:

Introduction (5:19) — Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) surveys Chaplin's political and personal circumstances that led to A King in New York. The closing suggestion that Michael Chaplin's grating performance can be ranked anywhere near Jackie Coogan's in The Kid can be written off as familial prejudice.

Chaplin Today - A King in New York (25:31) — In this documentary by Jerome de Missolz, indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch offers a spirited appraisal and defense of the film's statements and objectives. Newsreel footage and plenty of well-researched background take a deeper look at the politics that shook Chaplin and the FBI's use of Chaplin as a convenient target. Michael Chaplin, now nearing 60, recalls the experience of working closely with his "imperfect" father while shooting A King in New York.

Outtakes — Fourteen brief scraps and alternate opening titles (selected individually), most cut when Chaplin authorized the film's reissue in the 1970s.

Mandolin Serenade (2:41) — This stagy promo short made for the film's U.K. run "shows" Chaplin directing a few bars from his film score. The overblown narration makes it all a bit embarrassing, really.

Trailers (8:51) — The Dutch, German, and U.S. (belated release) trailers. The German version is single-handedly the most annoying trailer anywhere within The Chaplin Collection.

Photo Gallery — (6:13) A silent video slide-show with almost one hundred production photos.

Film Posters — A click-through collection of 15 posters for A King in New York from several countries through the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

The Chaplin Collection (10:42) — This video montage presents scenes from all eleven films in both volumes of The Chaplin Collection. It's a nice touch that they're arranged in chronological order of their original theatrical runs.

Disc Two — A Woman of Paris:

Introduction (5:11) — Biographer David Robinson surveys the "courageous" turns Chaplin took in A Woman of Paris. Three women inspired the story in colorful ways — the women in Chaplin's life were nothing if not colorful — and they receive due attention here. Robinson points out how Chaplin overturned the tropes of conventional Victorian melodrama, refining his own thoughts on film storytelling artistry as he did so.

Chaplin Today - A Woman of Paris (26:26) — Here's one of the most engaging documentaries in The Chaplin Collection. Focusing chiefly on the innovations within A Woman of Paris and its influences on the filmmakers who came afterward, Mathias Ledoux employs ample vintage footage, audio remembrances from filmmaker Michael Powell and Chaplin's longtime cameraman Roland Totheroh, and new analysis from actress/director Liv Ulmann. Adolphe Menjou, via an old audio recording, recalls how he got Chaplin's attention in hopes of winning the role of the oily Parisian man-about-town, then discusses his experiences with the director's on-set working methods. Unless you're allergic to spoilers, watching this featurette first can only enhance your initial viewing of A Woman of Paris.

Deleted Shots — Ten short snippets (selected individually) that Chaplin cut while composing his musical score for the 1976 reissue.

United Artists (3:07) — This silent footage from May 1919 records Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith signing the contract to form their own film company, United Artists. Then the four celebrities — with Chaplin in his Tramp garb and makeup — pose and clown around for the press cameras. Remarkably well preserved.

Paris in the 20s (10:00) — This silent film footage provides a time capsule of Paris streets, buildings, and people betwen the wars. It makes us wish were there drinking wine and smoking cigarettes with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Camille (1926) (32:44) — This amateur comedy (subtitled "or, The Fate of a Coquette") by Ralph Barton updates Alexandre Dumas fils' play La Dame aux Camelias to New York in the age of jazz and speakeasies. Its cast showcases an array of the era's intellectuals, authors, and personalities. The almost comically impressive dramatis personae includes Paul Robeson (as Dumas fils!), Anita Loos, Sinclair Lewis (as "Allegorical figures"), Theodore Dreiser ("Gas-House Gleason"), Sherwood Anderson ("Mr. X"), Clarence Darrow, Alfred Knopf ("Abd-el-Hamman, a white slave trader"), H.L. Mencken, Ethel Barrymore, W. Somerset Maugham, the Sultan of Morocco (as "Sultan of Morocco"), Max Reinhardt, Dorothy Gish, Wally Toscanini, Fanny Ward ("the Virgin Mary"), and some two dozen others including Chaplin, who presents a new rendition of the "Oceana Roll" dance from The Gold Rush. It's silent and in middling condition, and some contextual background information would be welcome — but, man, what a larkish romp from the celebrated smart set.

Trailer (2:38) — The 1976 U.S. reissue trailer. That voice-over sure sounds like Dick Cavett.

Photo Gallery — Four topic chapters serve up a selection of stills: Charles Chaplin directs A Woman of Paris (15 shots), Sets (24), Edna Purviance (17), Miscellaneous (23).

The Chaplin Collection (10:42) — Again, the video montage of scenes from the films in The Chaplin Collection.

—Mark Bourne



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