A Countess from Hong Kong
Today is the anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s much vilified final film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
As Walter Kerr wrote, “Chaplin can be bad but he can never be uninteresting.” Chaplin’s first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.
I used to think (as many do) that Chaplin’s choice of this particular vehicle for his swan song was unfortunate and weak. But having recently re-watched it in the context of the rest of his body of work, it is actually amazingly apt. At its most basic level it is a return to his 1914 origins, all of those early Keystone sex farces with people hiding in closets and under beds. The film is in one sense an elaborate remake of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, told from the point of view of Chester Conklin. Also, the theme of the dance hall girl or loose woman recalls A Dog’s Life, A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush. And there is even a certain amount of autobiography in it: an important man afraid of being compromised by the woman in his room—surely this had happened to the real Chaplin more times than he could count. He had originally written the film as a vehicle for Paulette Goddard in the 1930s and she had actually been one of those women.
So, in principle it might have been a fine coda to his career. Unfortunately, it veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?
So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.
Now: there is the possibility that the increasingly serious Chaplin is intentionally subverting the genre, taking this farce material and weighing it down with melodramatic themes more in keeping with A Woman of Paris and thoughts of his own tortured love life. After all, these kind of sex comedies were very popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, starring popular light comedians like Rock Hudson and Doris Day. If he wanted to make such a comedy, why didn’t he cast such people?
While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.
Now, the responsibility for the bad movie is still Chaplin’s. He could have done what Woody Allen did with September (1987) when he was unhappy with the performances: scrap the entire film and shoot a new one with other actors. Think how great Cary Grant would have been in the role, for example. And there are many hilarious hints about what might have been in many of the film’s walk-on performances: Angela Scoular as The Society Girl, Margaret Rutherford as a senile old passenger with a bed full of stuffed animals, and Chaplin himself as a seasick porter. Tippi Hedren gives what may be the best performance of her career as Brando’s wife, but sadly she only gets a couple of minutes of screen time.
At any rate, audiences don’t see “what might have been” up on screen. Chaplin’s last movie was (and for the most part, remains) shunned. But it wasn’t a total bust. He put lyrics to his musical theme from the film, and called it “This is My Song,” which became a #1 hit in the U.K. for Petula Clark in 1967.
Here’s a nice little doc about it:
For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.