There was a lot of buzz about A Countess From Hong Kong when it was first announced. After all, it would be Charlie Chaplin’s first film in more than ten years. The buzz increased, even more, when it came out that Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren would star. What a combination! The Little Tramp, Stanley Kowalski and Italy’s greatest export since pizza and pasta. How could it miss?
Unfortunately, A Countess From Hong Kong was released in 1967, a pivotal year in the evolution, or maybe I should say the revolution, that was going on in cinema. It had been building over the past few years with the breaking down of the Hollywood Production Code with films like The Pawnbroker and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. 1967 was the year the damn holding old Hollywood together cracked and a new order began to arrive. Films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde leading the way. True, the old order did not just roll over and die; there were more traditional films like Dr. Doolittle, Camelot, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but without a doubt, the times, they were a changin’.
Upon its premiere in Britain, Chaplin’s new film was greeted with some of the harshest reviews of the year. Critics screamed Chaplin should have stayed retired and left his legacy with the sweet dreams of the past. In the rest of Europe, some critics were kinder, Paris-Match called it “charming.” However, when the Countess arrived in America, the reviews were 99 percent negative. There were exceptions, like Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice who listed it as his number seven film on his ten best list for the year. Despite an early strong showing in a few major markets like New York, the film did not do well in the States. Chaplin’s theme song for the film did yield a top ten hit for Petula Clark with her version of This is My Song in both Britain and the States. Now some fifty years later, the question remains, is Chaplin’s final film as bad as many initially said?
The film is based on a script Chaplin wrote in the mid-1930’s and originally intended to star his then wife, Paulette Goddard. At the time, the script was titled Stowaway. The inspiration for Natascha seems to possibly come from two different women…maybe. Various biographies mention one or the other. In Joyce Milton’s biography, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, as well as Chaplin’s own memoir My Trip Aboard, a woman named Moussia Sodskaya is mentioned as being a strong source for the character of Natascha. Sodskaya was a Russian dancer/singer stranded in France with no passport. However, according to David Robinson’s massively detailed Chaplin: His Life and Art Chaplin’s inspiration came from an almost yearlong affair with a mysterious woman named May Reeves aka Mizzi Mueller. Maybe, it was a combination of both women, then again maybe not. Either way, after working on the script for months, Chaplin put it aside in his files where it remained about thirty years.
When he decided to make one last film, Chaplin dusted off the old script, made some changes and renamed it A Countess From Hong Kong. Chaplin had seen Vittorio DeSica’s comedic trilogy, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and thought Sophia Loren perfect for the female role of the Countess/Stowaway. He offered Loren the role in 1965. Without reading the script, she accepted. For his leading man, he picked Marlon Brando. Brando was in the middle of a misguided contract with Universal that left the actor with a series of dud films, Bedtime Story and Morituri to name two, all creatively and financially flops. At first, Marlon was excited to work with the legendary Chaplin, but the relationship would soon turn sour. The old style dictatorial director and the erratic, rebellious actor seemed like an odd couple and that proved to be true.
Chaplin, never directing major stars before, dictated how he wanted each scene played; acting them out in excruciating detail. While Loren went along with the director’s desires, Brando, always the Method actor, at times did not. At first, the actor acquiesced to his director, but Brando was moody and always moved at his own beat. He didn’t like being told how to perform each scene in detail. This caused clashes between the Charlie and the mood swinging actor. In the press at the time of the film’s release, Brando was kind when talking about the elder statesmen calling him a genius. However, some years later, after Chaplin’s death, Brando wasn’t as forgiving, calling Charlie “probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met.”
Brando is completely miscast; a lighter comedic touch was desperately needed, something he did not possess. He walks through the film like a lead weight dropping one bomb after another. Additionally, the two stars had no chemistry together. Part of it was due to Brando’s behavior toward the actress which included telling the Italian beauty during one scene that she had nose hairs. During another scene he for no reason other than his own arrogant behavior slapped Loren on the butt. Watching the film, your can see there is a frost in their loves that not even the warmth of a Florida sun could defrost. Fortunately, Sophia Loren provides a brighter and more energetic performance than Brando. There are a couple of other nice performances from Sydney Chaplin and Patrick Cargill, and while it’s just a small bit, it’s great to see Charlie himself in a short silent bit as a ship steward.
Brando is Ogden Mears, a millionaire/diplomat traveling by ship from Hong Kong to the States and soon to be named the new Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. His marriage, to a wasted Tippi Hedren, is on the rocks. On board, he meets Natascha (Sophia Loren), an alleged Russian Countess stranded in Hong Kong with no passport, surviving as a dance hall hostess, read that as a prostitute, for American soldiers. Attempting to escape her life, she stows away on board the ship heading for America. She ends up in Ogden’s spacious compartment. Reluctantly, at first, he helps her. Naturally, they fall in love. The film is Chaplin’s attempt at a bedroom farce with too much slapstick tossed in, the latter a form of comedy completely unsuited for Brando. There are a couple of scenes where Ogden belches that are supposed to be humorous, but with the completely unsuited Brando in the role it comes off as a total dud. With another actor in the role, say Jack Lemmon or in an earlier time Cary Grant, this scene and many others would have been much improved.
Looked at today, despite its shortcomings, A Countess From Hong Kong is not a complete fiasco, but it is not a lost masterpiece either. It ended Chaplin’s career on a sad note. It’s worth a watch, but you can hear and see the creaks in Charlie’s cinematic armor.