A Countess From Hong Kong, the final film of Charlie Chaplin, was almost universally derided upon its release in 1967. 'Time to retire' was the verdict from Time Magazine, whilst Bosley Crowther of the New York Times sniffed that we should 'draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred'. Over at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill said that A Countess from Hong Kong was 'the nadir of one of the greatest figures in movie history'. In its corner, voices of support included poet laureate Sir John Betjaman, Francois Truffaut and Jack Nicholson, but these are unmistakably lone voices.
Chaplin had toyed with the idea of A Countess From Hong Kong for many years. In his 1922 book My Trip Abroad he recalls meeting Moussia Sodskaya, a Russian woman in exile after the revolution and stranded without papers in France. Along with his experiences of similar Russian emigres in Shanghai in a 1931 visit, this would go on to be the inspiration for his storyline here. The project, initially entitled Stowaway, was slated for production in the late 1930s with his wife Paulette Goddard but it never came about. It wasn't until 1965 that he announced to the press that this long held idea would become his first film since 1957's A King In New York, and one in which he would appear in a small cameo role only. Chaplin had recently seen Vittorio de Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and believed Sophia Loren to be perfect for his refugee aristocrat, but he struggled to find his leading man. Both Rex Harrison and Cary Grant were considered before the unlikely Marlon Brando, then under contract with Universal, signed on the dotted line. Neither Loren or Brando read a script before agreeing to star; Loren leapt at the chance of working with Chaplin, whilst Brando - despite his reservations regarding his own comic abilities - said that he "agreed to be a marionette in his hands"
Loren is excellent in her role, and clearly delighted to embrace the comic slapstick potential in the character of Natascha (so much so that her initial appearance, which offers little more than the opportunity to look gorgeous and graceful, seems phoned in). As Chaplin's biographer Jeffrey Vance attests "Natascha is the proxy for the Tramp in the film, searching for a better life, while always understanding that both happiness and beauty are fleeting" It's hard to imagine comparing the Tramp with the glamourous Loren, but it really does work here. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking Audrey Hepburn level of cuteness and comic chops, but we are close in the many scenes which require here to bedhop in oversized male pyjamas, scurrying in and out of slamming doors.
The same cannot be said of Brando. The Method actor's initial suspicions that he wasn't right for the role prove correct. Deeply unhappy (and battling both the flu and appendicitis, ironic considering Brando's character, Ogden, suffers from some ill health in the film - a case of taking the Method too far?) Brando found working with Chaplin impossible and stated he was "a fearsomely cruel man", whilst Chaplin for his part found Brando deeply uncooperative and hadn't lost the weight they had agreed upon before filming started. In a most ungentlemanly fashion, Brando took his dissatisfaction out on his co-star, remarking that she had 'little black hairs in her nose' during their onscreen embrace. Loren's recent autobiography suggests this vulgar behaviour may have stemmed from her spurning his predatory advances earlier on in the production; "All of a sudden he put his hands on me. I turned in all tranquillity and blew his face, like a cat stroked the wrong way and said, ‘Don’t you ever dare to do that again. Never again!’ As I pulverised him with my eyes he seemed small, defenceless, almost a victim of his own notoriety. He never did it again, but it was very difficult working with him after that.”
It's hard to defend Brando's somnambulistic performance here but, if he did indeed voice his reservations regarding his own abilities from the outset, then Chaplin only had himself to blame. Brando's inability to accurately play comedy means that he is just totally wrong for the part and gags simply fall flat around him. The role really required an actor with a light comic touch, a Grant, Niven or Rock Hudson, maybe even Tony Curtis at a push. It's easy to see why A Countess from Hong Kong got a mauling from the critics, because it's hard to see past Brando's performance.
But to place all the blame at Brando's door isn't fair. Chaplin does himself no favours with some truly appalling direction. In the midst of the swinging sixties, the 76 year old filmmaker had turned in a static, cheap looking, poor farce that belied his illustrious career. This film 'written, directed and with music by Charles Chaplin' (as the title card states) feels perversely amateur, especially in the use of his score; in several scenes the music is simply dropped in and then curtailed after a few bars seemingly to signify the resumption of dialogue or action fro his stars, who seem to be doing their best to ignore this alarmingly clumsy intrusion, rather like they're trying not to acknowledge the bad fart that has been left to linger there. And yet Chaplin seems really pleased with his score, using it wherever he can. Maybe he should have just concentrated on making music rather than movies at this point? Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Chaplin skimps the rom to this com as we see nothing of the moment in which Brando and Loren develop feelings for one another; the film moves from one scene in which they are at odds with each other, to another scene set some days later in which its explained that Loren nursed Brando through a bout of malaria (!) which proved the clincher.
It's not all bad though and you can see glimpses of something that would be quite fine if the cast and director were as one, firing on all cylinders. There are some delightful comic performances from the likes of Patrick Cargill as Brando's valet Hudson who becomes infatuated with Loren when the plot requires him to marry her to ensure she can enter the US legally, and Angela Scoular as a vapid English society girl. There's even a very brief appearance from Margaret Rutherford as a seasick old lady confined to her cabin. Elsewhere, Tippi Hedren appears as Brando's cold wife in the film's latter stages. Having made the break from her allegedly abusive relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, Hedren was keen to explore the opportunities working with Chaplin would afford her but was dismayed to learn that her role was a slight one. It's a real shame that someone so eager to do her best for the film was given such a limited opportunity in comparison to a coasting, miserable Brando. The rest of the film's cast seems largely made up of Chaplin's family; there's Sydney Chaplin as Brando's pal, along with Geraldine, Victoria and Josephine as girls at the dance in the ship's ballroom.
Chaplin would never act or direct again, the experience of making the film and the frosty reception it received possibly proving to him that he was not only an old man, but a man out of his time. Discussing the competition around him at the time, he decreed Antonioni's Blow Up to be boring, and The Beatles movies passe; "We did all this stop-action business in 1914" he grumbled, appalled at the idea that his own mid sixties offering was deemed a flop.