Chaplin Diary, Part 20: We end with A Countess from Hong Kong

And so we come to the end of our survey of Charlie Chaplin’s work as a director. His last movie, A Countess from Hong Kong, made in 1966 and released in 1967, is easily his worst.

Countess stands out among Chaplin’s films in several ways. It’s his only color film, and the only one financed and produced by a major Hollywood studio (Universal). For the first time, Chaplin worked with major stars other than himself (Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren). And on a personal note, it was the only Chaplin film I ever saw in first run. (I didn’t like it when I was 12, either.)

More importantly, it’s his least funny comedy. I saw it, for the second time, on a rented DVD from Netflix.

As with so many of his features, Chaplin is looking back at his troubled mother, who almost certainly turned tricks to put food on the table. The title character, played by Loren, is the daughter of aristocratic Russian refugees. Stranded in Hong Kong, she survived on her beauty.

That extremely serious backstory turns into alleged comic hijinks when she stows away on an ocean liner, in the very large, two-room cabin of an American diplomat going through a divorce (Brando). This setup provides plenty of gags involving hiding in the closet or bathroom and getting clothes that are either too big or too small for the voluptuous Loren.

It could have worked. Chaplin considered making this movie in the 1930s with his then-wife Paulette Goddard in the title role. Thirty years later, he considered Cary Grant. I could just imagine Grant – like Chaplin, an acrobatic veteran of British Music Hall – as the suave and wealthy ambassador caught in an absurd farce.

But Chaplin didn’t get Grant. Instead, he got Brando – a great dramatic actor with no sense of comedy. To make matters worse, Chaplin’s dictatorial directing style (basically insisting the actors to imitate him exactly) clashed with Brando’s method training. Judging from what’s on the screen, Brando gave up trying to be funny or even trying to act; most of the time he just walks through the picture looking sullen and angry.

Loren, who understood comedy, is better, but still disappointing. You can frequently see her imitating Chaplin. And while that’s kind of endearing, it doesn’t make an ideal comic performance.

Aside from some second-unit photography, everything was shot on indoor British sound stages. The ocean liner never really feels like a ship at sea. One especially fake-looking scene is supposed to be Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach.

With all these flaws, A Countess from Hong Kong has its moments. The very funny Margaret Rutherford provides a delightful scene. The director’s son, Sydney Chaplin, has a nice piece of business that his father clearly trained him to do. (By the way, daughter Geraldine Chaplin, already a star from Doctor Zhivago, pops up briefly.) Chaplin himself has a very short and funny cameo as a seasick steward. And Brando, in two very short moments, is actually funny running into the bathroom. I assume these are the rare moments where he’s doing exactly what Chaplin told him to.

Charlie Chaplin would live another decade after the release of A Countess from Hong Kong. During those years, he would revisit the USA, and the love affair between Chaplin and America would revive.

By my count, Chaplin directed 64 films – 10 of them features. Many of them are amongst the greatest motion pictures ever made. A Countess from Hong Kong isn’t one of them.