31 May 2009

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

d. Charles Chaplin / UK / 108 mins.

Charles Chaplin's last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, provided him with many of firsts. Some of them are positive: his first film in color, his first film in anamorphic widescreen, his first film starring celebrities other than himself (Marlon Brando and Sofia Loren). Others aren't so great: this is his first film since 1923's A Woman in Paris in which he did not star, and much like that film 44 years earlier, A Countess from Hong Kong is rather abysmal.

Brando stars as Ogden Mears, a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps and the son of the world's wealthiest oilman who many expect will become the next secretary of State but who instead becomes the next ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On his last night in Hong Kong, he meets a lovely Russian countess named Natascha (Sophia Loren), and when he wakes the next morning with a wicked hangover, he discovers that she's become a stowaway in his plush cabin aboard a regal ocean liner. She has no passport or identification and seeks only to escape Hong Kong for a better life in America. Brando, playing a stodgy diplomat, wants her out of his life, but gives in and agrees to help her reach the land of the free.

Did I mention this is a comedy? If I haven't, then certainly you must forgive me because this is also Chaplin's first since A Woman in Paris that isn't funny — which is bad news for Countess because the latter was an actual drama. A Countess from Hong Kong genuinely tries for a few laughs, following in the footsteps of romantic comedies before; early in the film most of the humor is meant to come from the chaotic scrambling of Ogden and Natascha as they try to keep her hidden from the other members of the diplomatic corps and the press. But the audience can only sustain so many "there's-a-knock-on-the-door-quick-hide-in-the-bathroom" moments before it becomes overbearingly tedious.

Part of the problem here is that A Countess from Hong Kong originated in a recycled script Chaplin had from the 1930s with Paulette Goddard meant to star as the stowaway countess. Its sensibilities are decidedly of that time, when slapstick and slight banter might have carried the day, and very little of it feels updated in any way. Chaplin could do humor that was both cerebral and silly, but in this film he abandoned almost all aspects of thinking. Before it grows sweeter and more romantic in its second half, we're treated to a pedestrian gag about seasickness where Brando, Loren, and Sydney Chaplin all vomit out the portholes. (Chaplin has a cameo in the scene as a nauseated steward.) Of all of Chaplin's later films, this one is the most problematic in basic storytelling and comedy. The best thing I can say about it is that I was able to watch Sophia Loren for a while — not exactly a stellar endorsement of a film, but when you're adrift this far out, you search the screen for whatever will give you the slightest thrill.


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