You probably have to be a die-hard Chaplin buff to appreciate anything in A Countess from Hong Kong…so let’s get all of the negativity out of the way first.
The making of the movie has been thoroughly documented as clashes of personalities: Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, Charlie Chaplin and his son Sydney, and most notably, Chaplin and Brando. The movie received much worldwide publicity, but its unashamed old-fashioned-ness was bound to doom it in a year that saw cinematic breakthroughs such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.
And, truth be told, much of the movie’s poor reputation did not go unearned. The story, which Chaplin had initially conceived three decades earlier as a vehicle for Paulette Goddard, concerns women of former royalty whose circumstances had reduced them to being dance-hall women or prostitutes (though the movie only lightly hints at the latter).
Sophia Loren plays Natascha, a former White Russian countess reduced to such penury. Thanks to a rich benefactor, Natascha enjoys a single evening of wining and dining with Ogden Mears (Marlon Brando), an up-and-coming American diplomat. The following morning, after his ship has left Hong Kong, Ogden discovers Natascha hiding in the closet of his stateroom. Natascha has decided to become a stowaway to the United States and has made Ogden a most unwilling accomplice to her plan.
The majority of Chaplin’s filmography speaks for itself. But probably from Limelight on, you have to allow for some definite valleys in Chaplin’s movies before you ever reach the peaks. In Countess, that benefit-of-the-doubt accounts for its first hour. Chaplin finds his farcical door-slamming routine, where Natascha must go into hiding whenever a stranger knocks on Ogden’s door, far funnier than we the audience do. Chaplin ladles on his score very thickly, as though he thinks the music is emoting better than his actors are – and he might be right. Loren seems game for anything, but Brando comes across as sullen, at least for the movie’s first half or so. And when the duo embrace passionately right at the movie’s one-hour mark, we really have to tell ourselves they’re in love, because they themselves haven’t given us much of a sign.
With all of that said, if you can hang on that long through the movie, it finally picks up steam in the last 45 minutes. After the movie beats us to death with the fact that Natascha has no papers or passport, Ogden and his associate Harvey (Chaplin’s son Sydney, in the movie’s liveliest performance) decide to “marry off” Natascha to Ogden’s valet Hudson (Patrick Cargill) to make Natascha an official American citizen. The movie finally grabs hold in the scene where Ogden first relays the plan to Hudson and explains it to him as though it was just another task for Hudson to perform in the course of his workday. Cargill’s understated reactions, here and for the rest of the movie, are priceless.
Once the movie finally finds its footing, it delivers all sorts of comic wonders: a terrific bit where Sydney, in deadpan imitation of his father, steals a man’s martini out from under him; Hudson’s bedtime routine, acted out in front of a double-taking Natascha; and best of all, a grand five minutes from Margaret Rutherford as a dotty but assertive old lady. (Monty Python cultists will enjoy seeing Python sidekick Carol Cleveland in an early role as Rutherford’s nurse.)
Chaplin’s final four features suffer for spotty pacing and scenes that ought to have been severely edited or removed outright. A Countess from Hong Kong is easily the worst offender, and it is probably this debit that has caused so many moviegoers to give up on this film. But it would be sad to think that Chaplin’s final film was too repugnant to endure, and while it starts out as such a test, it eventually finishes Chaplin’s movie career on a poignant note.