Universal // 1967 // 108 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // June 16th, 2004
"The auteurists think that any Chaplin, even s**t Chaplin, is terrific.
How I wish that those people be stranded on a desert island with only A
Countess from Hong Kong."
-- William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
Now that's a fate I wouldn't mind, Bill. While most of the critical establishment has made a sport out of trashing Charles Chaplin's final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, I'm here to do otherwise. I think that Countess is one of Chaplin's best films, an old-fashioned romantic comedy with heart and wit. Those ingredients are sorely lacking from many contemporary comedies. It's a pleasure to see them done well in any film, especially one by a master like Chaplin.
Countess Natascha (Sophia Loren, Two Women) is a Russian aristocrat who now turns tricks in Hong Kong for a living. Tired of that lifestyle, she stows away on a ship headed toward America. She hides away in the stateroom of American senator Odgen Stewart (Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront) and his friend Patrick (Sydney Chaplin, the director's son). Her scheme: blackmail Odgen into smuggling her into the States and helping her achieve citizenship. What she doesn't count on is that Odgen is no sap, not to mention very resistant. But over time Odgen softens up and even manages to fall for the fallen countess.
A Countess from Hong Kong marked a series of firsts in the distinguished career of Charles Chaplin. The film was his first to be financed by a major studio, Universal Pictures. He filmed in Technicolor and widescreen for the only time in his career. Chaplin was able to procure the services of major stars, something he never did previously (unless you count Buster Keaton in Limelight). Armed with the largest budget he ever had, Chaplin dusted off a script originally intended for a shelved 1938 production. The hype factor built up in the months leading up to the film's release.
Things did not pan out as Chaplin planned. For one thing, he clashed with Brando many times during the filming. Brando reportedly resented Chaplin's methods, which had proven successful in the past. According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson's book Charles Chaplin: Comic Genius, the two men didn't speak to each other at all toward the end of filming. Moreover, by the time of the film's release in 1967, cinema was changing from the old guard to a new, freer style of filmmaking. According to Robinson's book, "A pleasant romantic comedy, the film seemed positively archaic in the year of The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel), and Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard)." Throw in the counterculture films being distributed by American International Pictures and you'll get a complete picture of why this old-fashioned comedy seemed outdated. Chaplin received the worst reviews of his career, with Britain and America being particularly cruel. Even though he kept developing projects, this would be the last film Charles Chaplin would ever make.
I am going to shock many reading this by admitting that I love this film. Love it, love it, love it. Whenever I feel down, I can count on this film (or any Chaplin film for that matter) to raise my spirits. It's that good. I think the main reason for the film's tepid reception in 1967 was the comparison of Countess to Chaplin's earlier work, but this is an unfair comparison. Chaplin's earlier work was made under extraordinary circumstances. He had total control on each and every film he made previously. This time around, however, he had a studio to answer to -- although, to their credit, they did leave Chaplin alone and released his final cut. As I mentioned before, the cinema scene was changing rapidly in 1967. The old techniques Chaplin was accustomed to were now considered passé by a generation hooked on the French New Wave. Audiences flocking to see the crossroads of Benjamin Braddock could care less about the comic battle of wills between Odgen and the Countess.
It's a shame, because they were missing out on a fine film. Chaplin's comic timing is much more subtle than normal, but as sharp as ever. He maintains a deliberate pace, allowing the viewer to savor each comic moment as it builds. Rightly, Chaplin realizes that in order for both the comedy and the romance to succeed, they have to be performed straight. If he had the cast knowingly play it for laughs, the film wouldn't work. The film's basic story is appealing, and despite the critical roasting, Chaplin tells his story well. He resists throwing in crude humor, taking the high road.
It's sweet to see Chaplin take on new challenges in this picture. Working with widescreen for the only time, he makes the most of it. The screen is often filled with many details, both small and large. But Chaplin also nicely uses the wider image to convey inner feelings, something many filmmakers do not bother to do (especially when more concerned about the eventual pan-and-scan version). His use of color is beautiful; like a child in a candy store, Chaplin uses a variety of different shades to pepper his images. Add to this a lush, melodic score that enhances the story without giving away key details.
The performances are superb. Marlon Brando gives his best performance since One-Eyed Jacks here, filling the role with sly humor and dignity. He may have quarreled with Chaplin, but the two men worked well together to create this performance. Sophia Loren is not only luminous as the countess, but she also creates a living, breathing character. Those who think that Nicole Kidman is the cat's pajamas should see this film: They'll see an actress who is not only glamorous but also cares enough about her performance to appear fully human on screen. Sydney Chaplin gives a good supporting performance as Brando's pal; he may have been the director's son, but he has ability to justify the casting. Tippi Hedren is a somewhat controversial figure in acting, but she does good work as the younger Chaplin's wife.
Countess is long out of print on home video, and Universal has issued it on DVD for the first time. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image should be better than this. Upon starting the picture, it's evident that no restoration or cleanup efforts were made before transferring the film to disc. There is a layer of grain that becomes pesky after a few minutes. The telltale signs of age (scratches, specks, and dirt) are present. One good thing about the image is that the colors look very nice and vivid, which is particularly important since, in shooting his first color film, Chaplin took full advantage of the palette color photography offered him. As noted earlier, Chaplin makes excellent use of widescreen and crams the screen with lots of details. A sharper image would have revealed even more of this detail, but this is a clearer image than most VHS copies of the film. In other words, this transfer is a mixed bag.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. This is the appropriate choice, as Chaplin always made his films in monophonic sound (he distrusted stereophonic sound as a mere gimmick). The sound mix is excellent for a catalog item. It's very clean, with the exception of a few crackles here and there. As is the case with most Chaplin films, the music is an important element. The lovely score, composed by Chaplin himself, sounds absolutely beautiful on my sound system, and it will on yours as well.
Extras are limited to the film's original theatrical trailer. Presented in full frame, it is nothing more than a teaser trailer. Very little of the film is revealed other than that it is the return of Chaplin after a ten-year hiatus. I wonder if this was really the original trailer or a trailer designed for damage control. If anyone out there has the answer, let me know via an e-mail!
Keeping in step with other catalog releases, Universal has priced A Countess from Hong Kong at an affordable $14.95 retail price. With many stores offering a discount, you can find this disc for less than ten bucks. How could anyone resist getting a Chaplin film for so little money?
If you're still being swayed by those other critics, just rent the film on any format you can find. I'm sure that true Chaplin fans will adore it just as I did.
Charles Chaplin is acquitted of all charges. May he be allowed to finally rest in peace. I am handing out guilty verdicts to all those closed-minded enough to ignore the film's charms and pleasures. Stop comparing this film to his earlier work! That's an order!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Theatrical Trailer