Release Date: 5 January 1967
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 107 minutes (revised cut)
With: Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Sydney Chaplin, Tippi Hedren, Patrick Cargill, Margaret Rutherford, Charlie Chaplin
Story: A beautiful Russian Countess stows away in the cabin of an American diplomat on a liner outbound from Hong Kong.
Production: There was a decade between A King in New York and Charlie Chaplin’s final film as writer and director (and his brief final onscreen appearance), A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967. Although it may be thought that Chaplin, now in his 70s, might have entered a period of contented retirement in his mansion house in Switzerland, nothing could be further from the truth. He was as busy and vital as ever during this time by all accounts.
The Chaplin family—growing with the addition of new children (six sons, five daughters, spanning his four marriages, eight with Oona—four of his children arrived after he turned 64) for a total of 11 in all—toured the world en masse on several occasions. Chaplin continued to revisit his older work, re-issuing revised versions of A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim as a feature dubbed The Chaplin Revue (1959). His main occupation immediately following A King in New York was the process of compiling his autobiography, a work that grew from periods of reminiscence sparked by visits from his half-brother, Sydney.
Although offered the services of a co-writer or even a ghostwriter, Chaplin insisted he must tell his own story in his own words. It was a process that soon got away from him. Rather than type his own work, Chaplin dictated his life story to his secretary, Eileen Burnier, relying on her to edit, clean up, and re-order his stream-of-consciousness anecdotes from all across his life and career. The book was promised for 1958, but it didn’t see publication, under the title My Autobiography, until 1964. Full of oversights and omissions, Chaplin’s autobiography was self aggrandising and indulgent. Lita Grey Chaplin—dismissed in a mere three lines despite being the mother of two of Chaplin’s surviving children—responded with a book of her own, Life With Chaplin, in an attempt to balance the scales. The spark behind the writing of Chaplin’s book, Sydney, died on 16 April 1965 aged 80—the same day was also Chaplin’s 76th birthday.
Chaplin was still intent on making new films and he toyed with various projects in the decade after A King in New York. One was a spoof Hollywood epic, perhaps based on the movies of the 1950s now so out-of-date in the swinging 1960s, while he also harboured ambitions to write for the stage, perhaps an opera based on Tess of the D’ubervilles. For a long time he developed a story about a convict, intending the part to revitalise the acting career of his son Sydney, now in his 40s (his most recent film had been 1961’s Follow That Man).
Instead, for his 81st film and the only one he made in colour (and widescreen, a 1950s cinematic innovation he’d decried in A King in New York), Chaplin returned to an idea that dated from almost four decades before when in the 1930s it had been intended as a vehicle for his then partner Paulette Goddard. Like A King in New York, the original story drew from real-life deposed aristocrats (in this case, escapees from the Russian revolution). Chaplin returned to the material, updating it for contemporary times but essentially telling the tale he had intended many decades before.
Thanks largely to his standing, the 76-year-old Chaplin was able to line up a stellar 1960s cast, including Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, and Tippi Hedern, without even showing any of them a screenplay. Several of the actors came to regret their impetuous choice to commit to Chaplin’s film sight unseen, especially Brando who feigned illness to escape the set at Pinewood studios just outside London (where shooting began in January 1966), and Hedren, who complained to Chaplin that her ‘substantial’ supporting role was little more than a cameo towards the end of the film.
In 2016 Hedren recalled her experience making A Countess From Hong Kong in 1966, including her exposure to Chaplin’s ‘bizarre’ method of direction that was completely different to that of Alfred Hitchcock whom Hedren was more used to. ‘It was interesting to meet Chaplin after Hitchcock,’ she wrote, ‘their directing styles were so different. Chaplin’s method was to act out all our different roles, which was brilliant to watch. Instead of directing, he’d get out there on set and say: “OK, do this,” and show us how. He’d become Sophia Loren. He’d become me and Marlon. It was really unusual and I’d never seen it happen before.’ Which goes to show that across his entire career, Chaplin never wavered in his unique style of directing others.
Chaplin’s instructional directing style was also difficult for Brando, who revered the ‘method’ style of acting, popular since the 1950s. Hedren recalled: ‘Charlie and Marlon put up with each other, you might say. Marlon was so insulted to see someone acting out his role and that’s why he wanted to leave. I thought it was charming and funny, but Marlon wanted to quit and Charlie had to convince him to stay on.’ Brando took to showing up late on set, dominating Loren, and attempted to ‘psych-out’ his elderly director. Chaplin was having none of it and very quickly restored his authority by threatening Brando with rival press conferences to air their grievances. ‘We’ll see who gets the biggest audience,’ he said, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye.
For the first time since 1918, Chaplin was working for a studio—Universal—and did not finance or totally control the film. He was paid a director’s fee of $600,000 (not that he needed the money) and had a share in the film’s box office gross (worthless, as it turned out, as the film flopped). Working at Pinewood, Chaplin faced more of the same unfamiliarity with the equipment and protocols of modern studio filmmaking a whole decade after he’d lasted worked behind the camera. ‘I am the servant of the Muses,’ said Chaplin at a November 1965 press conference announcing A Countess From Hong Kong, ‘and when they say “Get back to work, you lazy bum” I get back.’
Chaplin made a small cameo in the movie—his only appearance in one of his own films in colour. He played an elderly ship’s steward who, unaccountably given his profession, seemingly suffers from seasickness, recalling scenes from earlier ship-board Chaplin shorts. Chaplin’s steward had few lines, and as this was his final appearance in his final films, he left the world of moving pictures as he’d come in, silently.
The final shots for A Countess From Hong Kong were actually the opening scenes of the film. Chaplin apparently deliberately scheduled this sequence as his final work as filming took place at the showrooms of tent maker John Edgington (doubling as a Hong Kong nightclub), located in the Old Kent Road, very close to where Chaplin had spent his troubled youth. The director had celebrated his 77th birthday during the shoot, so perhaps felt this might be his last time in London and took the opportunity of making his final film to return to the place where his life had begun.
A Countess From Hong Kong turned out to be an unremarkable, middling romantic comedy that was not greatly romantic nor particularly funny. If the film had not been made by the revered Charlie Chaplin, it is unlikely it would have received even the few positive notices that came its way. The film was out-of-step with the rebellious cinema of the late-1960s, a creaky would-be farce where a sharper, more youthful wit was required. It was the work of a filmmaker whose approach had changed little, and then exceedingly grudgingly, since the silent days before 1929. Now, in the late-1960s, his art was out-of-place and out-of-time—he was no longer capable of making films that were contemporary, with A Countess of Hong Kong stuck in some kind of vague wartime limbo, crossing the 1930s with the 1950s in its approach to comedy and drama.
For the Sunday Express, the new Chaplin film was ‘old fashioned’ and ‘predictable’, while many critics complained about the miscast leads, deeming Loren and Brando unsuitable for such comedic farce material. Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard claimed Brando had been ‘directed to act in two styles, one reminiscent of a speak-your-weight machine and the other a sudden, manic frenzy peculiar to bedroom farce’. The Daily Mail was one of the few to lightly praise Chaplin’s late life effort: ‘Not by a long chalk the best of Chaplin, but all the same an agreeable escapist send-off for the New Year.’ In the United States, Time magazine called the film ‘probably the best movie made by a 77-year-old man. Unhappily, it is the worst movie made by Charlie Chaplin.’
A Countess From Hong Kong turned out to be Charlie Chaplin’s final film, but it wasn’t actually intended as such. Approaching the age of 80, he was still at work developing a new movie under the title The Freak, a fairy tale-like story following the fortunes of a young girl with wings found in Argentina by scientists. Chaplin planned to feature two of his daughters—Josephine and Victoria in the film; they had both made appearances in A Countess From Hong Kong along with Sydney (who shone) and Geraldine. It almost sounds like the kind of film Guillermo del Toro might make today, but it was not to come to fruition (although he was still talking about making it as late as 1972).
During post-production on A Countess From Hong Kong in October 1966, Chaplin had suffered a broken ankle following a fall in the street. He may have considered himself to be still young at heart, or at least mentally, but his body was beginning to let him down. He finally had to give up playing tennis, the one physical activity not involving women that he had pursued throughout his adult life. The much younger Oona, just 52 when Chaplin died, found her role as Chaplin’s wife morphing more into that of a care-giver, looking after a now elderly man. Chaplin continued working, composing new scores for his older films (such as 1928’s The Circus)
Throughout the 1960s, attitudes to Charlie Chaplin began to change, especially in America, the country that had expelled him in 1952. In 1962 The New York Times asserted ‘We do not believe the Republic would be in danger if yesterday’s unforgotten little Tramp were allowed to amble down the gangplank of a steamer or plane in an American port’. His work was being re-screened and re-evaluated, attracting new, younger audiences. He was awarded honorary degrees by Oxford and Durham universities. A year-long series of Chaplin’s lifetime of films began screening at New York’s Plaza Theater from November 1963, and his autobiography—despite its shortcomings and oversights—became a best-seller around the world (it spent six months on the American non-fiction best-seller list) in 1964.
Chaplin suffered a personal tragedy with the death of his son Charlie Chaplin Jr. on 20 March 1968, aged just 42, felled by a heart attack. The younger Chaplin had gone through two failed marriages and suffered from alcoholism. He’d attempted a career as an actor, but had felt professionally hamstrung by the famous name he’d inherited. He had been semi-estranged from his father for a long time, having been brought up largely by his mother, Lita Grey. He appeared in over a dozen movies, including Girls Town (1959), with the son of another famous silent comedian, Harold Lloyd, Jr., and in his father’s Limelight (1952). His autobiography, My Father Charlie Chaplin was published in 1960 and laid out the difficulties he’d had with his family. (‘My Father Charlie Chaplin’ was an odd title for a book about your own life; what with Chaplin’s ‘My Autobiography’—who else’s could it be?—and Michael Chaplin’s ‘I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on my Father’s Lawn’ (1966), weird book titles clearly ran in the family.)
The 1970s were to be no quieter for Chaplin. He re-released revised versions of The Kid and The Circus and in 1971 won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and then one at the Venice Film Festival in 1972. That same year, the Academy awarded Charlie Chaplin an honorary Oscar in recognition of his lifetime achievement in filmmaking. He was also finally accorded the long-overdue honour of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Accepting the Oscar meant returning to the nation that has so forcibly ejected him two decades before. Chaplin, nonetheless, decided to make the trip and won a 12-minute standing ovation from the Hollywood audience which visibly moved him.
Although still planning new work that was never to be achieved, during his final years Charlie Chaplin continued to revisit his past, reissuing A Woman of Paris with a new score in 1976 and adapting his autobiography for a photo-driven volume, the punningly-titled My Life in Pictures (1974). In 1975 the documentary The Gentleman Tramp was just the first of many that chronicled the old clown’s life and career. In 1975, Chaplin was knighted, making him Sir Charles Chaplin, an award he received aged 85 from his wheelchair so frail was he by this point.
Charlie Chaplin died in his sleep on the morning of Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88 (Chaplin hated Christmas, and his daughter Geraldine even implied he may have deliberately chosen his moment of departure). A funeral two days later saw him buried at the local cemetery in Corzier-sur-Vevey, his home from the mid-1950s. There was a blackly comic postscript to Chaplin’s interment that he would no doubt have found humorously macabre—his body was stolen in March 1978 as part of a bungled ransom attempt. The police quickly caught the hopeless perpetrators, a pair of unemployed immigrants (Chaplin biographer David Robinson dubbed the pair ‘Keystone incompetents’). Chaplin’s coffin was recovered unharmed and re-interred, this time encased in reinforced concrete.
After a lifetime of screen work, spanning 1914 to 1967—an astonishing 53 years—what Charlie Chaplin left behind was not ongoing controversy about his private life or his politics but the fruits of that work: his films. Although revival screenings and reconsidered critical opinion had begun to emerge from the 1960s onwards, it wasn’t really until long after Chaplin’s death that his work became widely available for ordinary viewers to become acquainted with. Television screenings were rare, but the arrival of home video (VHS through DVD and Blu-ray) has allowed for meticulous, archive restorations of Chaplin’s films to become easily available for audiences to continually rediscover.
Shortly before Chaplin’s death, upon the 1976 re-release of Modern Times, Mike Harris of The Australian wrote of Charlie Chaplin: ‘Seeing his films helps one to understand how he has become legendary: they are his immortality.’
Trivia: Chaplin’s outline for The Freak saw the mysterious winged girl in Argentina kidnapped and brought to London where she is displayed in a circus/freak show as an ‘angel’. She escapes, but after various adventures is eventually recaptured only to be put on trial to determine her humanity. Chaplin started work on this idea in 1969 and continued to develop it over the next five or six years, on and off. The marriage of his daughter, Victoria, and her desire to ‘run off and join the circus’ in real life brought the project as originally outlined to an end. However, as late as his 85th birthday in 1975 (the same year he became Sir Charles Chaplin), Chaplin was still saying: ‘I mean to make it someday.’ Unfortunately, he never got the chance…
Charlie Says: ‘I sometimes sit out on our terrace at sunset and look over a vast green lawn to the lake in the distance, and beyond the lake to the reassuring mountains, and in this mood think of nothing but enjoy their magnificent serenity.’—Charlie Chaplin’s final paragraph in My Autobiography, 1964.
Verdict: An unfortunately misfiring final effort from Chaplin. The film takes the better part of an hour to get going, Brando is miscast, and the farce is neither fast enough nor farcical enough. There’s good value to be had from Sydney Chaplin, Patrick Cargill, and (briefly, in the available cut) Margaret Rutherford. Chaplin’s twinkly cameo is another brief highlight, but A Countess From Hong Kong simply proves Chaplin should have stopped after A King in New York.—Brian J. Robb
Project Postscript: This is the final regular posting in a project that has taken five years to complete, from 2014 to the end of 2019. Initially, I covered each Chaplin release from the beginning exactly 100 years on from the original release, a neat way of re-engaging with Chaplin’s work as it originally unfolded. Of course, as Chaplin’s work rate slowed and into his features, I had to move on from that (otherwise I’d still be at it in 2067 on the 100th anniversary of A Countess From Hong Kong, when I’d also be 100 years old!). So I started covering those films on a more-or-less monthly basis. The work will remain here to be consulted, and is also available as a series of revised ebooks with additional content (the later ones will be released soon). It’s been a fun ride, and I hope some readers got some enjoyment and perhaps enlightenment from Chaplin: Film by Film. Hopefully it has also helped to keep Chaplin’s work alive and may have introduced him and his films to some new fans. Thanks to all who have read the material and stuck with the project across half a decade. Now, what to do next…?—Brian J. Robb
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.