Countess from Hong Kong (1967): Chaplin Directs Brando and Sophia Loren

Charlie Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong” with Brando in the lead, generated a lot of interest and press when announced.

But upon seeing the picture, most critics were disappointed with the pale, old-fashioned bedroom farce.  Bosley Crowther in of the “New York Times” summed up the feelings of many others when he wrote:” If an old fan of Mr. Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred.”


Coming after the poignant and personal film, “Limelight” (1952), “Countess from Hong Kong” was doubly disappointing. At 63, Chaplin had not been in Hollywood for almost four decades, and he came out of semi-retirement in Switzerland to make it.


The idea for “Countess from Hong Kong” occurred to Chaplin while he was visiting Shanghai in 1931.  First, he considered it as a vehicle for himself and his then wife-actress Paulette Goddard but it never materialized.  Made in the late 1960s, it was an outdated effort in concept and antics.


The saga begins in Hong Kong as American millionaire-diplomat Ogden Mears (Brando) is in a nightclub before sailing the next day to the U.S.  He enjoys the company of attractive young ladies, including the Countess Natasha (Sophia Loren), a poor Russian émigré, who has made a living since age 13 as a dance-hall girl. 


At sea, Mears discovers Natasha hiding in his stateroom, determined to get to America and threatening to label him an abductor if he reports her as a stowaway.  Taking a world cruise to recover from an illness, Mears gets word that he has been appointed American ambassador to Audi-Arabia.  Already harassed by a wife seeking divorce, he has to deal now with a voluptuous woman hiding in his cabin.


The journey from Hong Kong to Honolulu turns into a series of adventures to conceal Natasha, though Mears shares the secret with his secretary Harvey Crothers (Sydney Chaplin) and his manservant Hudson (Patrick Cargill), asking for their advice.


Meanwhile, the beautiful Natasha is running around in his pajamas, popping in and out of closets.  In order to confer on her legit status, Crothers suggests that Hudson marry her, with the understanding that as American citizen she will be able to get passport in Hawaii as well as immediate divorce.  The marriage is performed by the ship’s captain, causing further comic complications; the frustrated, horny groom is unable to share his bed with his bride, but has to project the image that does. 


When the ship docks in Honolulu, Mears’s wife Martha (Tippi Hedren, right after her Hitchcock movies) shows interest in reconciliation, leading Natasha to escape the ship while dressed as a Hawaiian and diving overboard.  But after being a wife for a short time, Mears decides he doesn’t want to resume the marriage and that Natasha is more important to him than his career.


The meager plot takes forever to tell, and Chaplin’s pedestrian direction is of no help.  As much of the story takes place in the stateroom, during the voyage across the Pacific, there is dynamic movement.  The film occasionally comes to life in the efforts to hide Natasha from visitors, but the gimmick proves repetitive. 


Resorting to bathroom humor, Brando is asked to belch after taking Alka-Seltzer, and at a later scene, a radio is turned up to hide the sound of the toilet.  A few good moments are scored by the actors, such as Margaret Rutherford as a daffy and crotchety bed-ridden passenger, and Patrick Cargill as the put-upon manservant married to a magnificent woman, but denied access to her room. 


Chaplin himself provides one of the highlights in a brief appearance as a seasick old steward.  Stuck with a shallow character and ludicrous lines, Brando seems miscast or lost at sea.


Upon reading the negative reviews, Chaplin fired back:  “If they don’t like it, they’re bloody fools.  I’m Old-fashioned?  They are old-fashioned?  I’m not worried.  I still think it’s a great film, and I think the audiences will agree with me rather than the critics.”  Unfortunately, the pubic sided with the reviewers.