A Countess from Hong Kong is a 1967 British comedy film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and starring Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Tippi Hedren and Sydney Chaplin, Chaplin's third son. It was the last film directed, written, produced and scored by Chaplin, and one of two films Chaplin directed in which he did not play a major role (the other was 1923's A Woman of Paris), as well as his only color film. Chaplin's cameo marked his final screen appearance.
The story is based loosely on the life of a woman Chaplin met in France, named Moussia Sodskaya, or "Skaya" as he calls her in his 1922 book, My Trip Abroad. She was a Russian singer and dancer who "was a stateless person marooned in France without a passport". The idea, according to a press release written by Chaplin after the movie received a negative reception, "resulted from a visit I made to Shanghai in 1931 where I came across a number of titled aristocrats who had escaped the Russian Revolution. They were destitute and without a country, their status was of the lowest grade. The men ran rickshaws and the women worked in ten-cent dance halls. When the Second World War broke out many of the old aristocrats had died and the younger generation migrated to Hong Kong where their plight was even worse, for Hong Kong was overcrowded with refugees."
It was originally started as a film called Stowaway in the 1930s, planned for Paulette Goddard, but production was never completed. This resulting film, created nearly 30 years after its inception, was a critical failure and grossed US$2,000,000 from a US$3,500,000 budget. However, it did prove to be extremely successful in Europe and Japan. In addition, the success of the music score was able to cover the budget.
Critics such as Tim Hunter and Andrew Sarris, as well as the poet John Betjeman and the director François Truffaut, viewed the film as being among Chaplin's best works. Actor Jack Nicholson is also a big fan of the film.
The film's theme music, written by Chaplin, became the hit song "This Is My Song" for Petula Clark—a UK no. 1 and US no. 3.
Ambassador-designate to Saudi Arabia Ogden Mears (Marlon Brando) sails back to America after touring the world. He meets Natascha, a Russian countess (Sophia Loren), in Hong Kong after she sneaks aboard in evening dress to escape her life at a dance hall for sailors. A refugee, she has no passport and is forced to stay in his cabin during the voyage.
Ogden dislikes the situation, being a married man, although seeking a divorce, and worries how it might affect his career if she is found. But he reluctantly agrees to let her stay. They then have to figure out a way to get her off the ship, and it is arranged that she marry his aged valet, Hudson (Patrick Cargill).
Although it is only a formality, Hudson wishes to consummate the relationship, a wish she does not share. Natascha avoids him and, before docking at port, jumps off the ship and swims ashore.
Ogden's wife (Tippi Hedren) then joins the cruise, having just missed Natasha. Ogden's lawyer friend Harvey (Sydney Earle Chaplin), who helped arrange the marriage, meets Natascha ashore and tells her that the immigration officers have accepted her as Hudson's wife. Ogden's wife then confronts him about Natasha, speaking rather roughly about her and the life she led. He then asks if his wife would have done as well under such circumstances.
The film ends with Ogden and Natascha meeting in a hotel's cabaret, where they begin dancing, since he has left the cruise and his wife behind.
Charlie Chaplin makes two brief appearances as an aged ship's steward.
This was Chaplin's first film in ten years, after 1957's A King in New York. He had written a draft of the script in the late 1930s under the working title The Stowaway, as a starring vehicle for his then-wife Paulette Goddard.
He originally wanted Rex Harrison or Cary Grant to play the lead but eventually Marlon Brando was cast. Both Brando and Sophia Loren agreed to play their parts without reading a script. Shooting began on 25 January 1966 at Pinewood Studios; it was frequently interrupted by Brando arriving late and then being hospitalised with appendicitis, Chaplin and Brando having the flu, and Loren remarrying Carlo Ponti. Filming wrapped on 5 January 1967.
This is Tippi Hedren's first feature film after her break with director Alfred Hitchcock. She had high hopes for the film, until she received the script. When she realised that she had a small part as Brando's estranged wife, she asked Chaplin to expand her role. Although Chaplin tried to accommodate her, he could not, as the story mostly takes place on a ship, which Hedren's character boards near the end of the film. In the end, she remained in the film and later said that it was a pleasure working for him.
Chaplin's three eldest daughters appeared in the film: Geraldine (at minutes 46 and 1:05), Josephine and Victoria Chaplin (at minute 1:32).
It was filmed entirely at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, just outside London, in 1966. The film was the second of Universal's European unit, following Fahrenheit 451.
The movie was not released on home video until 1996, with the VHS format as part of the Universal Cinema Classics series. Then in 2003 it was released onto DVD in widescreen format, and later re-released as part of the DVD set Marlon Brando: The Franchise Collection.
The film received mixed-to-positive reviews, and has a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.The New York Times review for 17 March 1967 stated that "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".
Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide 1995, gave it one-and-a-half stars, stating that it was "badly shot, badly timed, badly scored".
TV Guide gave the movie one star, with the comment: "a dismal, uninviting comedy".
Radio Times gave the film two stars, stating that "it's all too staid and too stagey".
The Harvard Crimson for 25 April 1967 gave it a fairly good review saying: "Take the new Chaplin film on its own terms; contrary to all those patronizing critics, the old man hasn't really lost his touch, and Countess is a glorious romance".
Filmcritic.com gave it three stars, stating however that "the repetitive story (with Loren repeatedly running to hide in Brando's bathroom when there's a knock on the door) gets tiresome".
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, writing in 2003, maintains "A Countess from Hong Kong is less interesting than any of Chaplin's previous sound films because it contains neither political nor satirical elements." Vance believes some of Chaplin's own comic vision and optimism is infused in Sophia Loren's role. A dance-hall girl, Loren's character of Natascha—a prostitute—"perpetuates Chaplin's lifelong fascination with fallen women as heroines. In many ways, Natascha is the proxy for the Tramp in the film, searching for a better life, while always understanding that both happiness and beauty are fleeting. The Tramp's philosophy is expressed by Natascha's dialogue, 'Don't be sad. That's too easy. Be like me. At this moment, I'm very happy....That's all we can ask for—this moment.' This statement can be applied to the film as well; while it is easy to lament its many failures, particularly because it is Chaplin's last film, it is perhaps best to cherish its wonderful, fleeting comic moments."