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Monday, June 04, 2018

When Writer/Director Chaplin Came Back

Charlie Does 1967 His Way

Another from 60's-kept scrapbooks, this ad for Winston-Salem open of A Countess From Hong Kong caught my eye at the time for its F-R-E-E give of doughnuts and coffee to those attending a Tuesday morning "Sneak Preview." I didn't know at age 13 what a "Continental Breakfast" was, a meal you'd eat on another continent perhaps? Clearly I wasn't the right audience for A Countess From Hong Kong, being more congenially occupied with Rasputin, The Mad Monk around that time. As with Love Has Many Faces and others aimed at distaff market, Countess saw much of attendance derive from women stopping in singly or with friends to watch. Much word-of-mouth would travel over ambient noise of hair dryers or whatever cacophony beauty salons might generate. Do I belittle women moviegoers of the day? Not at all, at least intentionally. They were, next to youth, a most loyal audience and among few left as 60's theatres fell like wheat before the scythe. Matinees were a convenience thanks to kids secured at school and husbands presumably at toil. Homemakers, happy or otherwise, saw films as break from routine, assuming topic was one that intrigued them. Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren in a frothy and perhaps naughty shipboard romance might well have filled at least half of seats that June 27 morn, and who knows but what bulk of watchers, good will warmed by cups of Joe and sinkers, had plentiful good time.

Critics cursed (still do) A Countess From Hong Kong. Would that have mattered in slightest to a Winston-Salem lady attending with members of her bridge club? (P.P.S., says the ad, Invite a friend --- make it a party!) For this sort of showgoing, good company was the pleasure and mirth was contagious. What's your guess A Countess From Hong Kong got laughs in a crowded enough house? Yes, it laid dead as a dog for me when NBC had primetime premiere on 9-20-69, but how was that fair way to watch? I had known A Countess From Hong Kong since arrival of a LIFE magazine the week of April 1, 1966, months from when the film would be released in early 1967. The cover had writer-director Charlie Chaplin gazing upon Sophia Loren from behind, and above, her. Chaplin was above every aspect of A Countess From Hong Kong. The project was all about him so far as advance publicity went, and there was ocean of that over seasons' run-up. I looked at LIFE photos of the Little Tramp and couldn't believe that someone who made movies in 1914 was making another one now. Chaplin for me was a creature of mostly still images and a clip or so on TV. His early shorts were tentative-used in a few of Robert Youngson fun-fests (CC still a political controversy in late 50/early 60's), while features were withheld by the comic legend and certainly not shown where I was.

A Countess From Hong Kong accomplished a lot by making Chaplin a name again, hopefully a relevant and even commercial one, assuming the movie clicked. Novelty of his turning 77 as Countess was made got ink for itself, credit due such a venerable artist seeing any major project through. Chaplin had enough bounce in his step and coals in fire to make age an irrelevance. There had been an autobiography a few years before, well-received and popular. Chaplin even dribbled out a few of his treasures to urban situations, and they made a hit (especially Monsieur Verdoux in New York). So what then, if A Countess From Hong Kong flopped? It would, if nothing else, enhance awareness of, and value to, Chaplin's backlog, and that would ripen to a million $ deal when he leased the lot to an independent promoter. Taking most of lumps for A Countess From Hong Kong was, I suspect, Universal, and we could wonder what executive walked the plank for having given this a go.

There is a DVD of A Countess From Hong Kong from Universal, and it is lovely, disappointment to then- supporters  tempered by fifty years accepting Countess as flawed result it was. Searching out the good is a high hill to climb, but better casting for a start might have helped. Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren fascinate for their utter wrongness here, it well known that Chaplin directed both by playing their parts and having them ape him close as possible. Tension was observed and spread thanks to so much press on the set. Lots said that Charlie was funnier than his stars could hope to be. A Countess From Hong Kong would certainly have been a better comedy if they had simply photographed Chaplin directing it. He'd not permit a production short (too bad), but a seeming thousand stills were taken. Universal issued many of these to US media. I doubt any director in the company's history had so much promotion focused on him. Brando and Loren were allegedly the biggest names going when Chaplin got them, but hardly at a peak of respective careers. Changing times being what they were, A Countess From Hong Kong might still have failed even if it had been a better picture.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Odd that the movie ad does not mention WHICH theatre was hosting the Continental Breakfast party of ACFHK.

7:05 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Actually, there is some footage on the set celebrating his 77th birthday.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Saw this years ago, and it made two impressions: Sophia Loren was a delightful comic actress, and the movie seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. How many decades old was the script Chaplin dusted off?

11:38 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Brando, Loren, Chaplin? I can’t think of a weirder combination of talent. RASPUTIN was, by far, a lesser waste of celluloid than A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I seem to recall that Chaplin wrote the script circa 1937 with the idea of casting Paulette Goddard in the lead. Scripts laying around 30 years don't age very well. Plus, the idea of Marlon "Method" Brando going along with Chaplin's direction step by step is ludicrous. But it makes me wonder what future cineastes will think of Woody Allen's 21st-century movies.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...


You may have a problem with your Blogger site. I notice little to no responses to your posts, which seems unusual, and I know that I sent one in for RIO BRAVO. Jerry

6:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Turns out there was a Blogger problem, as in me not receiving e-mails from the service when there was a new comment to pass through. Plenty were there all along and I just needed to locate them, a Blogger switch not shared with ones of us that maintain sites. I should have had presence of mind to figure this out sooner. The accumulated comments for Rio Bravo, She Had To Say Yes, and A Countess from Hong Kong are now up, many fine observations among them. As always, Greenbriar welcomes more.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Bill DeLapp said...

NBC first aired COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG as the season premiere for its "Saturday Night at the Movies" franchise on Sept. 20, 1969. It may have been part of a syndication package as of 1971.

2:59 PM  

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