A Countess From Hong Kong (1967) **


Chaplin's last film, after a gap of fourteen years, was dismissed as hopelessly outdated at the time of its release, but has weathered the years with more dignity than many of its more celebrated peers, just as he predicted it would.

The film's error (at the time) was to strive to be timeless rather than fashionable, and light rather than weighty. Light it certainly is - as light as a helium balloon, overbalanced only by the weight of expectation it was forced to carry, and by Marlon Brando's clodhopping performance. (Sophia Loren, on the other hand, gets the mood exactly right and is delightful throughout, as are the generally excellent support cast, including Patrick Cargill stealing the show as a valet and Chaplin himself in a cute cameo as a seasick steward.)

Many were expecting Chaplin to take on the mood and trends of the late sixties as his previous film, A King In New York, had done for the early fifties, and were somehow affronted to instead find themselves served with a fluffy romantic farce based on a script he had written for Paulette Goddard in the 1930s. Much of what was deemed so alienating about the film in 1967 is clearly attributable to its roots in the thirties screwball tradition: the action gets underway too quickly for a sixties film, and as a result audiences have been known to misread the initial farce episodes on the boat as merely an extended prologue rather than the first act, leading to accusations of anticlimax, formlessness and triviality.
The other problem is that material such as this is inevitably swamped in colour and wide screen – but whether this is a fault with the material or the medium is a matter for the individual viewer.

There is no question that its greatest sin was to have been launched in one of those maddening cultural epochs we are forced to live through from time to time, that are in love with themselves and demand uniform worship from their product, and dared instead to ignore the consensus more or less entirely. Critics pounced, but as co-star Margaret Rutherford reflected at the time, "critics can be very tiresome gentlemen." It surely has aged better than many of the original critical judgements, such as that of Ernest Betts in the People, who found the film "as dated as one of those silent movies we see now and then."