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269 9 Return to Form A Countess from Hong Kong A Countess from Hong Kong received, without exception, the worst reviews of any film that Charlie Chaplin ever made. “The nadir of one of the greatest figures in movie history,” “not one trace of his former genius,” “stiff and clumsy,” and “a sad and bitter disappointment” are just a few of the most common critical reactions.1 Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times is sadly representative. After some initial throat-clearing about “how 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,” Crowther gets down to it. “The dismal truth is it is awful,” he writes. “It is so bad that I wondered, at one point, whether Mr. Chaplin, who wrote and directed it, might not be trying to put us on—trying to travesty the kind of hiding-in-thecloset comedies, where people banged on doors and those in the room dived for cover, that were popular as two-reel silent films.”2 The comedy has fared little better in the Chaplin scholarship. As if to protect their subject from unnecessary embarrassment, most books on Chaplin follow Crowther’s advice and give the film only a few sentences, if they mention it at all. The film is taken only as evidence of a once-great filmmaker who has lost his way and become out of touch both with the times in which he is now living and the sources of his own once-formidable genius. “Clumsy, visually ugly, and leaden,” in Gerald Mast’s description.3 Or, in Dan Kamin’s accounting, a “sad postscript to Chaplin’s career.”4 The only aspect of the film that is generally given anything approaching real attention is the discord on set. Chaplin assembled a remarkable cast for his last effort, only the second film of his career in which he did not star. Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren played the leads, with supporting work by Margaret Rutherford and Patrick Cargill. By the end of filming, the aging director 270 the sound era had managed to alienate practically all of them. Brando, who had worshipped Chaplin’s work before beginning the film, fell out terribly with the director, later calling him “nasty” and “sadistic” and declaring his participation in the film to be a “terrible mistake.”5 The film even strained Chaplin’s relations with his son Sydney, who had a significant supporting role and whom he regularly berated on set. Brando recalled that Sydney’s hands would sweat whenever he arrived at the studio, though Sydney publicly excused the insults from his father by declaring “the old man is old and nervous, it’s all right.”6 More than the usual Hollywood gossip, such accounts are assumed to be indicative of Chaplin’s declining powers, his loss of artistic vision linked to a more general loss of control in his production process, giving the film what Eric Flom calls “a rushed and distinctly unpolished feel.”7 (Never mind the fact that Chaplin had always been hard to work with on set, that he regularly had fights with members of his cast and crew, or that he actually fired Virginia Cherrill from City Lights in the middle of filming when she left the set early one day for a hairdresser’s appointment.) Insofar as A Countess from Hong Kong has any value for most Chaplin commentators, it is simply as a useful springboard for a closing metaphor on Chaplin’s career, centered on a brief director’s cameo that lasts no more than a few seconds in the film. “Appropriately, he exits films as he began, in eloquent silence,” Kamin writes.8 In Chaplin’s own opinion, however, the film was something much more than a farewell moment in a cameo. It was in his mind one of the most accomplished works of his career—“the best thing I’ve done,” as he told the Sunday Times in London.9 In some interviews around the time of the film’s release, Chaplin even compares it directly to City Lights and implies that it may exceed that masterpiece. “Except for A Countess, I think I like City Lights the best of all my films,” he told Life before the film opened.10 He was downright puzzled by the critical response when it finally came, but he remained convinced that the critics...


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