Saturday, May 1, 2010

Down for the countess


I had never felt sorry for Marlon Brando until I saw A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), Charles Chaplin's last feature as director. Perhaps only a great artist could make a film this bad, but as I think about filmmakers such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock and even Welles, none of them ever made something as incoherent and incompetent as this. (Although in fairness, Huston, Stevens and Kubrick did.)

Brando got a lot of heat at the time for being the "wrong" kind of actor for the film, of not having the right comic sensibilities. This is unfair. Chaplin was the wrong kind of director. Branod appears on-screen as a complete professional, game as hell, trying to play a decent sort of fellow who often acts in inconsistent, cruel and irrational ways and then has to suddenly reclaim his decency, who is asked to bend his character out of shape for an unmotivated gag and then try and revert to the character. In short, his assignment was impossible to begin with, and Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers, Roberto Begnini and Jack Lemmon combined couldn't have gotten this terribly conceived and horribly written part to make sense.

Loren survives clearly by ignoring Chaplin's simplistic direction and sparkling as much as she is allowed to. Every once in a while she, too, has been required to execute an out-of-context pantomime turn and she gets up and performs like a properly brought-up schoolgirl, and then goes back to what she knows works. And at one point, she actually gets to say, "This whole thing is a terrible mess," and you have to remind yourself she's talking about the character's situation, not the movie.

But the incompetence pervades the entire film. The set is lit flatly in all scenes, and it is the kind of movie in which people lie down and close their eyes to go to sleep without turning off any of the 32 lights that are blazing away on the set. The following things are meant to be hysterically funny: a door buzzer that sounds like an electronic fart (there are no door buzzers on cruise ships); burping; a giant bra--not a sexy one, but one clearly intended for an obese Amazon; running between one room and another; and an immense cruise ship which visibly rocks back and forth in bad weather, like the scow in The Immigrant (1916). Brando's character insists that Loren's character (a stowaway in an ambassador's stateroom) behave and dress decently, then gets mad when she is wearing his last clean pair of pajamas and tries to tear them off her body. His character seems to be going through some sort of personality disintegration attributable to a serious mental disorder, but it is just bad writing.

Oh well, you say, a door-slamming verbal farce was not Chaplin's form. Au contraire--take a look at The Idle Class or even City Lights, which are riddled with farce. No, Chaplin's gifts had waned so badly, that his own cameo in the film is not even funny. Chaplin acting a quick comic bit.

I'm sure people entered this feeling it would be an honor to work with a master and that the film, even if not one of Chaplin's masterpieces, would not be forgotten because he made it. Would that it were forgotten--everyone involved would have been better off. Poor Marlon.

[Out of respect for Chaplin, I will embed The Immigrant here, so you can see one of his best films, operating as actor and director at the height of his powers.]

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