And Still They Dance, To The End of Time

NOTE: The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon is not over — as befits its title, I accept (nay, welcome!) late entries, and have a few of my own lined up. Starting here:

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I sort of recommend watching A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG on a double bill with THE SHINING. As Kubrick’s spooky hotel seems time-warped back to the twenties, housing a whole temporally displaced dead population from that era, who eternally party, so Chaplin’s tuxedoed waltzers at the start and finish titles seem like refugees from the past — Chaplin wrote the treatment in the thirties as a vehicle for then-squeeze Paulette Goddard — presumably with himself in the Brando role. Now Sophia Loren is the Countess and times have changed, or have they?

Intermittently mildly funny, but mostly just damned odd, this isn’t, to me, an unpleasant watch, but it’s a very queer one. Brando seems to have entered the picture with high hopes that this would finally be his successful comedy (with a master like Chaplin in charge, how could it not?). In fact, he’s funnier in BEDTIME STORY — also, Brando’s sense of humour is that he’s a goof, a face-puller, a prankster. Deadpan sophisticated farce isn’t quite his thing, but he enjoys his few moments of silliness — panicking at the door buzzer every five minutes — and the brazen vulgarity, of which there is much — belching, gargling, sea-sickness, and the unspeakable threat of toilet noises.

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Loren, who can do anything and is VERY funny in YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW, is similarly patchy, managing some good physical stuff in a succession of outsized pajamas and dresses which deliberately recall her director’s baggy pants. But the film also veers into melancholy melodrama and she seems slightly more comfortable there.

Brando apparently grew to hate his director, focussing his outrage on Chaplin’s perceived mistreatment of son Sydney, who’s quite good in an undercharacterized supporting role. Syd didn’t feel bullied at all, and thought Dad was just trying to help him be good. It feels like Brando withdraws a bit as the film goes on: he did have a tendency to stop trying when he didn’t feel appreciated or lost enthusiasm for a project.

The same can’t be said for the magnificent Angela Scoular, who is consistently funny regardless of whether she has any comedy material to work with. Sadly, she only makes three little appearances and her role goes nowhere, plotwise. It’s Chaplin’s last film but her first, proving his eye for talent (and the ladies) had not deserted him. Also present, supporting Margaret Rutherford’s all-too brief turn, are Monty Python muse Carol Cleveland and a trio of Chaplin daughters, including Geraldine, who nails her cameo and gets a laugh with a lot less obvious caricature than the ebullient Scoular.

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(Scoular could and should have been the sexy version of Joyce Grenfell.)

The movie isn’t spooky like THE SHINING but there is something a bit disconcerting about its time-warped wrongness. It feels a little like a tribute to TRADE WINDS, the film Tay Garnett was shooting location stuff for when he bumped into the Chaplins in Hong Kong. I’m almost convinced Garnett blabbed about his plot and Chaplin made a mental note to swipe it. By the time he got around to it, the story had moved on but so had the world, and in opposite directions.

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13 Responses to “And Still They Dance, To The End of Time”

  1. I quite enjoyed A Countess From Hong Kon back when it premiered and could never understand the hostility unleashed on such a gentle, deliberately “Old-Fashioned” movie. (Eric Rohmer loved it too.) Angela Scoular is indeed adorable, and Margaret Rutherford is magnificent. Sophia is luminous as always. I’ve always felt Brando’s sourness on the project sprang from Chaplin telling him precisely what to do — rather than run amok as he pleased. Louise Brooks agrees with me (I’ll try to dig up the quote — It’s in an old “Film Culture”)

    OFF-TOPIC: A Petit Mac-Mahon Triple Feature: Nothing Lasts Forever, Twice A Man and Duelle

  2. Brando talked about how this was going to be his best comedy, because Chaplin was showing him exactly how to play it… either the disenchantment came later, or he was being diplomatic, which would have been uncharacteristic of him…

    Speaking of last films, Brando had a narrow escape, expiring before he could participate in the Scary Movie franchise. I felt sorrow mingled with relief at the news.

  3. Me again — with a late entry, a post on Robert Williams’s last film, “Platinum Blonde.” Thanks again! http://moviedavid.blogspot.com/2012/06/platinum-blonde-and-birth-of-cinderella.html

  4. Thanks! I’ll include a link in tomorrow’s post.

  5. The Louise Brooks article I was thinking of “Charlie Chaplin Remembered” can be found In Film Culture #40 Spring 1966, which also contains a piece by yours truly.

  6. During some rather prolonged bedroom slapstick by Patrick Cargill in this film, Fiona remarked “I bet Chaplin carried on like that in the bedroom. In fact, Louise Brooks said he did.”

    Thanks for the link, DE! I’ve seen the Rivette but I’m very intrigued by the other two.

  7. Twice a Man was shown frequently in the mid 60s but not since then. I think you’ll find Nothing Last Forever a real treat.

  8. I must say that I am shocked, shocked, that you managed to write this (excellent) piece on A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG without mentioning that it was Tippi Hedren’s return to film three years after the debacle that was Marnie. According to Hedren, every major director in the world, including Truffaut, wanted to work with her after The Birds, but a spurned and irate Hitchcock, livid and embarassed after Hedren rebuffed his crude advances during the shooting of Marnie, vowed to ruin Hedren’s career by refusing to loan her out. In Hedren’s version (the only version?) of the tale, Hitch could not bring himself to refuse the request from Chaplin, but practically broke into hot tears at having been thwarted.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Hedren; I think she is extraordinary in both The Birds and in Marnie, but she’s a mannequin in ACFHK, and in practically everything else she’s done post Hitchcock. As one of the few cineastes in the Western Hemisphere who loathes Vertigo, I sometimes fantasize how much better Hedren would have been in that great idea for a film instead of the bovine Kim Novack.

    According to biographer Patrick Mcgilligan, Hitch and Hedren remained cordial but cool for the duration of her contract, and Hitch planned to use Hedren in his dream production of Mary Rose right up until that production was cancelled by a nervous Lew Wasserman. Hitchcock also offered Hedren parts on his television show which she, for some reason offended at the suggestion, refused.

    Hitchcock may have threatened to ruin Hedren at one point, but I believe he refused to loan her out because he, quite rightly, knew that outside of his tutelage she would sink. Certainly Chaplin, as deeply manipulative a Svengali as Hitchcock, got nothing out of her. It’s too bad, because Hedren was in many ways Hitchcock’s greatest cool blonde, and he got deeper performances out of her in The Birds and in Marnie that he did from any other actress.

  9. Of course I disagree about Vertigo. Though I think TH is indeed fine in her two Hitchcocks, and though Vera Miles, Hitch’s first choice, would’ve been excellent, Novak is great.

    Nobody from Truffaut’s camp corroborates Hedren’s story: Julie Christie always seems to have been the choice for Fahrenheit 451.

    I can sympathise with Hedren not wanting to work with Hitch again, though, given his alleged behaviour: it’s not pride, it’s self-protection.

    Chaplin doesn’t seem interested in her: his fault for writing an uninteresting role, no doubt, but you can see elsewhere in the film what an engaged and resourceful performer can do with very little.

  10. I ran into Hedren at an event many years ago, right after Donald Spoto’s book came out — which first voiced the charge that he virtually assaulted her. She told me that was all wildly exaggerated. Now she’s changed her tune.

    I have no doubt being put uner contract to Hitchcock was a trying professional experience, but the post morten character assassination we’ve been getting is really too much to bear.

  11. It seems to be almost universally accepted, although most of those who accept it are very vague about what Hitch actually DID. It does feel like time for the pendulum to swing back the other way at least a little. Or for a careful weighing of evidence to assess just how he crossed the line. Hedren, in trying to be discrete about it, has alas left the door open to salacious speculation.

  12. Hedren, discrete and respectful for most of her life, is discreet and respectful no more, calling Hitchcock “evil” in a recent interview to promote THE GIRL, a recent cable TV movie detailing the Spoto version of Hitchcock and Hedren’s relationship. Spoto and Hedren let it all hang out in Spoto’s Spellbound by Beauty – there is no vagueness there. The details are ugly. What we do now know, due to meticuous research by Tony Lee Moral, is that Hitchcock met with Hedren several times after MARNIE wrapped trying to mend fences, that he paid her salary, that he offered her TV work, which she saw as beneath her, and that he planned to use her in MARY ROSE. Spoto’s story, that a furious Hitchcock refused ever to speak to Hedren again, or mention her name, after she rejected his advances, is a complete myth.

    But this is a thread about Chaplin, not Hitchcock, so I’ll ask: did Chaplin ever come close to getting a performance out of an actress, or any performer for that matter, as powerful as the two that Hedren gave for Hitch? Hitchcock may have been many things, but he was not a narcissist. With Chaplin, on the other hand, that’s all you get: his procession of underage Trilby’s, all of whom he seduced offscreen, is a pack of cinematic blanks. Hedren may have been pecked by birds, and pecked by a besotted Hitchcock, but she gained cinematic immortality under his tutulage. Edna Purviance, Georgia Hale, Virginia Cherrill, even Paulette Godard, not so much.

  13. Chaplin’s leading ladies were generally suited to his purposes, though. Cherrill is perfect in City Lights, Purviance actually gets to be funny (failed flirting) in A Dog’s Life, Hale was briefly elevated from extrahood to stardom, and Paulette is incredibly sexy.

    Hitchcock required more, and got it, from Hedren, but I don’t think Chaplin can be blamed for achieving exactly what he intended each time. He did prefer to be the only one you really noticed, and you can see that in his work with nearly everyone, although he did use very skilled supporting comics.

    The same could be said of Keaton: on a TV set, the star is the only one you see, whereas on the big screen the ensemble playing comes across.

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