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The Countess From Hong Kong

29 Dec

The Countess From Hong Kong. Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin. High Comedy. A Prostitute stows away in the stateroom of high-ranking diplomatist who tries valiantly to avoid detection. 120 minutes Color 1967.

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We all know about how Chaplin caused this film to fail through acting all the parts for the actors, through the unimaginative casting of the supporting players, through surrounding Brando with too many male business associates, and through the mistaken introduction of the fact the Brando character was married, a development which should neither have come late nor at all. The first part is a farce built upon five doors to an ocean liner stateroom, and works pretty well, and the whole thing would work well, were its moves executed in other modes of the silent screen, but it isn’t.  So let us set the film aside as the failure it famously is and cast our eyes on the pleasant prospect of Sophia Loren in the title role as we contemplate such splendours of person as she possesses: a small head set upon a sumptuous body upon the lavish invitation of whose bosom one longs to either lay one’s head or an array of emeralds, awesome auburn hair, a deft cleft chin, that peaked upper lip, that droll rolled lower lip, her clownish smile, her perfect peasant nose, her wide and tilted eyes, the scimitar of her jaw. She’s not the usual beauty, but a new type, a type which made Paz Vega and Penelope Cruze eventually possible. Leaving out her slender legs and sashay hips, and setting aside her slim feet for other volumes, it is obvious that she might easily have been discarded as just another tomato on the vine, except for two things she possesses which placed her right where she belonged: prominently. First, she is a really good actress. For watch her play her scenes here, see how responsive she is, first of all, and how in tune with the sort of comedy this is, which is not really Chaplin comedy but Lubitsch comedy, that is to say, high sex comedy, a fact she understands even better than Brando, who usually had a good instinct for such things. The part provides her with a lot more opportunities than the director does, and she feasts on them. She is playful, witty, quick, and game. Like the good Virgo that she is, she has the hauteur of an Empress and the capacity to be perfectly ridiculous.  All of this is executed with one of her principal assets, that she has a most melodious speaking voice. It’s in inherent in her, so it is never forced or put on. It’s not a Hollywood voice, like Joan Crawford’s. It’s so right you scarcely notice it. A good speaking voice is one of the great tools an actor can have, and she had it. But the second thing she has, and it is one of the qualities even of stars who are, like Humphrey Bogart not particularly good actors, and that is an inner presence which is always unaffraidly available to us. Watch her as you watch this film. You will never see it in Olivier. But you will see it in Rosalind Russell and in Walter Huston and in Audrey Hepburn, in Ann Sheridan and James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and Clark Gable.  It is probably the quality that makes us really identify with a star, deficiencies of craft be damned. Because it is there that we feel we know them and like them. The gift of presence is probably God-given. Sophia Loren had it and still has it. Two things: she’s a darn good actress and she is a person we can actually see. And, oh that look of fun in her eyes. Oh, that Neapolitan cheek. She was and she remains an acknowledged International Treasure.

 

 
 
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