starring Victor Mature, Li Hua Li
(Note: This is my entry in The Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns at shadowplay.)
Cliff Brandon (Victor Mature) is a gruff, cynical captain in the American Air Force, leading a crew of cargo pilots in 1943. He and his men are stationed in China, running supplies to the Allied troops and keeping up their spirits with booze and women. Brandon isn't all that popular with his own troops, who resent his humorless, cold personality. His only friends are a little Chinese boy named Ellington (Danny Chang), who translates for the crew, and a priest (Ward Bond), who likes to play chess with him. But one drunken night, Brandon changes his life forever. He accidentally purchases a bonded servant for three months. And the servant he purchases turns out to be a young, beautiful Chinese woman named Shu Jen (Li Hua Li). Brandon has no intention of keeping this girl in his house until the priest warns him that Shu Jen is depending on the money for her family.
The two begin a strange domestic relationship, with Ellington there as translator and errand boy. Shu Jen is sweet and eager to please, tending to the surly captain with a smile on her face. They can't even speak to each other, but even a stick like Brandon can't help but be charmed. Still, it isn't until Brandon is stricken by a malaria fever that he succumbs to her attractions. It results in a night of passion that Brandon immediately regrets, driving away Shu Jen with coldness and absence. But when he finds out that Shu Jen is pregnant, he realizes what an idiot he's been. The only question left is whether he can keep the strange happiness he's found, in a world that's coming apart.
I have to admit that when I chose Frank Borzage's penultimate film China Doll for my entry in David Cairns' Late Films Blogathon, I was expecting either a full-blown romantic triumph or a wet, sputtering firecracker. My main motive for picking it was the desire to see whether Borzage's brand of redemptive romance could survive contact with leading man Victor Mature and his bored machismo. Think about it. One of Hollywood's most genuinely spiritual directors and the man who described his own success in Bible epics with, "I make with the holy look." The director who drew career-best performances from Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Loretta Young, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, and others. And a proudly-lazy actor whose performances could be serviceable, but totally lacked inspiration. Maybe with China Doll, a tender romance between Mature's gruff captain and his Chinese servant, Borzage could lead both Mature and himself to a small but rewarding success in the twilight of his career.
My predictions, however, were way off the mark. Because China Doll fails to be either a satisfactory romance or a train wreck. It's just a weak movie with flashes of Borzage's style and themes, but no real magic. And the blame for that doesn't really lie with Mature, even if he's never more than adequate. No, the problem is with the story. Even Borzage can't do much with such a cliche East-West romance. This movie turns its heroine into a literal "China Doll," a beautiful fantasy devoid of wishes or desires outside of her man.
I;ve ragged on Victor Mature in the past, but truthfully I find him one of Hollywood's more inexplicable leading men. His particular brand of gargoyle-ish handsomeness never appealed to me. As an actor, he never rises beyond the level of the script. The only two movies I've ever enjoyed him in are The Shanghai Gesture and My Darling Clementine, where he plays a poetry-spouting gigolo in a fez and a bitter, dying Doc Holliday, respectively. But left without a strong director, one who's willing to either draw out his darker emotions (John Ford) or craft him into a bizarrely arch bit of scenery (Joseph von Sternberg), Mature ends up as a blank. In something like Kiss of Death, he's one of the most forgettable noir protagonists ever.
China Doll doesn't do a lot to redeem Mature. He looks older and more tired than he should be, making the romance less passionate than it should be. He has one great moment of truth in the movie, in a scene where he's discussing Shu Jen with his friend Father Cairns. "All she wants to do is give--I can't understand someone like that!" he says. Mature doesn't overplay the line; he just sounds confused, giving us a real look at how this man lives. Otherwise, Mature gives another okay performance.
But okay isn't good enough when the script keeps contradicting itself. In one scene Brandon's drinking alone at the bar, ignoring both his men and the slinky advances of an old flame. He's cold and terse. The very next scene, he's stumbling out blind drunk and grinning, eagerly purchasing what he thinks is a prostitute, never mind that he just rejected one. The movie means us to think that he's a tough killjoy whose men resent him. Yet he's constantly getting stumble-down drunk in front of his crew, something no self-respecting captain would do. Truth be told, there's not much that's really admirable about Captain Cliff Brandon. He's grumpy, petulant, not very good at his job, and while he comes to adore Shu Jen, he never shows her any respect.
Li Hua Li takes home the acting honors for China Doll. Since her character speaks almost no English, Li is reduced to a lot of smiling and nodding, with only subtle changes of expression to indicate how she's really feeling. And Li's character Shu Jen ("precious jewel") isn't given much complexity of feeling. She falls in love with Brandon and that's all you need to know. But give it up for Li, who really does have the talent to hint at a deeper intelligence and maturity underneath the yearning. I like the look she gives Mature when he comes to her and confesses his love at last. He's babbling and tugging her into his car and Li get in with an enigmatic expression that makes her look suddenly so much older and wiser than her captain. When the boy Ellington teaches Shu Jen how to salute Brandon's plane, Li does so with a look of total conviction that transcends corny sentiment and becomes genuinely moving.
But China Doll doesn't have the integrity to keep up with Li. The movie betrays its intentions early on by giving the beautiful Li a true Hollywood makeover, turning her from a smudge-faced waif into a stylish knockout. It's a long way from Janet Gaynor shyly discovering her own beauty in Seventh Heaven to Li Hua Li cleaning Victor Mature's house in tight cheongsam dresses. And if Mature is so adamant about keeping her on strictly as a housekeeper, why the hell does he buy her tight cheongsam dresses in the first place?
The real diving line between Gaynor and Li is that Seventh Heaven gave itself over to the woman's point of view, allowing us to see her growing delight in having a home and in caring for Charles Farrell. We get to see her change and grow stronger, as love drives out fear. But Li Hua Li, stuck in a movie with no subtitles and no real interest in developing her character, is utterly devoted to Mature right from the beginning, completely willing to mold herself to his needs. The only time she ever goes contrary to his wishes is when she initially refuses to marry him. But of course, the only reason she does is because she loves him too much to cause him any problems.
China Doll was only one of many films in that late '50s, early '60s period when Asian-Caucasian romance was suddenly a cultural fascination. You have Marlon Brando finding love with a Japanese woman in Sayonara, James Shigeta wooing Victoria Shaw in The Crimson Kimono and Carroll Baker in Bridge to the Sun, and Nancy Kwan finding happiness in William Holden's arms in The World of Suzie Wong. And you know? I much prefer the romance of Suzie Wong, even if it does feature a hooker with a heart of hold. Because at least Suzie is allowed to be witty, cynical, demanding, loving, and fun. The movie is at least interested in what Suzie does when she's not pining after William Holden.
I've spent so much time on the teeth-grinding simplicities of China Doll that I've neglected its interest points. Because the movie is of interest to anyone who likes Frank Borzage. It ended up being Borzage's last romance film. It carries the same themes and images as so much of his early work. The gruff, unreachable man and the sweet, self-sacrificing woman, drawn together in a fragile situation. The threat of war coming up against the purity of love. And Borzage doesn't shy away from repeating a lot of what he's done before. The shot of Li covering a feverish Mature with her body to keep him warm is a direct crib from The River. The repeated image of Shu Jen saluting Brandon's plane has the same kind of significance as the lovers watching the clock in Seventh Heaven. Victor Mature striking a match to look at Li Hua Li's face for the first time echoes a scene in Street Angel with Janet Gaynor.
His visual compositions here aren't as interesting as they've been in the past. Brandon's crew, for example, have a tendency to remain in stock positions like store mannequins, with one at the piano, one leaning his head towards his girl, etc. But he still knows how to use his close-ups. In the scene between Mature and Li where Mature pours out his feelings to her for the first time, confessing his fears and affection at the same time, Borzage keeps Li at the forefront. He gives Mature all the words but lets Li's face tell the story. And in the film's shocking finale, he actually finds an equal amount of heartwrenching emotion in Victor Mature's face.
I haven't talked much about the movie's finale. That's partly because it's such a shocking, frankly nihilistic ending that it barely seems to connect to this movie. Everything that followed before was so sweet and stubbornly optimistic and then suddenly, we're confronted by something that seems to cruelly wave off everything that's happened. Even though the movie is set in World War II, it's an ending that seems to speak more to the atomic anxieties of the late '50s. Other Borzage movies have ended in bitter tragedy, but this seems more violent and even more cruelly pointless. In his earlier work, death came like a whisper. Here, it's nothing but brutality. Was it a sign that Borzage was getting more cynical in his old age?
Possibly, but I prefer to think that he was merely finding a different way to expressing the same question that haunted him through his entire career. Can love reach into the eternal, beyond mortality or reason? For fans of his work, even in lesser movies like China Doll, the question is always worth the journey.
"He's in the third stage. The first four months you're in China, you catch up on reading. The next four months, you catch up on women...He's been here ten months."
The final scenes are brutal and truly startling, but I have to admit that I like the wedding scene between Brandon and Shu Jen even more. There's a straightforward tenderness about it that appeals to me. We get to see Father Cairns walking Brandon through the rituals of a Chinese wedding, correcting him as Brandon keeps trying to look Shu Jen in the face, kiss her, and all manner of inappropriate things. But the touch that really makes it is the way Brandon's crew and friends turn up to participate in the wedding. Since neither his parents nor Shu Jen's are there, his friends have to stand in for them during the ceremony. And the way his friends go through the rituals, bowing their heads, and receiving the tea, is very sweet. They do it without a hint of condescension or mockery. It's the first time we've ever seen this bunch of wisecracking cynics unite to support their captain. It's the first time we've ever seen Brandon willingly bend his pride in order to make Shu Jen happy.
Final Six Words:
Love outlasts life but not cliches