MGM // 1958 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 24th, 2007
War and Racial Remembrance
Required to fly supply missions almost nonstop between India and the Far East, Captain Cliff Brandon (Victor Mature, Samson and Delilah) is one bitter, defeated World War II pilot. Shuttled from orphanage to orphanage as a child and having never really known any kind of family, he spends his days barking orders at his crew and his nights getting loaded at the local cantina. After one particularly brutal bender, he gives an old beggar some money. Turns out, he's just bought three months of domestic services from the man's daughter, Shu-Jen's (Li Hua Li). Brandon balks at the idea of such indentured servitude, but when local priest Father Cairns (Ward Bond, The Searchers) explains the less-than-savory alternative for the young girl, he acquiesces. With the help of G.I. houseboy Ellington (Danny Chang) and a fair amount of patience, Brandon and Shu-Jen form an uneasy peace. When a bout of malaria results in a night of indiscretion, our fatalistic flyer must make a! decision -- renege on the arrangement or promise to care for this China Doll for the rest of his life.
Well meaning and sincerely melodramatic, China Doll is one of those old-fashioned Hollywood "issues" movies that, as usual, completely avoids the controversies it's framed around. In this tale of a sullen transport pilot and the Chinese "slave" he learns to love, we get interracial romance, premarital/underage sex, war, insurance fraud, and death. Lots of death. In fact, this film is like Hamlet in the way it handles many of its main characters (the literary minded of you will instantly catch the spoiler-ish reference). Helmed by Oscar winner Frank Borzage (who actually took home the first-ever Academy Award for Best Director), this sincerely schmaltzy saga tiptoes around those previously mentioned hot-button topics, instead giving us endless war-torn banter and many shots of lead Victor Mature doing his Dean Martin impersonation. As an actor, Mature remains an elusive figure. He's genial and graceful, smoking and drinking like a debonair so! cialite (which frequently contradicts his hard-nosed Captain character), but he barely registers as a hero. Maybe it's his stylized looks -- almost statuesque in their sharp-angled severity. Perhaps it's his lack of real depth. Or it could be that Mature was merely matinee idol fodder, a figure noted for his appearance and not his artisanship.
Whatever the case, he constantly keeps China Doll from reaching any kind of real emotional truth. During the slow, stilted 99-minute running time, Mature is supposed to tolerate, then tempt, then toss aside, then treasure his Asian concubine. By contrast, he seems mildly annoyed most of the way through -- that is, until biology steps in to smack him upside the he-man head. Li Hua Li, on the other hand, is required to do very little except look innocent and recite slightly racist "Hello, Joe!" dialogue. While the native-born Chinese actress is easy on the eyes (she gussies up real "purty"), her presence as an ethnic enigma leaves the film with little at its core. We learn about tradition and the terrors that face young Asian women during this time period, and sympathize with Shu-Jen's particular plight, but Borzage and his writers don't instill her with any significant individuality. She's just a pretty face, forced to interact with a dimwitt! ed Dondi substitute nicknamed Ellington (after a butler some G.I. once knew -- how progressive) and make cow eyes at her man. More interesting are the subplots bubbling around the couple, including the notorious divorcee working for the Red Cross (whom decathlete-turned-actor Bob Mathias falls for) and the insurance grubbing gal who gives co-star Stuart Whitman a run for his hazard pay indemnity.
But none of this can erase the fact that China Doll just doesn't want to deal with subjects like cradle robbing, ethnic exploitation, interracial love, and bi-racial offspring. This is supposed to be World War II, dammit, and Western audiences just won't tolerate a tale filled with so much socially shocking scuttlebutt. Mature must be a flawed, yet super human, hunk of American Air Force pride, while Li must maintain a "look, but don't discuss" persona throughout. Bring everything to a head via a last-minute mission which tests the mettle of all involved, then bring on the bereavement! The last 10 minutes of this movie are shameless in their cruel, almost heartless approach to the characters. Infants, adolescents, and even ancillary figures find themselves directly and constantly in harm's way. Sacrifice is the key word here, with persons we've been more or less forced to know for nearly 90 minutes constantly challenging their jeopardized mortality. This does give the finale a certain amount of bite, and you may actually tear up a time or two as fate deals its deadly hand of physical Go Fish. But this does not make China Doll a decisive film. Instead, what we end up with is something likable, if lacking true local color.
MGM brings this title to DVD in a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The monochrome transfer is crisp and clean, with very little flicker and lots of dark/light contrasts. The blacks are not overly deep, rendering the picture a little too gray and white, but overall, the presentation is excellent. On the sound side however, all we receive is a pair of perfunctory mixes. On the one hand, there is the original Mono track, given the standard Dolby Digital polish. Then there is an amped-up stereo offering (2.0) that's really nothing more than the one channel choice blasting through both speakers. It doesn't matter, really, since the dialogue is easily discernible and there's no real need for a multifaceted aural approach. A major negative arrives in the extras category. This disc offers no added content whatsoever. It is bare bones, providing nothing more than a menu screen.
If you're curious about how service men in World War II dealt with the stigma of being involved with women of divergent ethnic background, China Doll will deliver very little insight. Instead, it's a derivative drama that just barely earns its occasional moments of mawkishness.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated