American pilot Cliff Brandon, fighting the Japanese in China, finds himself the unintentional "owner" of a Chinese housekeeper, Shu-Jen. The unlikely couple falls in love and marries, but not without tragedy brought on by the war.
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In China gruff Air Force captain Cliff Brandon wakes up after a night of drinking to discover he has purchased the housekeeping services of comely, young Shu-Jen from her father. Disappointed by Cliff's insistence on staying out late in bars, Shu-Jen leaves for home when Cliff, made aware that she is carrying her child, finds her and marries her in a delightful traditional Chinese ceremony. Happy days are spent as Shu-Jen and her infant daughter join Cliff at a forward base until Cliff, returning from a supply-drop mission, hears the base is under attack by Japanese bombers. Written by
Doug Sederberg <email@example.com>
"China Doll" is highly flawed Borzage romantic melodrama set in China in the 50s. It stars Victor Mature as an American pilot Cliff Brandon taking part in a war against the Japanese. He falls in love and marries a Chinese housekeeper Shu-Jen, played by Li Li Hua. The continuing exploration of love transcending everything - race, religion, war, death - is competently stated. The film is also very poignant in some passages, as is most of Borzage. However, if you look at it closely, it doesn't really jell.
The expert Borzage scholar John Belton, whom I owe a lot in my understanding of Borzage, ranks "China Doll" with the director's other melodramas - "7th Seventh", "A Farewell to Arms", "Man's Castle", "The Mortal Storm", "Three Comrades", "Till We Meet Again". Belton notes that all these works "contain hostile backgrounds which Borzage's fragile characters ultimately surpass."
But I find "China Doll" significantly problematic and less memorable than those films. I get the feeling that something is missing; much of it is characterized by an air of aimlessness or uncertainty. I didn't get that haunting spark that underlies the luminous lovers in much of Borzage's best work.
There is an apparent misalliance between Mature and Li Li Hua. I find Mature's character to be stiff, callow and frail. His careless demeanor does not contrast well with Hua's innocence or devotion. And ultimately (and regrettably) "China Doll" falls very short of greatness.
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