A Wing and a Prayer

His Ward is his Bond.

So, I watched Frank Borzage’s CHINA DOLL, which has a character played by Ward Bond with my name (Father Cairns), although I wasn’t actually aware of this until I checked the IMDb because nobody seemed able to pronounce the name. Most of the cast seemed to be using the Irish name “Kearns”, whereas from Victor Mature’s slobbery great mouth the name emerged as more like “Corns”.

You don’t get many Cairnses in the movies, so that was something. Curiously, I just came across a fictional Cairns in Christopher Fowler’s sixth Bryant and May mystery, The Victoria Vanishes. Since Fowler has been known to drop by here, I wondered if he drew the name from life. But since CHINA DOLL was made ten years before I was born, I can’t claim to have inspired that one.

The name Cairns, in religious circles, is mostly associated with a namesake of mine from the Church of Scotland, but Bond’s character is apparently Catholic (he has nuns in tow, one of whom plays Frankie and Johnny on sax for comic relief). Borzage himself was a member of some unusual Catholic branch of Masonry, or something odd like that.

The film, a WWII-set romance between airman Victor Mature (“a melting waxwork of Dean Martin” — B. Kite) and poor Chinese girl Li Hua Li (“introduced” to the West in this film, then back to making films in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the next twenty years, making her one of the more successful people to have been “introduced”). Blind drunk one night, misanthropic Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months, falls in love, and reconnects with humanity.

The script has nice lines: when Vic’s colonel (Denver Dukes of Hazzard Pyle) tells him that life on earth isn’t so bad, the boozy curmudgeon retorts, “Everybody leaves it sooner or later.” But Mature plays the character as too soft, so that his conversion lacks force. Shot in America with stock footage enhancement, the film is minus atmosphere and shadow. It’s a shame this weaker effort has surfaced on DVD when so little Borzage is available, although it finally looks like the emotionally exhausting masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN is being released, and another silent classic, THE RIVER, is out in its incomplete glory.

Borzage is going to be one of my very favourite filmmakers once I’ve seen enough of his work. MOONRISE is simply one of the greatest films I know, and STREET ANGEL and SEVENTH HEAVEN are terrific. Between the silent movies and the late blossoming of MOONRISE, Borzage seemed to get distracted with a lot of inappropriate and mediocre assignments from MGM, and CHINA DOLL is a production of John Wayne’s Batjac company, so it keeps veering between manly combat and Borzagian spirituality and sentiment.

Intercut baby playing with dog tags with Dad blasting Japs out of the sky. John Woo, take note.

While I normally agree with Chairman Mao somewhat on the subject of religion, I find Borzage’s take on it sufficiently idiosyncratic and personal to be engaging — STRANGE CARGO (1940) must be the weirdest tract ever filmed. In one scene, serial killer Paul Lukas, rejecting an offer of salvation, walks off into the jungle, then spots Borzage’s camera, which approaches him hopefully… “No!” snaps Lukas, and storms off, disappearing from the film unpunished, presumably to continue his murderous lifestyle. A simply wonderful, chilling, utterly peculiar moment.

Patrons: as interracial sex is taking place, the management present this shot of a wet window.

As director and co-producer, Borzage seems to have invested plenty of interest in CHINA DOLL (he was a flyer himself), as the religious and romantic aspects show. But it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The Production Code forbade Mature and Hua Li from kissing, which is disgraceful but doesn’t actually hurt the film — I don’t actually want to see the cute Chinese girl get enveloped in the skin-dripping face of Big Victor anyway, and her saluting him makes for a more novel and touching solution.

10 Responses to “A Wing and a Prayer”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Borzage is a blank spot for me. I’ve seen the Janet Gaynor silents of course but after that I don’t know where to look. His work in the 30’s includes some war films. The only later film I’ve seen of his is ”The Mortal Storm” which is really special. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan team up after the Lubitsch film again and Stewart gets to fulfill his real-life unrequited love for the mercurial Ms. Sullavan on-screen twice.

  2. Borzage is a “subject for further research’ fo me as well.

    The title <i.China Doll immediately evoked China Seas — a marvelous piece of 30’s nonsense starring Jean Harlow as a woman of easy lack-of-virtue who’s called “China Doll.” Operating as a low-rent rendition of Dietrich’s “Shanghai Lily” she works the boats and tangle romantically with Clark Gable. Basically it’s Xerox of Red Dust that Tay Garnett directs with considerable vigor. The best is saved for las when Hattie McDaniel as Harlow’s maid takes her leave with “Well g’bye Miss Doll. Sure hope they don’t hang ya!” snapped out with the clear implication that she wouldn’t be at all displeased if they did.

  3. “Blind drunk one night, misanthropic Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months, falls in love, and reconnects with humanity.”

    As you do! Sounds fascinating, though Strange Cargo sounds even better from your description!

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Martin Scorsese who does a monthly column for DIRECTV magazine has some interesting things to say about ”Man’s Castle”.


    Anyone seen that!

  5. Haven’t seen Man’s Castle. Moonrise is such an unbeatable masterpiece that it could almost be a mistake to star twith that one, as I did. Nevertheless, it demands to be seen, immediately, by every living person.

    Strange Cargo is memorably strange, with religious allegory, interesting “coded” gay characters, and Gable and Crawford being both starry and sleazy.

    Will have to try and catch Man’s Castle. Thanks for telling me about Scorsese’s column!

  6. “Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months”

    — sounds a bit like Jeffrey Hunter acquiring himself a wife in “The Searchers.” Or Grace, as seen through a Catholic perspective, sneaking up on an unwilling believer (cf. the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood”).

  7. Both comparisons are accurate. Interesting that Li isn’t Christian, but brings Big Victor to God nevertheless.

  8. I saw ”Man’s Castle” today. Someone taped the telecast on TCM last month. It is STUNNING.

    One of the very, very greatest American films ever made. Criminally underrated and just about the most desperate film ever made about the struggle of the Depression as well as being a beautiful love story.

  9. I just acquired this one! Right, I’m psyched now. Borzage week is coming up in November.

  10. […] was not above copying himself. Now, STREET ANGEL is a great film, and CHINA DOLL just barely a good one, although this juxtaposition makes me like it more. It plays out kind of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: