China Doll (aka Time Is a Memory) (1958): Frank Borzage’s Penultimate Movie, Interracial Romance in WWII, Starring Victor Mature and Li Li-Hua

China Doll (aka Time Is a Memory) is a 1958 romantic drama film set in the China Burma India Theater of World War II and starring Victor Mature and Li Li-Hua. It represented a return to films for director Frank Borzage who had taken a 10-year hiatus before tackling this poignant, yet “offbeat” film.

Borzage had been a successful director throughout the 1920s and reached his peak in the late silent and early sound era with such noted films as Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), Bad Girl (1931) and A Farewell to Arms (1932). During the 1940s, his films were not as well received and after the film noir, Moonrise (1948), Borzage had stopped directing. China Doll marked his return to Hollywood, although he only completed one more film, The Big Fisherman (1959), while his last effort, L’Atlantide (1961), had to be finished by others due to his illness.

In 1943, Captain Cliff Brandon (Victor Mature) is a cargo aircraft pilot supplying the Allied troops fighting the Japanese in China. When he is not flying or training his crew, he is drinking in the local bar.

One night, while stumbling home drunk, he encounters an old Chinese man who offers him his daughter Shu-Jen (Li Li-Hua). Brandon pays him, but when he sees the young woman, he tells the old man to keep her.

After Father Cairns (Ward Bond), a longtime resident of China, expresses disapproval, Brandon tries to get rid of her, assigning the task to Ellington, a Chinese boy who speaks English. Ellington tries to sell her into prostitution, but Father Cairns takes Shu-Jen back to Brandon.

Shu-Jen’s father was a farmer, who lost his land to the Japanese invaders. Destitute, he sold his daughter’s services for 3 months to feed his large family. Cairns tells Brandon that, if he were to send the girl back, the old man would return the needed money. Over Brandon’s protests, the priest gets him to keep the girl;

Initially, Brandon treats her as housekeeper. Over time, however, love blooms, and Shu-Jen becomes pregnant. They get married in traditional Chinese ceremony, and, after he is transferred to another base, she gives birth to their daughter.

While Brandon is flying a mission, the base is attacked. The returning flight is ordered to divert to a different airfield, but Brandon disobeys and lands his aircraft. He finds that Shu-Jen and Ellington are dead, but his daughter is alive. He puts his dog tag around her neck, then takes anti-aircraft gun and shoots down enemy aircraft before he is killed.

In 1957, his former crewmates and their wives await the arrival in the US of Brandon’s daughter, who’s found in orphanage by Father Cairns, with her father’s dog tag.

The dichotomy of the burly Mature with the diminutive Li Li-Hua was evident in their scenes.

Cast
Victor Mature as Capt. Cliff Brandon
Li Li-Hua as Shu-Jen
Ward Bond as Father Cairns
Bob Mathias as Capt. Phil Gates
Johnny Desmond as Sgt. Steve Hill
Stuart Whitman as Lt. Dan O’Neill, Navigator (as Stu Whitman)
Elaine Devry as Alice Nichols (as Elaine Curtis)
Ann McCrea as Mona Perkins
Danny Chang as Ellington
Denver Pyle as Col. Wiley, Brandon’s commanding officer
Don “Red” Barry as MSgt. Hal Foster
Tige Andrews as Cpl. Carlo Menotti
Steve Mitchell as Dave Reisner
Ken Perry as Sgt. Ernie Fleming
Ann Paige as Sally
Gregg Barton as Airman
Bill White, Jr. as Forsyth, Flying Tiger

The film was the first co-production of John Wayne’s Batjac Productions and Romina Productions; the next and last co-production was Escort West (1959), a western, also starring Victor Mature.

The film was also known as

Borzage and Victor Mature intended planned to make other movies together, including The Incorrigibles and Vaults of Heaven, but never did.

Location shooting took place at Saugus, California. To faithfully recreate the Kunming Airfield, documentary footage from WWII was incorporated. Though aerial action in China Doll was secondary compared to the melodrama that predominated.

 

Li Li Hua had been under contract to Cecil B. De Mille who had considered her for The Buccaneer.

Considered a modest but interesting film, China Doll received favorable critical reviews. Variety noted the film had, “the warmth and humor of a romance between a burly air corps captain and a fragile oriental beauty.”

Howard Thompson, reviewer for The New York Times found it “(a) familiar war drama (that) has some winning aspects. … Under Mr. Borzage’s leisurely, gentle staging, the love story dominates the picture.”[9]

More recent reviews have treated China Doll as one of Borzage’s best and a fitting penultimate testament to his career.

A lengthy review by Dan Callahan laid out the tropes of his earlier works were present: “China Doll is a delicate, spare, old man’s movie, with quiet attention to character detail (even Ward Bond’s priest is sensitive and thoughtful). There’s a melancholy, pessimistic slant to the dialogue that isn’t lingered over; the movements of the actors and the compositions are so stylized and presentational that it almost feels, at magical times, like a silent film. The ending is surprisingly violent, even brutal, but in a brief coda, Borzage observes the regeneration of beauty in the couple’s child, even as he has shown the lovers’ bond and their kindness viciously wiped out by war.”