Monday, August 31, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958)

"The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" features the incomparable Ingrid Bergman and also Hollywood's maddening habit of taking a true life story and bullshitting it up into a sappy romance.

Gladys Aylward was a real Englishwoman and longtime domestic (read: maid) who at the spinsterish age of 30 used her life savings to travel to China to work as an unaccredited missionary. She ended up making it her home -- earning Chinese citizenship, the trust of the people and even a minor government post. Aylward adopted several children of her own and rescued more than 100 orphans  from certain death during World War II.

A pretty inspiring tale, which made for a popular book, "The Small Woman" by Alan Burgess.

But of course the studio couldn't leave well enough alone. In addition to casting the tall, stunning Bergman in the lead role -- who hides her Swedish accent about as well Sean Connery sounded like a Russian submarine captain -- they cast German actor Curd Jürgens as her half Chinese/half Dutch lover.

(Speaking of Connery, he screen tested for Jürgens' role, but was probably deemed too young in his late 20s to start opposite Bergman, who was then in her early 40s.)

Jürgens wears slightly tinted makeup and prosthetic to complete the racially insensitive ensemble. Bad enough, except that his character, Colonel Lin Nan, is based on a real (and non-biracial) Chinese official who befriended her. The film's ending shows her abandoning her young charges to return to her home province, presumably to reunite with Lin.

When the real Aylward saw the movie she was mortified, commenting that she had never so much as kissed a man in her whole life.

To complete things, another major Chinese character, the Mandarin of Yang Cheng, is played by British actor Robert Donat, also in embarrassing, unconvincing makeup. (Yellowface?)

At least one major Chinese character, Aylward's cook and companion Yang, is played by an Asian actor, Peter Chong.

They couldn't even get the title right. The name of the hotel that Aylward ran along with an elderly missionary, Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler), was actually called "The Inn of the Eight Happinesses." (The Chinese consider the number eight lucky.)

Not really sure why six happinesses is considered worse than eight.

But all films are a product of their times, and I can't dismiss the movie for following common -- if grating -- practices of its era. I'm sure screenwriter Isobel Lennart was pressured into making changes so that American audiences would find the story more palatable.

(Heck, in this space I once profiled a movie called "Across the Pacific" in which the characters never even reach the Pacific Ocean.)

Bergman admirably carries the movie as Aylward, who later is given the name Zhen-Ai, which is translated for us as "she who loves everyone." She depicts the character as brave and resolute without losing her crushing sense of humility. Zhen-Ai Aylward is less Norma Rae than a shrinking violet who learns to toughen up.

The first act is about her saving up the money and pluck to get to China after being refused a spot as a missionary. Despite her faith and obvious devotion, it seems she is rejected solely for being from a lower working class.

Her introduction to Yang Cheng is challenging. The locals are suspicious of foreigners, and she gets chased by some women for daring to help up a small child who had fallen in the mud. The poverty and the way human life seems debased repulse her.

Eventually they get the inn going, a waystation for traveling mule teams who serve as the lifeblood of the rural economy. They entice the men with stories of baby Jesus and other biblical tales. Her older companion soon dies, and Aylward must persevere on her own.

The Mandarin -- sort of a governor and judge rolled into one -- gives her the job of "foot inspector" to make sure the people are following the government's new edicts against footbinding. It was a horrid custom in which little girls' feet are tightly bound to crush them into tiny lotus shapes and never grow any larger. She only gets the job because the previous foot inspectors, all men, were run out of the various villages, and the Mandarin deems her the most expendable candidate.

Lin Nan turns up as the modernistic government official trying to drag the peasants into the 20th century. He's half-Danish and despises his European blood, and at first is deeply suspicious of the two interloper women. But things get progressively mushier.

It's certainly a beautiful film, with the Welsh mountains standing in for Chinese ones. Director Mark Robson, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for "Peyton Place," scored another nod for this film. This makes him one of the few directors to score Oscar nominations in consecutive years.

Despite the racial swap I enjoyed Donat as the Mandarin, a man who projects an image of fierceness to protect the deep sentiment he secretly harbors. It's the sort of well-written supporting role you saw a lot of in mid-century Hollywood fare.

I loved and hated "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness." Before seeing it I would have said I could watch Ingrid Bergman in just about anything, but this film tested that resolve at times. It's a classic white-person-goes-someplace-exotic-and-finds-their-inner-peace story, which I could have appreciated for what it was, if not for the stiff and manufactured love story.

It's a romantic film; but the real passion was between a woman and her adopted homeland. No kissyface necessary.

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