The Golden Boy Blogathon
Beginning his film career with two uncredited parts in 1938 and as Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy (1939), William Holden became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and a symbol of American masculinity. His physique and rugged features were part of his appeal, of course, but there was also his wry delivery which men as well women could appreciate. He was often cast as an individualist going against the grain of conformist society in roles such as his Hal Carter in Picnic (1955). In this essay, I will look at the roles that took him to the Orient, the mysterious East, as Asia and the Pacific have been known.
The angels keep their ancient places–Turn but a stone and start a wing! ‘Tis ye,’tis your estrangèd faces,That miss the many-splendored thing. – From “The Kingdom of God” by Francis Thompson
In Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), Holden pairs with Jennifer Jones as a Eurasian doctor named Han Suyin. That is also the pen name of Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou, the author of the source novel adapted for the screen by John Patrick.
Because her character is Eurasian and not full Chinese, Jones’s beautiful face thankfully wasn’t altered with prosthetics to make her look more Asian. That’s achieved by makeup artist Ben Nye and by costuming her in silk cheongsam dresses. In his biography of William Holden, Michaelangelo Capua notes: “She was dissatisfied with her hair and makeup and felt that it made her look older.”
We meet Dr. Han (her surname) in the emergency room of a Hong Kong hospital. She’s competent and in charge of her realm. For example, we hear her calling an orderly “boy.” The first impression is that she’s part of the establishment. She’s friends and possibly something more with a colleague, Dr. John Keith (Murray Matheson). They go a cocktail party at the home of upper class colonials. Their hostess, a society matron named Adeline Palmer-Jones (Isobel Elsom), is friendly to Suyin though she asks some awkward questions about her Chinese parentage. To some degree, Suyin has the “tragic mulatto” problem of not fitting into either culture. At the party, she meets Mark Elliott (Holden), an American reporter. What starts out as an innocent flirtation, will soon blossom into a “many splendored thing.”
On a boat ride in the harbor, she says, “The moon is clear, it’s a good omen for the moon festival.” “I arranged a full moon for you,” he says. “Have you ever been in Peking?” she asks. “The moon is larger in Peking. Much larger than in Hong Kong or London.” They then discover that they’ve lived in some of the same cities but at different times. “I think destiny intends something for us at last,” he says. “I don’t think so,” she demurs, “I don’t think destiny intends anything for us. Of that I’m quite sure.”
They go around and around like that, but the subtext is that there’s a mutual attraction and she’s trying to resist, presumably because of cultural reasons. The film depicts Hong Kong (“the hoard of a jewel thief”) as an exotic setting for falling in love. Veteran director Henry King [The Song of Bernadette (1943), Carousel (1956)] with cinematographer Leon Shamroy [Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The King and I (1956)] creates a romantic mood by combining location and studio process shots.
As the violin strains of the “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” theme plays in the background, Mark and Suyin dine in a waterfront restaurant. Suyin reveals that she’s the widow of a Nationalist Chinese general killed by the Communists. “I have known but one man in my life.” She now lives only to serve humankind through medicine. “I believe in the human heart now only as a doctor.” Undeterred, Mark sees a small opening and brings destiny into the conversation once again and adds, “The only problem with an ivory tower is it’s an invitation to lightning.” At her doorstep, Mark confesses that he’s a married man.
Suyin runs into Suzanne (Jorga Curtright), an old friend from their convent days. The attractive blonde tells Suyin that she too should “pass” for English. Suyin admonishes her, saying “You should be proud to be Eurasian.” The old “two cultures” bugaboo raises its head again with another reminder of who has the power in Hong Kong. Like Suyin, Suzanne is also seeing a married white man.
Mark breaks a date with Suyin because of an “important assignment in Singapore.” Her friend John and the gossipy Adeline let her know that Mark’s wife lives there. Mark and Suyin’s next date is at the beach. Suyin is ready to break it off, because of the wife, among other reasons. Here, the violins of Alfred Newman’s orchestra do much of the emotional heavy lifting. “A great many mistakes are made in the name of loneliness,” says Mark, trying to explain the situation with his wife. “You’ve been good for me, Mark. I don’t believe the whole world is sick any longer.”
Suyin flies to her family home in Chungking (the city not the chow mein). Asian American character actors play her relatives including familiar face Philip Ahn as Third Uncle. Suyin tries to show them that she hasn’t changed and is still Chinese. “We shall now have tea and speak of absurdities,” says Third Uncle solemnly with an air of fortune cookie wisdom.
When war breaks out, duty calls and Mark flies to Korea. We’ve yet to see him in a newsroom, at a typewriter or even jotting down notes. He appears more comfortable behind the wheel of a convertible. We have to accept it on faith that he’s a war correspondent. In today’s new media landscape of shrinking budgets, the foreign correspondent out covering wars and intrigue is part of a vanishing breed. Never seen without a jacket and tie until they’re at the beach, Mark has some of that dashing appeal. Until then, though, he’s been more a male escort/boy toy for successful woman Suyin. Korea is the place to prove himself. At the hospital where Suyin works, Dr. Sen (Kam Tong), a dedicated Red, tries to convince her to return to China and serve “the people.” Conversely, Suyin’s beautiful younger sister Suchen (Donna Martell) is still in China and wants to get out of Dodge before the Reds completely overrun the place.
Suyin is a complex character and Jones makes the most of the part despite what Holden biographer Capua describes as her “difficult behavior” directed at Holden “and many others on the production.” That she wears one fabulous outfit after another in nearly every scene only helps her performance. Like director King and cameraman Shamroy, wardrobe supervisor Charles Le Maire was a Hollywood veteran on the job since the silent era.
In a change of pace from his usual man’s man, Holden doesn’t fare as well. Mark is a gentle soul who wouldn’t be caught dead chopping wood bare-chested as Hal does in Picnic. The unusually tame part does show Holden’s range, however, and he provides the necessary beefcake with the poetry. Even though Mark cheats on his wife, he’s basically a “nice guy” who still gets the girl. That, in itself, should be celebrated.
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Holden plays a similar character in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), also set in Hong Kong. This time, he’s an artist, Robert Lomax. Unlike old China hand Mark, Robert is new to the city. He tries to ask a Chinese traffic cop directions in very broken Cantonese. The officer replies speaking English. Hong Kong was, after all, a British colony.
Directed by Richard Quine, Paul Osborn adapted Richard Mason’s novel The World of Suzie Wong for the stage. John Patrick wrote the screenplay based on the play. The film begins with extensive location shooting. Geoffrey Unsworth was the director of photography. He won Academy Awards for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979). His other credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Superman (1978). Veteran film and television composer George Duning’s score is lush and Asian-inspired.
On the Star Ferry, Robert begins to sketch Mei Ling, a snobbish young aristocrat. Or, so she appears. “No talk,” she commands. She accuses Robert of trying to steal her purse and threatens to have him arrested. Her father is a very important man in Hong Kong, she tells a police officer. Holden does his best befuddled American abroad routine. Both summon fake outrage and indignation that masks a spark.
It turns out that she’s not an heiress, after all, but Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), a local Wan Chai bar hostess. In his novel, Mason sets the scene:
She came through the turnstile and joined the crowd waiting for the ferry: the women in cotton pyjama suits, the men with felt slippers and gold teeth. Her hair was tied behind her hair in a pony tail, and she wore jeans–green knee-length denim jeans…. Probably some wealthy taipan’s daughter. Or a student. Or a shopgirl–you never could tell with the Chinese.
Kwan was a late replacement for France Nuyen (more on her later) who appeared in the Suzie Wong stage play. Nuyen suffered an emotional breakdown and was unable to continue in the film. Former convent girl and ballet dancer Kwan was discovered, cast and began filming at London’s MGM Studios in short order. There aren’t many major Hollywood roles for Asian actresses now much less in 1960 and only a few could fill those parts.
In The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, Sheridan Prasso writes:
Unusually, the screen adaptation was more progressive than the book, which was written in the patronizingly British tone of superiority over the uneducated “dirty yum-yum girls” of Hong Kong’s red light district.
Robert has honorable intentions. He first wants to paint Suzie. Inevitably he falls in love and wants to rescue her. Prasso continues:
Suzie is an illiterate orphaned prostitute. He hires her to model for him then finds himself first pitying her then falling in love with her when she persistently keeps butting into his life. After she enjoins him to save her illegitimate child, who dies in a flood, he becomes her white knight, saving her from a world of prostitution…. By rescuing his China Doll, he could escape the confines of his own world–and find the exotic realm of the Oriental…. Asian women find themselves perceived as submissive, obedient, and obliging–or [with the dragon lady] the opposite–That Asians are hardly one homogeneous mass–with thousands of ethnic groups among the nearly two billion people of the region–hardly seems to matter.
The “confines of his own world” that Prasso refers to includes Kay O’Neill (Sylvia Sims), the daughter and secretary of a banker advising Robert. Her attraction to him is immediate. Coincidentally, the year before Syms starred in Ferry to Hong Kong with an international cast that included Orson Welles.
There are two love triangles both with Suzie in the middle. The other triangle involves an unhappily married Englishman named Ben Marlowe (Michael Wilding). Wilding also appeared in the Asian themed A Girl Named Tamiko (1962) with Laurence Harvey and the original Suzie Wong, France Nuyen.
Because Robert resists commitment, Suzie takes Ben up on his offer. Ben is good-hearted but weak. When sober, he’s as class conscious as the rest and goes back to his wife. Suzie makes it clear to Robert that Ben’s betrayal doesn’t automatically mean she’ll go with him. When disaster strikes, fate gives him the chance to prove his love.
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In William Holden: A Biography, Michelangelo Capua writes that Holden priced himself out of a starring role in the wartime adventure classic The Guns of Navarone, only to be replaced by Gregory Peck in what became one of the biggest hits of 1961: “Instead he starred in Satan Never Sleeps (1962), based upon The China Story, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl Buck…. Director Leo McCarey together with Claude Binyan adapted the book into a script using Communism as a metaphor …”
Holden and France Nuyen finally were able to work together after the Suzie Wong debacle. He plays Father O’Banion, a missionary to China in 1949. On his way to relieve Father Bovard (Clifton Webb), Father O’Banion rescues Siu Lan (Nuyen), a beautiful peasant girl who devotes herself to him.
When he finally shows up at the Mission, it’s days late and with Siu Lan in tow. Father Bovard is skeptical of the excuse that a flood caused the delay. “Do you realize you’re rapidly replacing the Communists as my biggest problem?” says the father, delivered as only Webb can.
Curious how this got past the censors and The Legion of Decency. A priest is in a relationship and it’s an interracial one, to boot. So what if O’Bannion fends off Siu Lan’s constant advances and the affair is technically unconsummated. Siu Lan offers herself to him every chance she gets. Later on, there’s also rape and an illegitimate birth.
What may have been the film’s saving grace for the censors is its overriding anti-communist message. Capua writes: “Being a film critical of the Chinese communist government, it could not be shot the real locations; it was made in England and Wales and later completed in a London studio using the set of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958).”
Ho San (Weaver Levy) is one of Father Bovard’s former altar boys. He’s gone over to the Reds. Now an army officer, Ho San pays back Father Bovar’s kindness with contempt and cruelty. Late in the movie, Ho San tries to redeem himself. With the Reds closing in, it may be too late.
Capua describes the turmoil on the set:
Satan Never Sleeps was not an easy film to make as Bill was distracted and uninterested in his job. He admitted to some friends he had lost interest in bering an actor, a job he was doing for economical reasons, and diluting his dissatisfaction with the help of alcohol. McCarey often was involved in Bill’s binge drinking. The director was so frustrated by the interference of 20th Century Fox and their modifications to his scripts that he eventually walked off the production, and the final five days of shooting were left to an assistant. McCarey would never directed another picture. The released version of Satan Never Sleeps was edited without McCarey’s input which may explain the film’s bizarre happy ending. The picture was a critical and commercial disaster. The New York Post described it as “embarrassingly predictable until it becomes so bad that you couldn’t even imagine it.
Despite the many lapses and Asian stereotypes, there are some bright spots. On the technical side, Oscar-winning cinematographer Oswald Morris does what he can with the cheap sets. It’s far from epic but a decent looking, character driven film. Holden underplays his role as the priest who’s out of his depth. One expects him to say “just kidding” at any moment and rip off his clerical collar. Nuyen is certainly appealing and shows her range, from light comedy to heavy drama as the film progresses. It was Webb’s last screen appearance and he plays Father Bovar with his usual wit and sophistication as if Waldo, his character in Laura (1944), had somehow survived and become a missionary.
Thanks to Virginie and The Wonderful World of Cinema for hosting this wonderful William Holden blogathon. For more of Holden’s Asian adventures, see Simoa Writes coverage of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Old Hollywood Films The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Click on the image below for a complete listing:
Great article! I certainly need to take a look at those films, that I haven’t seen yet (shame on me). Actually, I did started watching Love is a Many Splendored Thing the other day,but because my dvd had a problem I couldn’t finish it. 🙁 Thanks so much for your participation to the blogathon!
Thanks for the motivation to watch and write about these films. Great idea to have a blogathon on one of my favorite actors. Looking forward to reading your posts and the others.
You’ve covered two of my favorite Holden roles – Love is a Many Splendored Thing and the World of Suzie Wong, and you’ve introduced me to a “new” Holden in the Orient film – The Devil Never Sleeps. Thank you! Now I’m going to hunt down both that film and that wonderful LP you posted.
Yes, the first two are excellent. As for The Devil Never Sleeps, don’t thank me until you’ve seen it. It’s a lesser film but has some good performances and fans of Clifton Webb should be pleased.
Fantastic post! I have watched only Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and it was beautifully tragic. I remember the exchange about the full moon!
The World of Suzie Wong is on my watchlist.
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
Thank you. I’ll look for the Holden film you recommend!