Cast & Crew
In November 1941, cynical American Johnny Williams, a newsreel cameraman, is detained by Japanese military officials in Luichow, a Japanese-occupied part of China. The interviewing officer tells Johnny that the Japanese will pay him twenty thousand dollars to photograph the building of the Burma Road, then gives him the night to reconsider after he declines. As they are talking, Johnny steals what he thinks are his press credentials, after which he is returned to his cell. There he finds Major Bull Weed, a captured Canadian who was fighting with the Chinese irregulars. Weed is visited by his girl friend, "Captain" Fifi, who slips him a pistol. Johnny helps Weed escape to a pre-arranged meeting place, where they find Fifi waiting. She takes them to an abandoned airplane she has located, and Johnny then flies them to safety in Mandalay. There Johnny meets his old pal, Captain Shorty Maguire, who now serves in the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as "The Flying Tigers." Maguire asks Johnny to join the Tigers, but Johnny callously replies that he won't die for China, only for himself. Johnny then discovers that he grabbed some Japanese military orders rather than his press credentials. Weed translates the words "pearl" and "seven," but Johnny loses interest when he spots a beautiful woman in the lobby. Johnny pursues the woman, named Haoli Young, who is picking up some vases that she intends to sell. Johnny escorts Haoli home, where he is shocked to learn that in addition to being cosmopolitan and Vassar-educated, Haoli is Chinese. After Johnny forces a kiss on her, the couple part bitterly, despite their attraction to each other. Johnny returns to his hotel, where he flirts with Fifi in order to forget Haoli. He takes her to his room and is surprised to find Haoli, who has come to tell him that her father, Dr. Kai Young, warned her that Fifi and Weed are Japanese agents, and that Johnny is now suspected as well because of his association with them. Johnny tells her to leave, but soon realizes that he is being used as a pawn by Weed and Fifi. After tricking them into providing him with money to buy new camera equipment, Johnny tells Weed and Fifi to leave Mandalay before he tells the Tigers that they are spies. As a week passes, Johnny waits for Shorty to take him over the Burma Road to film a newsreel for an American company. He also becomes more involved with Haoli, and the pair fall deeply in love. Meanwhile, Weed reports back to the Japanese major, who orders him to retrieve the document that Johnny stole. One afternoon, Johnny goes to Haoli's house and learns that she has abruptly left with her father for Kunming, the site of his school for orphans. Bereft, Johnny gets drunk before returning to his hotel, where Fifi meets him the next morning. She warns him that Weed intends to kill him but offers to escape with him, as she has fallen in love with him. When she mentions that the Japanese are about to bomb Kunming, however, Johnny decides that he must find Haoli. First he fights Weed, and after he bests the big man, he rushes to the airfield and goes up with Shorty. Upon his arrival at Kunming, Johnny finds Haoli, but her father has already been killed in the bombing. Johnny helps her to rescue the trapped children, but before they can reach safety, Haoli is also killed. The enraged Johnny dashes to the top of a nearby building, on which is located a machine gun. Johnny then shoots down a Japanese plane and dedicates his actions to his "China girl" as he continues to fire at the planes.
Fred Kohler Jr.
Lal Chand Mehra
James B. Clark
Hugo W. Friedhofer
Wiard B. Ihnen
Walter M. Scott
E. Clayton Ward
Darryl F. Zanuck
Initially, Zanuck wanted to make a film about the construction of the Burma Road, with special emphasis on two Americans heavily involved with it, commissioner Daniel G. Arnstein and engineer Danny Ryan. Bryan Foy, a specialist in B movies, was assigned to produce, with Steve Fisher and Jack Andrews writing the screenplay. At that point Henry King was slated to direct. After work on the screenplay started, Zanuck decided to model the leading man on Tyrone Power's character in A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), an egotistical flyer whose love for a relief worker (Betty Grable) leads him to believe in the war effort.
At first, Zanuck had considered Pat O'Brien or John Payne to star, but as his vision of the film became more grandiose, he decided to cast Power. Then he realized the public would resent his appearing in a film so similar to his earlier World War II hit, so Zanuck started looking elsewhere, first to Victor Mature or John Payne (again), and then to George Montgomery, whose good looks and rugged physique were winning him female fans. The film's upgrade also brought it a new producer and screenwriter, Hecht, whose breezy writing would lend the film a distinction lacking in many other wartime adventures.
The female lead in early drafts was Captain Fifi, the Japanese agent who eventually falls for the leading man. At that time, Zanuck pursued casting Marlene Dietrich in the role. When that did not work out, the script's focus shifted to the Western-educated daughter of a Chinese patriot whose love redeems Montgomery. With Tierney's star on the rise, particularly since her electric pairing with Power in Son of Fury (1942), the role seemed a good way to build her career and expand her appeal to action fans. Working titles like A Yank in Burma, Burma Road and Over the Burma Road were dropped in order to put more focus on Tierney as the titular China Girl.
Rounding out the cast were Victor McLaglen as a double agent, stage veteran Myron McCormick as one of the already legendary Flying Tigers and Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington, in her last movie. In typical fashion, many of the key Asian roles were played by either Western actors like Tierney and the young Robert Blake (just before he started making the "Our Gang" shorts), or actors of the wrong nationality, like Korean-American Philip Ahn as Tierney's father, Indian Lal Chand Mehra as a Burmese desk clerk and Chinese actor Paul Fung as a Japanese invader. Osa Massen, a Danish actress Zanuck hired as a Garbo type then consigned to wayward woman roles, was originally cast in the now secondary role of Captain Fifi. But after 14 days of shooting, she was replaced by Fox's "Queen of the Bs," Lynn Bari.
In the days of studio production, particularly in the middle of a war, there was no question of going to the story's locations to shoot. The Burmese Road was re-created on the Fox back lot. With wartime restrictions on filming at airfields, the studio even created its own permanent airfield for military stories. The furthest they went from the lot was to the Bradbury Building in Downtown Los Angeles, where a few scenes were shot. It would later be more prominently featured in The Outer Limits TV episode, "Demon with the Glass Hand," and the cult science fiction film Blade Runner (1982).
Thanks to Hecht's script and Hathaway's tight direction, the critics accepted China Girl as a lot of fun with no real basis in reality. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote "this new picture at the Roxy is great stuff for what it is -- and that is a highfalutin movie, full of tough-guy talk, romance and bold intrigue. Provided one can take it in that vein and no other, without having any illusions about its factual likelihood, it makes fast, diverting entertainment." The studio used the film to promote Tierney, with ads hailing her as a "FIGHTING TIGRESS! In her heart...cold hate that defied the terror of the Japs...warm love for a fighting, flying Yank! Here is a tempestuous romance amid the flame and violence of today's mighty conflict!" They also put some focus on Bari's character, described, as in the screenplay, as "115 pounds of curses, crookedness and kisses!" In truth, Bari got much better reviews than Tierney, who was hailed for her beauty but often dismissed as a decorative but limited actress. But it was Tierney's name that sold tickets, so Bari went back to her B films, while Tierney's star continued to rise.
Producer: Ben Hecht
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Art Director: Richard Day, Wiard Ihnen
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gene Tierney (Haoli Young), George Montgomery (Johnny Williams), Lynn Bari (Capt. Fifi), Victor McLaglen (Maj. Bull Weed), Alan Baxter (Jones), Sig Ruman (Jarubi), Myron McCormick (Shorty), Robert Blake (Chinese Boy), Ann Pennington (Entertainer), Philip Ahn (Dr. Young), Tom Neal (Haynes).
by Frank Miller
The working titles of this film were A Yank in China, Burma Road and Over the Burma Road. Ben Hecht's onscreen credit reads "Produced and Written by Ben Hecht." Melville Crossman, who is credited as the film's story writer, was the pseudonym of Twentieth Century-Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck. According to Hollywood Reporter news items and information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, the film, as originally conceived in 1941, was to be produced by Bryan Foy and concentrate on the actual building of the Burma Road. The story was to be partially based on the experiences of Daniel G. Arnstein, the American commissioner to the Burma Road, and Danny Ryan, "the first American engineer" arriving on the scene after Arnstein completed his survey of the area. The writers at this point were Steve Fisher and Jack Andrews, although the extent of their contribution to the completed film has not been confirmed.
Actors originally suggested by Zanuck for the leading roles were Pat O'Brien and John Payne. The story files contain a 1942 memo to Zanuck from Henry King about the script, in which it appears that King was scheduled to be the film's director. Also in early 1942, Zanuck told the writers to pattern the protagonist "somewhat after the boy [portrayed by Tyrone Power] in A Yank in the R.A.F.," a popular Twentieth Century-Fox film (see below). February 1942 Hollywood Reporter news items then reported that Power would be starring in the Burma Road picture, with Robert Bassler acting as associate producer. Zanuck changed his mind, however, and in notes on a January 30, 1942 story outline, stated, "In reviewing this story outline, I am sure we made one mistake initially, in endeavoring to conceive Tyrone Power in the lead. We must forget Power, because no matter what changes in characterization we made, the audience would inevitably associate the line with A Yank in the RAF and this story would therefore be bound to lose its originality."
Zanuck then suggested starring Victor Mature in the picture . Subsequent scripts were written for either Mature or Payne in the lead, and with Marlene Dietrich as "Captain Fifi." In April 1942, some versions of the script had "Johnny" rescuing "Haoli," then joining the Flying Tigers, and others had "Johnny" dying at the end. A May 21, 1942 news item stated that the studio was seeking to borrow Albert Dekker from Paramount for a top role, while in June 1942, it was announced that Phil Silvers would be included in the cast. Osa Massen was cast in the picture as "Captain Fifi," but was replaced by Lynn Bari after seventeen days of filming. Hollywood Reporter also stated that Bobby Blake was borrowed from M-G-M for the production, and that some scenes were shot on location at the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. According to studio publicity, a permanent airfield was built on the lot for filming because real airfields could no longer be photographed due to wartime restrictions. The picture marked the final screen appearance of former Ziegfeld Follies performer Ann Pennington.