Cast & Crew
Off the coast of China on Sulow Island, a haven for corruption and greed, in the Green Dragon gambling club, unemployed American merchant sailor McMillen bets the last of his money. Beside him, a suave, sophisticated woman, Tamara, places her chips down and accidentally knocks McMillen's chips onto another number, which loses. When McMillen protests and demands to see the club's owner, Hu Chang, he is thrown out of the club. Hu Chang apologizes to Tamara and inquires after her uncle, Wong San, but Tamara replies indifferently. She departs,and Hu Chang has his henchman Pedro follow her. Tamara confuses Pedro with the help of her companion, Lotus, and meets Wong San in a warehouse belonging to her fiancé, Paul Lowell, an importer-exporter. Wong intends to sell priceless jade pieces from the Ming Dynasty to purchase food and housing for the poor of his province in mainland China. Lowell offers to purchase the pieces for a London dealer, which arouses Wong's suspicions. When Powell offers $10,000 of his own money to secure the deal, Wong grudgingly agrees. Lowell and Tamara plan to complete the deal the following day and later depart for Hong Kong. Meanwhile, McMillen, broke, goes into an American bar, where Juan, the bartender, directs him to Frenchie, the captain of the Sally Ann . Frenchie initially refuses to hire McMillen because of his reputation as a drinker, but changes his mind after witnessing a brawl in which McMillen prevails. The next day Lowell meets Wong to authenticate the jade, but when he offers Wong a promissory note, Wong refuses to conclude the deal. Lowell murders Wong and hastily arranges to transport the art pieces on the Sally Ann . Hu Chang and Pedro arrive at Lowell's warehouse and after discovering Wong's body, learn from an informer that Lowell has departed on the Sally Ann . Hu Chang notifies Tamara and chides her for not making arrangements with him. Affronted by Lowell's cold-blooded callousness, Tamara sheds her European trappings and resumes her true Chinese identity and former profession as a pirate. Hu Chang promises to provide her a boat and crew to track down the Sally Ann and regain the treasure. Later, despite engine problems, Tamara's boat overtakes the Sally Ann and, with Pedro's assistance, secures the art and brings an unconscious Lowell on board her boat with McMillen, who replaces her dead engineer. When Lowell revives, he attempts to explain his actions, but when he threatens Tamara, Lotus stabs him to death. Back in port, Pedro knocks out McMillen, who later tells Juan about the day's events. Juan realizes Hu Chang's involvement through Pedro's participation and reports them to the police. Tamara and Hu Chang, meanwhile, discuss taking the treasure to Indochina, the only safe place to sell the pieces. Tamara, suspicious of Hu Chang, refuses to carry Pedro on the voyage. Later, McMillen follows Tamara and demands the money he would have won at the Green Dragon. Instead, Tamara hires him for the voyage and admits she wants to sell the treasure to fulfill Wong's desire to help their people, but believes Hu Chang will interfere. At the dock, Hu Chang insists on accompanying the shipment. During the voyage, Lotus discovers a note revealing that Hu Chang intends to take over the boat. Despite her efforts, Hu Chang succeeds, directing the boat to a small cove where Pedro and his henchmen await. Pedro shoots Lotus, and as McMillen guns the engine to make a getaway, Hu Chang leaps overboard. Tamara confides to McMillen that Lotus was her sister and mourns her death as the boat's engine stalls. Knowing Hu Chang and Pedro will follow, Tamara and McMillen decide to resist, despite the odds. In a heavy fog, Pedro and his men attack the boat, but McMillen and Tamara fight them off, although Tamara is stabbed. McMillen then rigs the boat with explosives before getting Tamara to shore. Hu Chang reaches their boat and detonates the explosives while searching for the treasure. As Tamara dies in McMillen's arms, she reflects on how her only attempt to do good failed.
Barbara Jean Wong
Eleanor Soo Hoo
Lee Tung Foo
Although China Corsair is often cited as Ernest Borgnine's film debut he had appeared previously as a union organizer buddy to working class hero Lloyd Bridges in The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951). The Dover, New Hampshire location of Robert Siodmak's labor drama was an easy commute for the East Coast actor, then dividing his time between company roles for Pennsylvania's Barter Theatre and appearing in the Broadway production of Harvey with wide-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown. A screen test in New York led to a Columbia contract and a role as a waterfront thug in The Mob (1951) with Broderick Crawford but first the studio plugged Borgnine into China Corsair.
To play the Chinese permitee of a gambling house, Borgnine was squeezed into a Mandarin hat and tunic and made to wear painful eye lifts from 4 am until 7 pm on shooting days. Additionally, the actor found himself clashing with autocratic director Ray Nazarro, known principally as a specialist in westerns. The Boston-born Nazarro's career extended back to the silent era and he had by this time adopted the Continental habit of wearing his suit jacket over his shoulders and demanding absolute deference from his hirelings. Projecting onto Borgnine the association of New York actors with being difficult, Nazarro sought to intimidate the Hollywood newbie by calling for a scene to be shot that hadn't been scheduled (and for which the actors were unprepared). Excusing himself for fifteen minutes, Borgnine returned to the set and executed the scene perfectly in one take, after which he had no further trouble with his director.
Leading man Jon Hall (born Charles Hall Locher in Fresno, California in 1913) had enjoyed a brief popularity after playing the loin-clothed lead of John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). By the time of China Corsair, Hall's waistline had spread and his matinee idol had coarsened, making him appear considerably older than his 38 years. Never comfortable in front of the camera, Hall would soon retire from show business to run a number of private businesses, among them a flying school. Plagued by terminal bladder cancer, he committed suicide in North Hollywood in 1979.
Second-billed Lisa Ferraday was less famous for her acting than for whom she was photographed with on the town. The dark-eyed Transylvania-born (as Elizabeth de Mesey) beauty was paired in the tabloids with all manner of men, from suave, bookish Franchot Tone to burly, hard-living Broderick Crawford and later made scandal sheet headlines by feuding with her Death of a Scoundrel (1956) costar Zsa Zsa Gabor. Ferraday's career was short-lived; she married well and retired to Florida, where she died in March 2004.
Australian émigré Ron Randell was a former second string Bulldog Drummond and Lone Wolf at Columbia but is in shadier form in China Corsair as Ferraday's exporter paramour. Randell's last film role was as Nastassja Kinski's father in James Toback's Exposed (1983) but he continued working in theatre before his death in Los Angeles in June 2005. A quintessential Rockwell American, John Dehner fails to persuade as Latin cutthroat Pedro, towering as he does over every other actor, but Philip Ahn (as a doomed antiques dealer) brings to the production a much-needed dash of ethnic authenticity. Look fast for Amanda Blake (later the high-kicking Miss Kitty of TV's Gunsmoke) as Ron Randell's secretary.
However indebted China Corsair may be to earlier and frankly better port city dramas, it's a credit to director Ray Nazarro that the film clips along at a brisk pace and is never boring. Early business set in the neighborhood of Borgnine's gambling house make good use of a standing medieval set on the Columbia lot and when the action switches to the open sea the film looks cheaper but paradoxically feels more alive and spontaneous. The cynical script by Harold Greene (who helped cook up the story for Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential, 1952) is hard on blood relations and romantic love (Hall's spurned sailor squeezes a wallet-sized photo of the woman who done him wrong as if it were a stress reliever) and by the final fade-out 90 percent of the character roster of the desperate and the duplicitous is dead in the drink. Beat that, Casablanca!
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: Ray Nazarro
Screenplay: Harold Greene
Cinematography: Philip Tannura
Film Editing: Richard Fantl
Art Direction: Victor Greene
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Jon Hall (McMillan), Lisa Ferraday (Tamara Liu Ming), Ernest Borgnine (Hu Chang), Marya Marco (Lotus), John Dehner (Pedro), Ron Randell (Paul Lowell).
by Richard Harland Smith
Ernest Borgnine interview by Clyde Jeavons
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz
Reviews in Variety and Hollywood Reporter list the film at 76 and 78 minutes respectively, which differs substantially from the Daily Variety review's running time of 68 minutes and the Copyright record, which indicates 67 minutes.
Released in United States Summer June 1951
Released in United States Summer June 1951