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September 15, 2020

Disputed Passage

disputed passage.jpg

Frank Borzage - 1939
KL Studios Classics BD Region A

Disputed Passage was the second of three films based on novels by Lloyd C. Douglas that were filmed by Frank Borzage. Previously, there was Green Light (1937) with Errol Flynn as a doctor facing a spiritual crisis. The Big Fisherman (1959), a big budget religious epic about Jesus' disciple Peter. The theologian turned novelist is probably best remembered for the cinematic adaptations of Magnificent Obsession and The Robe. Disputed Passage shares with Green Light and Magnificent Obsession narratives where the medical intertwines with the spiritual. The title is from a Walt Whitman poem regarding one's path in life.

In terms of Borzage's output, this film is something of a lesser effort, falling in between the more prestigious and better regarded The Shining Hour and Strange Cargo, both starring Joan Crawford. Which is not to say this is a bad or uninteresting film. Contemporary interest would be based on interest in the overall careers of Borzage and star Dorothy Lamour. The film also begins with an appearance by author Douglas giving written approval of this screen adaptation.

Young Dr. Beaven (bland leading man John Howard) has decided to follow his medical school mentor, Dr. Forster (Akim Tamiroff), in approaching medicine from a purely scientific standpoint. It's mentioned sarcastically by Forster that Beaven's undergraduate studies were religious in nature. Beaven's dedication to his medical practice and aloof attitude are challenged when he meets Audrey Hilton. Beaven performs minor surgery and the two fall in love, until Forster gets in the way.

And this would be relatively simple except that for the contemporary viewer, attitudes and representation of race make this film much for complicated. Hilton is a white woman who was raised by a Chinese family in China and thinks of herself as culturally Chinese. Keep in mind that at the time the film was made, interracial love was not allowed to be depicted in Hollywood films. Lamour is not exactly in "yellow face" but her costumes, hair style and make-up signify an exotic other. While it is to the film's credit that the Chinese characters and Lamour speak Chinese to each other, according to IMDb, there is no consistency with the dialogue switching between Cantonese and Mandarin. The film was made at a time when the audience was expected to have some awareness of Japan's attempts to colonize China, yet due to U.S. neutrality at the time of production, the scenes in China only refer to "the enemy". Some might have a problem with a scene in which Keye Luke plays a young medical student who presents himself with an Anglo-Saxon name, but my own experience includes personally knowing several Japanese immigrants who have done the same thing to ingratiate themselves as Americans. It is also of interest to compare Disputed Passage with the more clearly depicted relationship between an American pilot and a Chinese woman, portrayed by a Chinese actress, in China Doll (1958).

Borzage's hand is most evident in the final third of the film. Beaven travels to China in search of Ms. Hilton who has chosen to take a more active role in conflict against Japan. China is first introduced with stock footage which looks to me like it came from the same reel that was used in an earlier Paramount set in China production, The General Died at Dawn. Beaven travels by horseback to a small village. A lateral tracking shot depicts sick, hungry and dead Chinese along the pathway, illuminated in the darkness with expressionistic lighting. The scene with Forster operating on the injured Beaven uses a series of shots with canted angles. Near the end of the film, Dorothy Lamour is framed in an extreme close-up with her face partially in shadow except for her eyes.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary does provide some key information regarding the making of Disputed Passage. He presents the quite plausible theory that Lloyd Douglas, fully expecting that his novel would be sold to Hollywood like his past novels, had deliberately created the character of Audrey Hilton as the white woman with the Chinese identity in order to get around the still active Hays Code regarding interracial relationships. Pinkerton also notes that the leading Chinese-American actress of the time, Anna May Wong, served as an uncredited dialogue coach for the scenes in which Lamour speaks Mandarin. Aside providing brief biographies on several of the cast and crew members, Pinkerton's commentary is most valuable in discussing the historical context in which Disputed Passage was made. For the more serious cinephile, Pinkerton also generously quotes from an earlier piece written by film scholar Fred Camper.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 15, 2020 07:19 AM