Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a polished vehicle for Fox's big star Ingrid Bergman - one
of the followup features to her comeback hit of a couple of years before,
Anastasia. This time, it's high adventure
in China (which looks suspiciously like the Scottish highlands), where yet another ambitious woman
goes against convention and finds love and fulfillment in an exotic foreign land. This CinemaScope
production was a solid hit in 1958.
English houseservant Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) has no training, has been
turned down by official institutions, and doesn't even speak Chinese, but she's determined to
go to China as a missionary. She saves for her overland passage with travel clerk Mr.
Murfin (Richard Wattis) and wins over all who scoff at her. After a rough trip, Gladys becomes a
helper at missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler)'s Inn at Yang Cheng. When the local
Mandarin (Robert Donat) needs a foot inspector to enforce new laws against binding children's
feet, she takes the job and travels the province, winning friends everywhere, and even turning
brigands and prison inmates to her side. This charms government Captain Lin Nan (Curd Jürgens),
a Eurasian who falls in love with Gladys but won't admit it. But soon, the Japanese invasion of the
Chinese mainland will push all of their plans aside.
Ingrid Bergman chose her film roles carefully, even though one has the feeling she could make almost any
film work. Her charm and sincerity make Inn of the Sixth Happiness function like a page-turning
novel; it's impossible to lose interest in what is going to happen next to her resolute heroine. She
convinces as an enthusiastic missionary, even in a China recreated in England, where English seems to
be everyone's second language.
Mark Robson isn't a very stylish director, but he keeps Isobel Lennart's script moving along well. The
beginning in England is short but to the point, as Gladys enlists harsh housekeepers and snooty
travel agents in her enthusiastic quest to go to the far East. Her trip is made amusing by
communications problems with gruff Russians on the Siberian railway. Neither obstinate soldiers
nor border conflicts can keep Aylward from her goal.
Gladys has to overcome a battery of obstacles: her initial inability to speak Chinese, Chinese fear
of foreign devils, her revulsion at certain Chinese customs like foot-binding and public executions
by axe. There are plenty of Chinese actors around, like Tsai Chin as her oldest adopted daughter
(later conspicuous in the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, and
You Only Live Twice) and, in his first
film, Bert Kwouk, also of YOLT and the Pink Panther films. But, as can be expected of an
English film of this date, the plum Asian roles are filled by Europeans in 'yellowface'. Robert Donat
is fine as a sentimenal old mandarin, and German Curd Jürgens has possibly his best role as the
Eurasian army officer. Both performances will certainly offend modern PC Asian Actor Lobbies, who
should be told to go back to their business of trying to diversify television. 1
Gladys' first connection in China is Jeannie Lawson, the elderly missionary lady played by Athene Seyler,
a little dynamo of energy who refuses to give up. 2
She's a nice role model for well-adjusted failure; after fifty years in China without any big success,
Lawson's still ready to keep on trying. To Bergman's Gladys, the old woman must seem hopeless, yet Gladys
is basically the same kind of person.
As luck should have it, Gladys is soon serving the local government as a social service worker. We
have to take it on faith that she overcomes prejudices and resistance to her progressive ideas
with more than just star quality, for Gladys is soon a beloved celebrity, as respected as the mandarin
himself. If there's a racial component to this (tall, light European becomes superior role model
to short foreign peasants), it's on the part of the Chinese themselves. The real Gladys Aylward
was able to use the shock value - a woman asserting herself in male roles - to good effect.
The film finds its third act when war comes to China in the form of invading Japanese burning towns
and driving people to the interior. Things get rather melodramatic as Gladys leads a
hundred abandoned children on a risky trek to safety, with ex-prisoners as scouts and bandit friends
running interference with Jürgens' regular army. It's only about this point that we realize that
Jürgens' army isn't definitely identified as Nationalist or Communist, although (I think that)
at this time (early 1930s) China had thoroughly suppressed the Red movements of the early 20s. Yet
Jürgens' centralized, intrusive reforms, such as the edict against foot-binding, sound like
the style of the progressive Communists.
The action of the last reels stays tense, even though we don't suspect for a minute that Gladys
and her long line of orphans singing 'Knick Knack paddy whack' are going to be shot to bits by the
invading Japanese. Ingrid pulls through with a few smudges on her cheeks, but we feel her triumph
is earned; this isn't one of those movies where Rosalind Russell cures polio with a few outraged
speeches and a good hairdo.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness shapes up as a good adventure film, with Ingrid Bergman
excellent as usual as a vulnerable but spunky female who takes that giant step into the unknown
and is rewarded with experiences, achievements and respect she'd never have found back in England.
Its deepest 'women's weepie' moment is actually provided by Robert Donat's softie mandarin, which
is a nice touch.
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness continues their quality
line of restored-to-video titles. The line is dominated by glossy romances, but one can't deny
that they are good pictures.
The CinemaScope image is bright and colorful and the English stereo track appears to reproduce the
original mix that features Malcom Arnold's sometimes repetitive score. 3
The commentary this time is covered by docu filmmaker Nick Redman, Fox studio biographer Aubrey
Solomon, and Bergman biographer Donald Spoto.
Fox's usual premiere newsreels and the restoration comparison are on board as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Nick Redman, Aubrey Solomon and Donald Spoto; newsreels of
premieres, Restoration comparison.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 25, 2003
1. Which brings us back to
the issue of suppressing Charlie Chan, that Chinese hero, because he's played by Anglo actors. If
the Chan series were more prestigious or potentially profitable, I don't think a cable company would
have made such an issue out of it. You don't see Paramount ix-naying Breakfast at Tiffanys,
and that has a really insulting Japanese stereotype played by Mickey Rooney.
2. Athene Seyler's other big role for genre fans is the superb horror film
Curse of the Demon, where she plays devil
worshipper Niall Macguinness's mother. Now that the original version has been restored, her role is twice
3. I'm not enough of an
expert to start throwing criticism of movie scores around, but Arnold's score for this one is
almost identical to his work on
Bridge on the River Kwai, The Heroes
of Telemark and The Roots of Heaven. He appears to have one particular score that he
altered for various films. At least the one-score-fits-all film noir work of Miklos Rosza has some
variation between titles.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson