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The working titles of this film were The Inn of the Eighth Happiness and The Small Woman. The film opens with the following written prologue: "This story is based on the life of Gladys Aylward, a woman of our time who was, and is dedicated to the simple, joyful and rare belief that we are all responsible for each other." Aylward was an English parlor maid who, denied the opportunity to become a missionary because of her lack of education, used her earnings to buy a ticket to China in 1930 and went on to found a mission in Shansi Province.
According to news items in Hollywood Citizen-News and Los Angeles Herald Express, Aylward denounced the film as a "bunch of lies" and claimed that the studio never showed her the completed script. She charged that "my name was used without my permission and associated with that wicked woman [Ingrid Bergman]." Presumably, Aylward was referring to the scandal that erupted when Bergman left her husband and daughter for Italian director Roberto Rossellini ( for Anastasia for further information). Aylward also stated that she never fell in love with a Chinese colonel. Although she wrote a stream of letters in protest, there is no evidence that Aylward ever sued the studio.
According to a January 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was originally to be shot on location in Formosa. A modern source adds that Wales was substituted for Formosa when relations broke down with the Chinese government. The film was also shot on location in Wales and at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios outside London, according to the Variety review. Although Hollywood Reporter pre-production news items state that Mark Robson was both to produce and direct the film, Buddy Adler is credited as producer onscreen and in reviews. Adler and Bergman had previously worked together on Anastasia. "The Mandarin" was Robert Donat's last role; Donat died on June 9, 1958. The film was also Adler's last production; he died on July 12, 1958. Director Mark Robson was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film. The song's cheerful signature song, "This Old Man," was a big hit in 1958-59.