China Sky was not one of Buck's favorite projects. She had dashed it off quickly as a magazine story before expanding it for publication as a novel. But it was the third of her stories to reach the screen. Where her epic vision had been translated by MGM in The Good Earth (1937) and Dragon Seed (1944), this time RKO, working with decidedly lower budgets, focused primarily on a love triangle involving Dr. Thompson (Randolph Scott), Dr. Durand (Ms. Warrick) and the society woman (Ellen Drew) Thompson impulsively marries on a fundraising tour. There was talk of the war, of course, and the presence of a Japanese colonel (Richard Loo) taken prisoner. But the studio cut most of Buck's action scenes until the final confrontation between Chinese guerillas under Quinn's leadership and the Japanese Army. Nonetheless, the romance and topical subject were enough to guarantee solid box-office returns.
The film was a typical international mishmash of the studio era, with Mexican-born Quinn hardly the only actor playing a nationality other than his own. Like him, Montana-born Carol Thurston, who played a Japanese-born doctor's unfaithful Chinese wife, made a career out of playing other races. She had even made her screen debut as a Polynesian beauty in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944). At least Loo, who was born in Hawaii, and Philip Ahn, a Korean-American cast as the treacherous medico, were Asian. They would spend most of the war years cast as villainous Japanese, often in films now viewed with some embarrassment. Child actor "Ducky" Louie, in his screen debut, was one of the few Chinese actors to play Chinese in the film. He would enjoy a brief vogue in war films like China's Little Devils (1945) and Back to Bataan (1945) before landing his best role, as Quinn's adopted Native American son in the classic B-film Black Gold (1947).
In many ways, however, the wartime setting was just so much topical window dressing for a film primarily focused on the romantic rivalry between Warrick and Ellen Drew. For Drew, the role of Scott's shallow, conniving wife was a marked change of pace from her usual ingénue casting in such films as If I Were King (1938) and Preston Sturges' Christmas in July (1941). Warrick scored the real triumph in the film, however. For one thing, she was tremendously flattered to be cast in a starring role originally scripted for Claudette Colbert. But she also got the best notices of any of the cast, with many critics hoping the film would point to better things for the actress who had gotten her start as Orson Welles' first wife in Citizen Kane (1941).
But better film roles were hard to come by and Warrick found her greatest success as a television soap star, particularly after she created the role of Phoebe Tyler on All My Children. At the time, however, her main compensation for appearing in China Sky was an unexpected and, by her own description, revelatory affair with Quinn. While her character was sharing furtive romantic glances with Scott (a happily married actor who hated playing love scenes), Warrick found herself drawn to the film's second male lead. At the time, she was caught in an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic actor who once strolled down their street stark naked.
Sensing her unhappiness, Quinn -- who once bragged to her "I want to impregnate every woman in the world" (from Ruth Warrick's autobiography, Confessions of Phoebe Tyler) -- offered to help with a little no-strings romance. At the start of the affair he even warned her, "I trust you are not expecting some immortal words from me at this moment." The romance lasted until the film was complete, during which time he taught her the tango and a great deal about love. As she would say in her memoirs, "Zorba the Greek taught me to dance on the seashore of life."
Producer: Maurice Geraghty, Jack J. Gross
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Brenda Weisberg, Joseph Hoffman
Based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Ralph Berger
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Randolph Scott (Thompson), Ruth Warrick (Sara), Ellen Drew (Louise), Anthony Quinn (Chen To), Richard Loo (Col. Yasuada), Ducky Louie ("Little Goat"), Philip Ahn (Dr. Kim), Benson Fong (Chung).
by Frank Miller