Saturday, July 16, 2011

China Seas (1935)

Clark Gable and Jean Harlow were always a good combination and as a bonus MGM’s 1935 China Seas adds Wallace Beery, who had some wonderful comic chemistry with Harlow in Dinner At Eight. The result is one of Harlow’s most interesting movies.

Gable is the captain of a merchant ship plying its trade in the South China Sea in the 1930s. He’s ex-Royal Navy officer Alan Gaskell and he has a reputation as a bit of a martinet. OK, Gable as an Englishman is a bit of a stretch but this is Hollywood so it doesn’t really matter. Gable wisely makes no attempt at an English accent.

As his ship is about to leave Hong Kong he finds himself having to take on one last passenger, the notorious China Doll (Harlow). China Doll (her real name is Dolly Portland) and Captain Gaskell have been a bit of an item for quite some time. She’s crazy about him but she’s not exactly the sort of woman that a man in a respectable position would marry. This is post-Production Code so we’re not told how she earns her living but we’re certainly left to assume that she might well be a lady of easy virtue.

The captain’s position is complicated by the presence of another passenger, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell). Many years earlier Sybil had been the great love of Gaskell’s life but she married another man. Now her husband is dead and she is keen to rekindle her old romance with Gaskell. In fact she intends to finally marry him and he’s pretty sold on the idea as well.

As you might expect Dolly is not thrilled by this development and being of a somewhat excitable nature (to put things mildly) it’s obvious there’s going to be fireworks. Disreputable businessman Jamesy MacArdle has been pursuing Dolly for years and now that she’s been jilted by Gaskell she’s willing to give him a little encouragement. What she doesn’t yet know but is about to find out is that MacArdle is in league with pirates, they know the ship is carrying a large shipment of gold bullion and they have plans to get that gold.

The plot is by no means as unlikely as it sounds.The South China Sea really was infested by pirates in the 1930s, and in fact piracy was still rife in this region in more recent times.

This is a movie that combines the romantic comedy you expect in a Gable-Harlow vehicle with plenty of action and excitement. As well as the attack by pirates Captain Gaskell’s ship has to survive a typhoon. It also has some surprisingly dark moments. There’s a subplot involving another captain (played by Lewis Stone) who has been relieved of his command for cowardice and has signed on as third officer with the intention of seeking redemption. There’s also a rather graphic torture scene - I’m not sure how MGM got that one past the Production Code Authority.

Director Tay Garnett makes this combination of comedy, romance, drama, action and adventure work extremely well. The exotic atmosphere of intrigue and danger in the Mysterious East is captured superbly. It might be a Hollywood version of the East but it’s undeniably glamorous and exciting.

And there’s plenty of the famous MGM gloss in evidence. Harlow’s dresses are a highlight, blending glamour, exoticism and tackiness in equal measures. The strong cast certainly helps. Gable is more a conventional hero than in most of his 1930s roles but with enough of his trademark loveable rogue image to make the character interesting. Wallace Beery is in fine fettle and even Lewis Stone and C. Aubrey Smith (actors with a strong tendency towards pomposity) are entertaining in this movie. And Harlow gets to play a bad girl, always a bonus. She’s not quite a bad girl with a heart of gold, but she’s a sympathetic bad girl and she’s terrific.

I saw this one on TCM (and their print is truly excellent) but it’s available on DVD. It’s really a must-see movie if you’re a Harlow fan. Or a Gable fan. Actually it’s a must-see movie for anyone who likes Hollywood movies of the 30s. A hugely enjoyable movie that delivers the goods in every area.

1 comment:

  1. Not bad, but I've seen better. To me, it's just a 1930s version of a blockbuster summer movie.