Whew, hadn't looked at anything from MGM in a long while due mostly to a complete absorption into the world of Warner Brothers, but they can't all feature Edward G. Robinson, can they ... it just seems like they have recently! I found myself a little ahead of my typical schedule on Tuesday and what with Jean Harlow's birthday tomorrow, March 3, as I write this, it seemed like a perfect time to let the lion roar across my television again.
While China Seas is about as different as you can get from the film covered in my last review, 1932's Union Depot, I had a hard time not seeing the similarities. Okay, the train doesn't pull from the station until the final scene of Union Depot, while an even larger gang of familiar character actors are out in sea for the bulk of China Seas, but in dealing with very different forms of travel both pictures shared the wild hubbub found at all points of departure. In the case of Union Depot most of it was set within the station and I found myself blown away by the almost documentary style the film often took on. China Seas opens on the docks of Hong Kong and while the many faces were basically of two types: white and Chinese, there was still plenty of action both on and off the boat in its opening scene.
In fact we're more than 16 minutes into China Seas before the first scene fades and we're actually at sea! Most of that time is spent meeting all of those wonderful character actors including Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond as the Timmonses, a couple who banter about the quality of Mrs. Timmons' pearls throughout the voyage; Akim Tamiroff as Romanoff, typically shady with more knowledge about the necklace than either of the Timmons couple; Robert Benchley's McCaleb, an American author who appears at regular intervals throughout China Seas and manages to be drunk every time, his dialogue never quite fitting the conversations of the other passengers and crewmen; Soo Yong is exotic Yu-Lan, who rides above with the white passengers while most of the Chinese are unseen below deck; C. Aubrey Smith is good natured Sir Guy, owner of the ship, who just can't stay away; Dudley Digges is crotchety first mate Dawson who holds a grudge throughout against new third mate Davids, an old-timer branded a coward for being the only white survivor of a ship he captained that was overrun by Pirates. Davids is played by Lewis Stone with more energy that I can recall him having in any other talkie.
These characters along with many I haven't even mentioned plus the native Chinese move about the docks and ship bantering throughout that long opening scene, periodically interrupted by the arrival of each of the four main characters. Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell distinguishes himself from this crowd by his entrance where he strides across the dock and begins barking at everyone he comes into contact with. When Gable comes upon young Rockwell (William Henry) imitating him in front of a mirror he gives himself away as a nice guy by smirking out of Rockwell's view before chewing his head off. Once Rockwell leaves the Captain smiles again leaving the viewer sure that Gable's going to be all right in this one.
With Rockwell out one door, Gable's Gaskell hears a commotion behind another. When he calls out the unmistakable voice of Jean Harlow replies "Just showering the dew drops off the body beautiful." Harlow quickly bursts onto the scene, still just 24, tragically with the greater bulk of her work already behind her. China Doll is Jean Harlow at her peak, that goes for looks and talent. Gone is the stilted delivery from earlier films such as Hell's Angels (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), Harlow's China Doll puts across her moves and speech as natural as could be, making you believe in a girl who almost certainly couldn't have existed--everything to the max: good natured, lovable, hot tempered, plus all that sex appeal. China Doll sweet talks Gaskell one second, but all it takes is his speaking a few words that get her goat and she sprouts devil horns just as quick and tears him down. And Harlow managed to do this so you'd not only buy into the performance, but you'd often feel bad for her as she stormed away!
Next up we have Jamesy MacArdle, familiar to both Captain Gaskell and China Doll, both of whom are weary of him, and how could they not be as he's played by Wallace Beery. For some reason Beery's dialogue comes off at many points as though he's trying to layer an accent onto Jamesy, but his speech pattern really sounds off kilter when he does this. Beery wears a smile on his face and tosses boquets of compliments at everybody throughout about 95% of Jamesy's scenes in China Seas, however it's those other few moments that paint him as the heel he really is. He's not without his redeeming qualities--he does prove his professed love for China Doll to be true, however he's on board to head a mutiny against Gaskell, whose record is spotless of such affairs up until this time, and he's about as duplicitous as can be with Gable's character throughout, abhorrently so in the scene involving his Chinese mutineers, Gable's right foot and the Malay Boot.
While Beery provides a spark to the action sequences of China Seas, it's early Rosalind Russell as the British gentlewoman Sybil who douses China Doll's romance with the Captain. Roz's Sybil knew Captain Gaskell way back, and while Gaskell loved her then he was also fond of her husband who has since died. The Captain longs for the easy British country life that Sybil offers the opportunity to latch onto, but Gaskell's boss, Sir Guy, not only wants to keep his best man on board but also realizes the quiet life isn't for Gaskell, so he mocks his Captain's dream life throughout the voyage. Demure throughout most of China Seas, Sybil does get off a great line at China Doll from across the Captain's table when China aggressively jumps on her asking what she's smiling about and Sybil replies in reference to the Captain, "You must be very fond of him ... to humiliate yourself like this."
When China's Captain becomes overly involved with Sybil, she tries to grin and bear it, basically tossing her hands up in the air and turning to Jamesy's distant alternative, a man far down the ladder from Gaskell, but on the surface in China's own class. While they make great drinking companions their relationship is doomed from the start as Jamesy's sole motivation for this voyage is the 250,000 GBP in gold bullion that the Captain's transporting, while China's basically a good girl with a bit of an edge, who can't extinguish her love for Captain Gaskell anyway. Still the Captain snaps at China once too often and too fiercely at a key moment causing her actions to be swept away by her temper as she brings Jamesy the final ingredient to his mutiny, the key to the ship's gun locker.
Director Tay Garnett (also of 1944's Mrs. Parkington and 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice) has his highlight in China Seas in the adjoining scenes of the mutiny itself, but even more with the wild typhoon that comes just before it. (Note: My edition of the AFI Catalog mentions that William Wellman was brought in to direct the pirate scene and Harry Bucquet took care of the stunt scenes, so maybe we need to find another highlight for Garnett). Water is heaped every which way over and across the ship and in one very funny group of shots onto Robert Benchley who continues to be impervious to whatever is thrown in his path. When the storm breaks a chain holding a steamroller in place the huge piece of machinery slides across the deck and wipes out many of the screaming Chinese as it sweeps back and forth out of control. While Gable gets a top action scene out of it, lassoing and riding the steamroller like he were in a Western, Lewis Stone's Davids, he of the cowardly past, spends most of the time holding on for dear life out of the way. As soon as the Captain secures the rogue machine he snaps at Davids to put himself under confinement and notifies him that he's under arrest for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders.
Not surprisingly banned in Malaya and Singapore, China Seas casts the Chinese as Beery's hired pirates, repeatedly refers to them as "coolies" throughout the film, and even the one elevated Asian character, Yu-Lan, is marked by mildly sinister appearances and mannerisms in her few scenes. Also of interest is an unbilled Hattie McDaniel as Harlow's maid, Isabel, who hilariously lucks into Harlow's clothes. In case you're wondering how that worked out when she at first wrests a long sought after piece of China's wardrobe, Isabel exits with the remark, "I got to let this out a smidgin'."
Despite his weaknesses, which he largely turns into strengths through pure personality, I've always been a big Gable fan and if you're like me in that regard China Seas is a must-see. There's no doubt who's in charge of his ship, and Beery sums him up well during that Malay Boot scene when he says of the Captain, "Nobody can be that tough." Beyond the classicly macho Gable though is his interplay with Harlow, the great tandem having already starred together in Red Dust (1932) and Hold Your Man (1933), plus having appeared together, along with Beery and Stone, in 1931's The Secret Six, really click together here in China Seas. After China Seas Harlow only made 5 more films, including two with Gable, 1936's comedy classic Wife vs. Secretary and her final film 1937's horse racing tale Saratoga, in which the late Harlow is doubled by Mary Dees and and Paula Winslowe in order to chop together the final scenes of what surely would have been an even better finished product had Harlow survived production.
I'm going to leave the last word on the Gable and Harlow pairing to China Doll herself, who after doing her best to apologize to the Captain and at least outwardly accept his relationship with Sybil can no longer contain herself and explodes telling him, " You can't quit me anymore then I can quit you and you can kiss a stack of cook books on that!"