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CHINA SEAS(director: Tay Garnett; screenwriters: from the book China Seas by Crosbie Garstin/Jules Furthman/James K. McGuinness; cinematographer: Ray June; editor: William Le Vanway; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Jean Harlow (China Doll, Dolly Portland), Clark Gable (Capt. Alan Gaskell), Wallace Beery (Jamesey MacArdle), Lewis Stone (Tom Davids, 3rd Officer), Rosalind Russell (Sybil Barclay), Robert Benchley (Charlie McCaleb), C. Aubrey Smith (Sir Guy Wilmerding), Hattie McDaniel (Isabel McCarthy), William Henry (Rockwell, Junior Officer), Forrester Harvey (Chief Steward); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Lewin; MGM; 1935)
“Highly entertaining because of the marvelous cast.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In China Seas, the fourth collaboration between Harlow and Gable, the Production Code that wasn’t enforced when they made the similar themed steamy melodrama Red Dust is now enforced. As a result, Harlow is no longer a prostitute but a professional entertainer and none of the relationships are consummated. Tay Garnett efficiently directs this adventure/romance film based on the book China Seas by Crosbie Garstin. The witty screenplay, without a pretense to art, is by Jules Furthman and James K. McGuinness.

If you think about the plot for just a few moments you realize it doesn’t make much sense, nevertheless it’s highly entertaining because of the marvelous cast and the sparks that fly between Harlow and Gable. It’s a tale about sexual rivalry, class differences, battling a typhoon that causes a steamroller to get loose on the ship, invading pirates, and the Chinese boot torture applied to the captain. All the action takes place on a luxury steamer en route from Hong Kong to Singapore with a shipment of gold and some passengers with secret reasons for being aboard. Gable is the gruff, macho Captain Alan Gaskell, who prides himself that no pirates ever robbed his ship and that he gets the job done with such a derelict crew. On board as passengers are the tub’s unsentimental owner Sir Guy Wilmerding (C. Aubrey Smith); the Captain’s floozy and hot-tempered showbiz girlfriend China Doll aka Dolly Portland (Jean Harlow); the sneaky businessman Jamesey MacArdle (Wallace Beery), who is secretly in league with a gang of Malay pirates planning to rob the gold; and, the Captain’s former girlfriend — the bland but sweet English society lady Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) — who was the reason the Captain left the British Navy. Sybil is now a widow and back in circulation, and plans to marry the Captain in Singapore and live with him in London. The supporting characters include new officer Rockwell, trying hard to impress the testy Captain; Tom Davids, 3rd Officer, a washed-up officer hired at the last minute as a replacement officer, who has something to prove about his courage because the ship he was the captain of was scuttled by pirates and all the white officers were killed but for him; the chief steward who pinches the liquor; the drunk writer Charlie McCaleb used as a figure for comic relief, and various passengers involved in affairs that are sketchily drawn.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

It’s a typical MGM glossy Hollywood film divorced from reality, but this one is sprinkled with snappy dialogue. Gable tells the jealous Harlow “You’re about as harmless as a revolution.” Proletarian Harlow either calls Gable “Toots” or a sap, as she stormily hankers after him while he courts the aristocratic Rosalind Russell. By the voyage’s end, Gable finds he has more in common with the sordid Harlow than with the prim Russell and changes marriage partners and career plans.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”