CHINA SEAS made waves of dough for MGM back in 1935. If you felt like escaping the Depression for 87 minutes that summer by ducking into a theater there’s a good chance you would have lined up for this entertaining star-packed nonsense, the year’s 5th biggest hit, grossing $4,900,000. You could mull Jean Harlow’s good-hearted doxy going on the level with “Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy“. Or you could nod to Clark Gable’s gruff “You’re always waiting for a sailor to comfort him, as only a woman like you can comfort a man whose too tired or too drunk to care who he is.” Brassy banter, breezy boozing, a raging typhoon, cruel pirates and the dreaded “Malay Boot” made Irving Thalberg’s $1,138,000 adventure hooey steam past swiftly and pay off big. Purportedly the hitmaking producer launched this one with “To hell with art this time. I’m going to produce a picture that will make money.” *
“Hello kid, what are you doing out in broad daylight?”
Brusque and demanding rascal ‘Alan Gaskell’ (Gable) captains the Kin Lung, a tramp steamer out of Hong Kong, bound for Singapore with a fortune in gold, a deck-full of coolie laborers, a motley crew of officers and a passenger list from Trouble. Gaskell’s shore-side plaything ‘Dolly “China Doll” Portland’ (Harlow) busts his chops mile-a-minute (she really luvs the dope, see) and he growls back at her with a disgust that disguises his inner mush. Seedy businessman ‘Jamesy McArdle’ (Wallace Beery) makes a loutish play for China Doll, and the captain’s aristocratic former flame ‘Sybil Barclay’ (Rosalind Russell) shows up, single. The ship runs full-on into a cyclone and then is boarded by pirates, who aren’t shy about using torture to get at that gold.
Jules Furthman and James Kevin McGuinness wrote the script, though a slew of typewriter-banging hands had nursed it along since MGM snagged Crosbie Garstin’s novel was shortly after its 1930 bow. In the book, subtitled “A Novel Of The East”, China Doll was Chinese, and there was a mixed-race love-child subplot, so of course that had to be jettisoned, as well as opium smoking (fiendish fumes could lead to interracial sex and the lifelong stain of such an abhorrent blunder). Problem solved, as platinum blonde Jean is safely more ginger snap than fortune cookie. **
Directed apace by Tay Garnett (Bataan, The Postman Always Rings Twice), this was the 4th of six Gable-Harlow teamings, and they have the “sparks fly” thing down pat. Gable barks his dialogue faster than a Tommygun, and Harlow breaks the needle on the Screechograph, but they’re fun. He’s supposed to be from England (as he was in Mutiny On The Bounty), but aside from using long ‘a’s in pronouncing words like “a-gain” he’s closer to Cleveland-upon-Ohio than Stratford-upon-Avon. Beery is awful with a bogus Irish accent that wouldn’t fool a deaf Setter (Clark & Jean both loathed him; few peers had anything good to say about the coarse blowhard). Robert Benchley is equally painful as a comic relief drunk, sloshed into babble the entire trip. Roz Russell gives the best-modulated performance as the genteel and gracious competitor for the captain’s favors: her subtle go at a Brit accent isn’t indolent.
When the action gets underway, it’s fairly rough stuff. During the typhoon, an impressively staged sequence has a steamroller breaks loose on deck, running back and forth over the heaving, cascade-drenched deck, squashing several screaming extras. When the pirates board, things get brutal, with application of the dreaded Malay Boot contraption and assorted mayhem climaxing with an old-school heroic payback of wholesale bad guy slaughter. Eat lead, uncivilized scum! ***
With Lewis Stone (a script nod to “Lord Jim”), Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith (upholding Britain’s divine right to uphold things), Akim Tamiroff (sleazeball), Edward Brophy, Soo Yong (a formidable person off-screen), Hattie McDaniel (fun as ever) and Donald Meek. The 2nd-unit pirate action was directed by William A. Wellman, and the glossy cinematography was the work of Ray June. Herbert Stothart provides the suitably clichéd chop-sticky soundtrack. Somehow censors missed Jean’s lightning-quick recovery at around minute-48: one of the free-spirited Harlow boobs escapes from her gown. Thank technological advances and the sharp eyes of classic film buffs.
* Mid-Depression got ya down in the dumps? Find two quarters and take your date where the wild things were. In ’35 she could sigh over King Clark in Mutiny On The Bounty or The Call Of The Wild, or you could otherwise check your blues in the balcony with Captain Blood, Lives Of A Bengal Lancer, Clive Of India, The Crusades and The Last Days Of Pompeii. “Say, toots, that was swell…“
** Real-life risk-taker Crosbie Garstin’s 300-page book was a posthumous postmark, as he’d drowned just before it was published. Quite the dude, from the days when fellows who wrote about Manly Action first did it themselves. https://www.stivesart.info/crosbie-garstin-biography/
*** In terms of High Adventure, aside from the star-gazing fun factor of such a quaintly dated and patently silly enterprise, the movie does credit the age-old regional pirate plague with the sort of merciless enterprise they’ve shown countless unfortunates from way back. Their menace has hardly subsided. So, if the knee-jerker p.c. clots among you take issue with the non-Beery bad guys in this oldie, save your wanking: ask a Vietnamese-American who survived the “boat-people” diaspora or maybe try sailing a yacht between The Philippines and Indonesia without 24-7 access to deck guns. If the Boot fits….
Lastly, personal aside: during WW2, in the Pacific, my Dad managed to survive two typhoons on cargo ships—the most terrifying encounters of his life (and he’d once fought a big forest fire, and had to outrun it for five miles). During one, a Sherman tank got loose on deck and was smashing around. No Clark Gable on hand to lasso it. I guess it went over the side and sits on the bottom somewhere off Saipan: I’ll have to ask him later down the line. Then, what the hell, I’ll knock back a few with Clark and Jean…