China Seas, 1935
China Seas - Released Aug 16, 1935. Directed by Tay Garnett
China Seas from 1935 is a replay of Red Dust of 1932. Both films feature Jean Harlow and Clark Gable with onscreen characters in the same jam (she's a tramp and he's confused about whether he should make an honorable woman of her), though Gables role in China Seas (sea captain Alan Gaskell) places him in a higher rank in society than Dennis Carson, the plantation manager from 1932. In the 1932 film, he toiled away in the working part of the British Empire, sweating and yelling at the native workers. In China Seas he's impeccably clean and usually dressed in white, though still yelling at everyone, which had by 1935 become an important part of Gable's acting style, and it is in abundance here.
Harlow plays her character as attacking the same problem as the one from Red Dust, which is how to get Gable to take her seriously. As part of her strategem, she manipulates fellow ship passenger Wallace Beery (as Jamesy MacArdle), pretending to take up with him (he is immediately infatuatied once Harlow start laying on her attention) as part of Harlow's competition against the pedigreed Rosalind Russell (as Sybil) who has come aboard the ship and has begun to take up all of Gable's attention.
Jealousy doesn't bring good results, though, as Gable confuses his with disgust when it involves the likes of lumberjack-crossed-with-a-thug Wallace Beery. But this is 1935 M-G-M, so it will all work out for the sea captain and the tramp (the same cannot be said of McArdle, though, who has a hard fate awaiting him).
Rosaland Russell (in a role not that dissimilar from the one played by Mary Astor in Red Dust) is stuck with the helpless task of being second-fiddle to the glimmering Harlow who gets to have all the humor and is put in the most danger.
Beery as the duplicitous passenger with a plot to shanghai the ship and make off with the stored valuables in the ship's vault has a generous amount of screen time. His task gets quite complicated when a typhoon pounds its way in and threatens to sink the ship, packed with coolies, passengers and cargo.
During all this Beery has to keep lying to Gable so he won't suspect who is the real mastermind for the pirate gang that soon boards his ship. Also, Beery has to try and prosecute his campaign to win over Jean Harlow, not realizing he's fooled himself. He simply doesn't have enough time to do any of these three tasks well, and it will all blow up in his face.
China Seas may not have the gritty milieu of Red Dust, but it is a well done film with a tight plot that moves from beginning to end like a finely-wound watch. A sequence featuring an enormous piece of equipment chained to the deck that bursts free in the storm is probably one of the best "sea storm" scenes from 1930s films.
Lewis Stone is in the cast lending his grim gravitas to a secondary character that is trying to resurrect his sailor reputation, and only disgraces it further, that is, until the chips are really down in the confrontation with the pirate crew that has attacked them.
Harlow and Gable seem to effortlessly plow through their roles with fast line deliveries and frequent yelling and throwing things. But their arguments are tinged with humor, part of what made them one of moviedom's best screen couples.
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