by Paul Batters
Of all the stars that graced the silver screen during MGM’s heyday, none was ever as dominant as Clark Gable. Younger generations may have never seen any of his films, yet Gable’s face is still recognisable to them today. Justifiably, he was called the ‘King Of Hollywood’ and was without doubt the king of his home turf – MGM Studios. For classic film fans, there are quite a number of Gable’s films that are particularly celebrated, none moreso than Gone With The Wind.
During the mid 1930s, Gable was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, which was certainly assured after his Academy Award winning performance in 1934’s sleeper hit, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra and also starring Claudette Colbert. The film was a ‘punishment’ of sorts by MGM, lending Gable to the studio when he complained about the roles he was getting. It would showcase Gable’s talent for screwball comedy, as well as quick repartee. MGM would not make that mistake again and would jealously guard their now biggest star.
With stardom assured, MGM spared little expense in the films in which Gable featured. During the period that immediately followed, many film historians tend to focus on two films –Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Both reveal classic MGM production values, with outstanding casts and were huge hits for MGM. They are both exemplary in showcasing Gable’s screen presence and talent. Yet China Seas, the film he made not long after It Happened One Night, whilst not completely forgotten, does not get as much attention as the aforementioned films.
As biographer Warren G. Harris points out, Gable had just come off an Oscar win which meant a new lucrative MGM contract, with far better conditions. China Seas would be the first film of this new contract, which meant star treatment for Gable.
Directed by Tay Garnett, MGM’s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, had eyed China Seas for production since 1931. With some of MGM’s biggest stars and a supporting cast with good depth, China Seas was a big hit for the glamorous studio in 1935 and further cemented Gable’s superstar status. An adventure/romance sea epic, China Seas, was the perfect vehicle for Gable and MGM’s other major star, Jean Harlow, with both appearing in their fourth film together. The studio wanted to capitalise on the wonderful screen chemistry that the two shared and they certainly sparkle, with the raw sexuality of Harlow matching the man’s man machismo of Gable.
From the opening scene, Herbert Stothart’s musical score underpins the busyness of the port of contemporary Hong Kong, which in 1935 means it’s an integral part of the British Empire. The hustle and bustle eventually focuses on the ‘Kin Lu’, a steamer that runs between Hong Kong and that other port of British empirical power of the period, Singapore. The steamer’s captain, Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), has a reputation as tough, fearless and a hard player. Most are wise enough to stay out of his way or at the very least make sure they don’t arouse his ire if they can’t. However, we soon discover that deep down Gaskell is a good guy, particularly when parrying with the ships’ owner, Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith). Despite all appearances, the two share a mutual respect and affection, and Sir Guy recognises that he has a captain that is worth keeping. The duplicitous Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Berry) wears the façade of a friendly though rough-edged trader in the Orient but as the audience soon discovers, Jamesy has other plans and is in league with a gang of pirates. Garnett sets the tension early and establishes the story’s later complication when a number of the aforementioned Chinese pirates disguised as women are caught by Gaskell. McArdle praises Gaskell whilst sending out a message to keep the caught pirates quiet. McArdle’s warmth and geniality is the perfect cover for a dangerous man in league with desperate men.
Furthermore, the 250,000 British Pounds in gold bullion to be transported to Singapore has been hidden in the steamroller. McArdle knows it’s on board through his contacts and he and the pirate gang are after it. But naturally only Gaskell (and the audience) knows where it is. Will McArdle and the pirates get the gold?
We get a feel for who Gaskell is early in the piece, particularly when addressing his crew. As he chews out the first mate Dawson (Dudley Digges), Gaskell barks at him, ‘Its bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a Captain that looks like me, without having a Chief Officer who looks like you!’ When entering his quarters, Gaskell finds the young newly appointed officer Rockwell (William Henry) mocking his captain in the mirror, to which Gaskell gives Rockwell all the space necessary to embarrass himself. Suitably chastened, Rockwell asks for forgiveness, to which Gaskell smiles and says forget it. Gaskell may be tough but deep down he’s a ‘good egg’. He even smiles to himself once the inexperienced officer leaves the cabin, tripping over himself.
But we also see Gaskell’s compassion for the newly appointed Third Officer Davids (Lewis Stone), a former captain himself who was disgraced after being the only survivor of a pirate raid, whilst the rest of his crew perished. Gaskell is gruff with Davids yet welcomes him on board and even casually offers him one of his own uniforms. There is an element of well-placed foreshadowing, and even Gaskell looks up afterward with a moment of thought. Will Davids rise to the occasion if and when needed?
Before long Gaskell finds that former girlfriend and ‘professional entertainer’ Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland (Jean Harlow) is on board. It seems that Dolly is very much a part of the China Seas, illustrated by her familiarity with the crew and her warm interaction with McArdle as they are boarding. The interaction is a great example of the snappy and witty dialogue that liberally peppers the script from start to finish:
Dolly: Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy.
Jamesy: Still crazy about that Gaskell, huh? Well, whenever you get tired of running around with an Airedale and you want to run around with a St. Bernard, why you let me know.
Dolly: Sure.Whenever I get lost in the Alps, I’ll whistle for you.
Jamesy: All right, I’ll come running.
Gaskell tries to shoo her off the ship, to which she Dolly gets defensive and defiant:
Gaskell: Get on your horse, we’re shoving off.
Dolly: Say, why are you so anxious to get me out of your sight? Is that hunk of caviar makin’ the round trip?
Gaskell: What hunk of caviar
Dolly: That redhead Russian princess that was on board from Singapore.
Gaskell: She isn’t a Russian and she isn’t a princess and I have my doubts about her hair color.
But Dolly manipulates Gaskell into letting her stay. Their relationship seems to be one that has been more physical than emotional, judging by Gaskell’s annoyance when she gets ‘close’, after which she returns to being sassy to save the situation.
But Gaskell will discover a greater affaire de Coeur to deal with, when he discovers that a former love from England, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) is on board. The now widowed English rose hints at their former (and possible future) romance when she delicately quips to him ‘I’m in your hands again, Alan’. When told immediately afterwards that he looks like he’s seen a ghost, Gaskell slowly responds ‘I have…’. All this is quietly witnessed by Dolly and the pang of sadness she emotes is impossible to ignore.
Before long the ship is at sea and Gaskell and Sybil become reunited and are joined by Sir Guy at dinner. Dolly, encouraged by McArdle thanks to his desire to disrupt and distract Gaskell, cannot hide her jealousy nor allude to the details of her prior relationship with Gaskell. Her hot temper and aggression gets the better of her, leaving some of the other guests embarrassed and feeling awkward. Gaskell responds to Dolly’s jibes with a cold smile and a short ‘that’s right, darling’ sending Dolly a clear message. But perhaps the most telling and revealing moment belongs to Sybil, who says nothing but smiles sadly at Dolly and then responds with equal sadness to Dolly’s aggressive demand:
Dolly: What are you grinning at?
Sybil: You must be very fond of him.
Dolly: What makes you think so?
Sybil: To humiliate yourself like this.
The situation gets uglier as Dolly declares loudly ‘don’t worry, he knows where the royal suite is and so do I! And I had it the first time I sailed on this ship!’ Not long after, while trying to apologise, Dolly gets the cold treatment from Gaskell who tells her to stay far away.
But Dolly is not going to quit her man, despite her initial congratulations when she hears Gaskell and Sybil are going to be married. It means not only quitting the China Seas but also obviously leaving Dolly. Attempting to see if the rumours are true, Gaskell finds Dolly in his cabin under the pretense that she is borrowing one of his books ‘to improve my mind’. What follows is Gaskell’s barely veiled revelation as to why he is marrying Sybil, with a cruel putdown that is impossible to not decipher:
Gaskell: Did you ever see an English river, Dolly?
Dolly: No, I’m dumb with geography, just like I am with everything else.
Gaskell:Well, it’s cool and clear and clean. Put a stream like that alongside any river out here – dirty, yellow, muddy – you’ll see the difference.
Needless to say, Dolly is unimpressed at the insult.
The drama and sniping that follows will test Gaskell particularly when Dolly begins flirting and drinking with McArdle.
But the real test will be the mighty storm that has suddenly sprung up and the passengers, as well as the precious cargo, are in danger. The storm sequence is packed with action and beautifully shot and Gaskell risks all to save the steamroller, as well as protect his ship. By all accounts, Gable did his own stunts much to the concern of MGM.. But it takes nothing away from what still proves an exciting action sequence that leaves the audience holding their breath. The typhoon proves to be an ominous sign of worst to come.
Here also is where Garnett uses well-placed secondary characters to further the story. The disgraced former captain Davids, now Third Officer, fails in his duty to help during the storm. He has also failed Gaskell who put his faith in him and gave him a chance. Will he redeem himself? Will he be the only one who lets Gaskell down?
The audience discovers the answer as the turning point in the film arrives when Dolly is put to the test in terms of her love and loyalty towards Gaskell. Whilst playing a drinking game with McArdle, Dolly discovers the truth and later risks all to try and warn Gaskell about McArdle’s intentions. His fatigue after the storm, disappointment and anger towards Dolly results in his rejection of her, much to his misfortune. Like the classic and clichéd woman scorned, Dolly swears she will make Gaskell pay and sure enough painfully goes into league with McArdle to assist him in his plans.
Dolly: You just wait! I’ll fix you! You’ll be lower than a coolie! You’ll be lower than Davids! You’ll come crawlin’ to me on your knees!
With Dolly’s assistance, McArdle puts his plan into action and the pirates board seeking the gold. Robbing the passengers, Gaskell appears calm and collected as they ransack the ship for the gold. McArdle’s duplicity is played to the hilt as he pretends to be concerned whilst secretly desperate to find the gold. Gaskell’s toughness is put to the test as the pirates torture him with ‘the boot’ and despite McArdle’s false concern, Gaskell merely replies that his size is 9C. The brutality of the torture is difficult to bear and we see just how callous McArdle is as well. He’s clever enough to play out his deception, even as Gaskell is being tortured. Yet all is not doom and gloom, as Davids redeems himself during the pirate raid – exactly how will not be revealed here.
Indeed, to avoid spoilers, this reviewer will not divulge the result of the pirate raid or what the consequences are. Needless to say, the tension and drama continues right to the very end with Gable at his very best.
Overall, China Seasis a thoroughly entertaining feature film, with the perfect combination of action, adventure, romance and even some comic relief. Running at 87 minutes, it feels a little longer thanks to plenty of action and well-written dialogue. Additionally, the film is very well paced and Garnett handles direction with appropriate use of tension with tact to drive the story forward. Humour is injected in the right places and it certainly works well when Gable and Harlow fire their lines at each other. Much of the fire of their work during the Pre-Code Era had to be tempered for China Seas but their fire is a sizzling slow burn that does not disappoint. There’s also the allure of an exotic setting a la Red Dust, with plenty of sexual jealousy to add spice to the adventure. Admittedly, Harlow is less the loose, dangerous woman of Red Dust and more a loveable party-girl who only has eyes for Gable and whose heart belongs to him as well.
The sub-plots and intrigues of the secondary characters at times may seem superfluous but they rarely interrupt the story and indeed often work well to add interest. Lewis Stone as the disgraced former captain, who initially shows cowardice during a storm, finds the hero within himself during the great crisis moment in the film. There are interjections of humour with the permanently inebriated Charlie McCaleb (Robert Benchley) oblivious to the typhoon’s might as he attempts to play chopsticks on a piano that’s wreaking havoc and later trying to light a cigarette as waves crash into the film. Throughout the film, Benchley throws out highbrow one-liners that would be right at home around the Algonquin Round Table.
Jamesy: Twenty years on the China Seas and she never lost a spangle.
McCaleb: I had a spangle once. It was a cocker spangle. She had a liter of field mice.
Conversely, Edward Brophy as Timmons provides some blue-collar humour surrounding the sub-plot of his wife’s jewellery. Played by the beautiful Lillian Bond, it’s hard to imagine her with Brophy but she’s also manipulated by Romanoff (Akim Tamiroff) with suggestions that would have been more explicit before the Code took hold. Some great dialogue also highlights an uncredited appearance by Hattie McDaniel as Isabel McCarthy, Dolly’s maid:
Dolly: Would you say that I look like a lady?
Isabel: No, sir, Miss Dolly. I been with you all too long to insult you that way.
With all due respect to the film’s cast and creators, there is fair amount of silliness and removal from reality in China Seas. The story itself is pretty far fetched and Gable as an Englishman who is ex-Navy is about as believable as a snowman in the Sahara. How a character like Dolly ends up in the China Seas is anyone’s guess. Many of the characters seem to fit the formula but it’s a formula that works and suspense of disbelief is very easy to achieve because China Seasis so much fun to watch and enjoy. The dialogue and interaction between the characters feels natural, leaving the audience believing in the relationships that are depicted on the screen. The stiltedness of dialogue and movement that could be found in some of the early Pre-Code films is no longer present and it seems that MGM found a ‘formula’ that worked well. Yes, the parallels with Red Dust are evident but Garnett does more with the material he has and the action scenes are incredibly well done.
Not only is the success of China Seastestament to Tay Garnett as director and the high production values afforded by Thalberg and MGM but also due in particular to the great cast. For Thalberg, it was a return to the all-star cast format that had been used by MGM in Grand Hotel. And it certainly paid off. Beery is outstanding as the dangerous McArdle, particularly as he appears so likeable as the friendly trader. The audience can even feel for him when he readily admits his feelings for Dolly:
Jamesy: Lovin’ you is the only decent thing I ever did in my entire life. And even that was a mistake.
Aubrey is as British as they come, with a dignity in profile that even Barrymore would admire. The gorgeous Rosalind Russell as an English aristocrat shows poise even in a secondary role and to the script writer’s credit shows a little more than your standard secondary role. And of course, Jean Harlow is at her very best, matching Gable moment for moment and certainly outshines some of her more celebrated roles from the early 1930s. For my money, the chemistry that they shared on screen is best appreciated in this film.
But it’s the incredible talent of Clark Gable that makes this film a real gem. Yes Gable is playing Gable but that’s why it’s so much fun. Tough, uncompromising and with a powerful sense of self-deprecation, there are moments galore where you cannot help but like him. With so many great films as exemplars of Clark Gable at his best, China Seas should be added to the list of must-see Gable films.
This article is a proud entry into the Second Clark Gable Blogathon, kindly hosted by Love Letters To Hollywood. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please go to the link for other great articles on the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.