Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) is a tough, monsoon-surviving ship captain. His latest voyage is going from Hong Kong to Singapore – a dangerous route, especially with a shipment of gold hidden on board that pirates will be hungry for.
But aside from his work, Gaskell loves to have fun. He drinks, he parties… and he has a sassy lady friend known as China Doll (Jean Harlow), who has followed him onto the ship.
Little does China Doll know, she has a bit of competition. Also boarding the ship is Sybil (Rosalind Russell, playing somewhat against type as a sweet and submissive fiance), a classy English lady who has a past with Gaskell and has apparently been in love with him for over five years.
With all of those old feelings flooding back, Gaskell asks for Sybil’s hand and China Doll reacts by jealously cozying up to drinking pal/criminal Jamesey MacArdle (Wallace Beery).
Tay Garnett directs China Seas, an adventurous romantic drama. The film boasts a whopping seven writers (five of whom went uncredited) and is based on the book by Crosbie Garstin.
The cast of this film is absolutely phenomenal, which is what let me to purchase a used copy blindly at a local record shop. Gable and Harlow pull off their leading roles with ease, Gable coming off as a decent guy with an exoskeleton of steel and Harlow captivating the audience with her beauty, sass and wit. The two have wonderful chemistry.
The scenes of Harlow versus Russell are also hilarious. The love triangle takes prominence over the gold-and-pirates storyline in the first half of the film, so the interaction between these two (and particularly Harlow’s outlandish behavior as China Doll) provide the film with an element of fun before it takes a more dramatic turn.
Despite all of that, it is Wallace Beery who really stands out in this film. He makes a fantastic villain. You can tell from his first scene that he’s a bad man, and even in his twisted kinship with China Doll his actions are quite deplorable. Beery pulls it off without a hitch, effectively making the audience hate his already unlikable character.
In terms of content, the film is a little bit all over the place. For every funny scene, there is a scene full of tension to combat it. The film also contains some very gruesome imagery (i.e. graphic shots of people getting run over by machinery) that are both unexpected and disturbing.
The two major plots at work here take prominence in different halves of the film. The first half seems dedicated to Gaskell’s love life, with the gold just thrown in the background to add the potential for action and increase the film’s sense of drama. The focus shifts to completely the opposite juxtaposition in the second half.
The stereotypes you’d expect in a film called China Seas are at work here as well, but it doesn’t ruin the film because they aren’t given much focus. The humor isn’t completely based in these jokes as it is in some films of the period. Most of it focuses on the love triangle, the gold and the lives of the English characters.
Overall, China Seas is an interesting film with dual storylines and a really great cast. It doesn’t quite meet its potential, but it doesn’t disappoint either. It’s a good watch. The score: 3.5/5