China Seas (1935)

  • Year: 1935
  • Released: 16 Aug 1935
  • Country: United States
  • Adwords: 1 nomination
  • IMDb:
  • Rotten Tomatoes:
  • Metacritics:
  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: Chinese, English
  • MPA Rating: Passed
  • Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
  • Runtime: 87 min
  • Writer: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness, Crosbie Garstin
  • Director: Tay Garnett
  • Cast: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery
  • Keywords: gold, ship, love, romance, rescue, pirate,
80% – Critics
74% – Audience

China Seas Storyline

Dynamic Alan Gaskell captains a ship bound from Hong Kong to Singapore. Gaskell tries to turn over a new leaf from his hard-drinking lifestyle after becoming re-attached to a refined high class English lady, Sybil Barclay. His former girlfriend Dolly is extremely jealous of the budding relationship and tries hard to get the Captain back. He is apparently unimpressed with her loud, obnoxious, and uncivilized manners, even though she is extremely beautiful. After a temporary takeover of the ship by gold-seeking Asian pirates, Captain Gaskell must deal with the fact that Dolly and her drinking pal, Jamesey MacArdle, are implicated in the crime.—Gary Jackson

China Seas Photos

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China Seas Movie Reviews

Nothing Ever Happens on a Steamer in the China Seas

The studios in the “Golden Age” of films loved to stick to successful formulas that worked for their actors and directors. Just go down the list of performers that you can recall: A fine actor like Basil Rathbone is either the heavy or villain, or Sherlock Holmes (but not, as he wished, Rhett Butler). Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich could not play normal housewives, nor could Joan Crawford play a stupid woman. Oliver Hardy could always have a wife, but never a happy marriage (and if it approached happiness, Stan Laurel would help destroy that). Lewis Stone, sterling character actor, only achieved permanent stardom when he inherited the role of Judge Hardy from Lionel Barrymore, and he would remain the perfect, wise father to Mickey Rooney in a dozen films. As for Barrymore, while he had a higher degree of stardom than Stone, he fell nicely into a niche as the original Dr. Leonard Gilespie, opposite Lew Ayres as Dr. Kildare.

In 1932 MGM got the bright idea of making a dramatic film of Vicki Baum’s “Grand Hotel” with an all star cast (John and Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, and Tully Marshall). The film won the best picture Oscar, so it became a standard for other MGM projects to copy. The best known is “Dinner At Eight” (both Barrymore brothers again, Beery again, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Billy Burke, Edmund Lowe, Lee Tracy, Hersholt again). But “David Copperfield”, “The Prisoner OF Zenda”, and several other Selznick films, and “The Women” (with only a cast of actresses – Crawford, Shearer, Russell, Fontaine, Goddard, and Boland) followed the same formula with variants by the settings and plots of the films.

“China Seas” was an early example of the formula “all star” film, a “Grand Hotel” set at sea. The plot is varied: C. Aubrey Smith is having a cargo of gold shipped by his ship captained by Gable. The passengers include Harlow (who has had a long standing on-again, off-again romance with Gable), Russell (Gable’s current love interest – a real English lady type), Beery (an untrustworthy gambler and thief – he may be planning to steal the gold), Robert Benchley (an American novelist on a permanent toot), Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond as a married couple on a tour (Ms Bond has her secrets from her husband), Akim Tamiroff (a man who knows how to take advantage of secrets), Dudley Digges (a self-satisfied and smug chief executive officer), and Lewis Stone (a former sea captain, now reduced in rank and a pariah due to an act of cowardice).

The film is a lively mixture of comedy and tragedy, including the death of one of the villains. Harlow demonstrates an interesting way of playing cards and drinking that suggests more than the film shows. Benchley never appears clear eyed and sober throughout all the film. Stone, in a powerful moment, leaves the self-righteous Digges with a permanent black mark on his self-esteem. Gable and Beery show what the “boot” is, and how effective it is. This is a film where the activities of the cast are so involving you never get bored even when you see the film another time. And at the end, as the ship reaches port (as in “Grand Hotel”), life goes on as though nothing (including a pirate attack) ever even occurred.

On The High Seas Of Adventure With Gable, Harlow & Beery

British Hong Kong, mid 1930’s. A freighter makes ready to lift anchor on its way to Singapore, carrying with it £250,000 in hidden gold. The passengers & crew are a colorful mix of often violent hatreds & animosities. Traveling into typhoon-swept, pirate-haunted waters, danger & death awaits all those who enter the CHINA SEAS.

While admittedly the plot is a little far-fetched, this was one of the great all-star features which MGM did so well during its heyday. The sets are lavish (especially the bustling docks) and except for the occasional use of a model, the ship scenes look realistic.

The cast is made-up of some of the Studio’s best: Clark Gable as the captain – given to drink & homesick for England, he must choose between the two women he loves; Jean Harlow, the brassy blonde with too much past, passionate in defense of her man; Wallace Beery, gambler & exporter, bluff, hearty & treacherous; Rosalind Russell, the English society girl, cool & beautiful.

Rounding out the excellent supporting cast are Lewis Stone, as an old ship’s officer accused of cowardice; Robert Benchley as a perpetually inebriated American novelist; Edward Brophy & Lillian Bond as American tourists who attract the notice of lustful Russian swindler Akim Tamiroff; and wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith, as the founder of the shipping line.

Film mavens will spot uncredited performances by Willie Fung as a cabin boy; Donald Meek as a chess player; Emily Fitzroy as a gossipy passenger; and especially Hattie McDaniel, hilarious as Harlow’s maid.

On a side note, one of the writers for this film was Paul Bern, an important MGM producer & Harlow’s husband. His 1932 murder by his deranged common-law spouse, made to look like a suicide by MGM security to protect Harlow’s career, would provide one of Hollywood with one of its most famous scandals.

Steaming Up The High Seas

In China Seas, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow essentially take their characters from Red Dust off the rubber plantation and transplant them to the high seas. What’s wild about this film is that both Gable and Harlow are supposed to be English, but do not even attempt to adopt an accent. In Gable’s case he figured the public accepted him in Mutiny on the Bounty so why not. In any case the part called for a rough and tough adventurer and that certainly did fit Gable.

Harlow’s a girl who’s been around the block a few times and she’s crazy about Gable. But Gable takes her for granted and he’s now pursuing a cultured widow of a friend in Rosalind Russell. That doesn’t sit too well with Harlow so she goes after China trader Wallace Beery who’s always had a yen for her.

The problem is that Beery is hooked up with Malay pirates, a nasty bunch if there ever was. They’re looking to steal some gold bullion that Gable’s transporting on this voyage. What happens is the rest of the story.

This was one of Rosalind Russell’s earliest roles and once again there’s little trace of the fine comedic actress she became. She worked with Gable again in They Met in Bombay and the results there were excellent. Here she’s being a mannered version of Myrna Loy. MGM did that a lot, had back up players in case stars became hard to handle. In this case that’s what they envisioned Russell as at this time. She does well in a part, gets more out of the role than I’m sure was originally intended.

Actually my favorite in China Seas is Lewis Stone. He’s a former captain himself who was beached for cowardice. Gable signs him on as a third officer and Stone makes himself a human bomb and martyrs himself to save the ship. It’s a touching and tragic performance.

Russell in her memoirs says that at this time she was not terribly friendly with the MGM star roster while she was an up and coming player in the ranks. One exception she did mention was Jean Harlow who she describes as warm, friendly, and helpful. Not that the two would have been up for the same kind of parts, but I got the feeling Russell felt Harlow was a genuinely nice person.

The stars and the supporting cast fill out the roles they are normally type cast in. China Seas is still rugged action adventure entertainment.