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 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 take over 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. Written by
Gary Jackson <email@example.com>
The film was banned in Malaya and Singapore. See more »
Captain Alan Gaskell:
Now wait a minute, Dolly! You and I are friends. We've had a lot of fun together, and, as far as I'm concerned, you're #1 girl in the Archipelago, but I don't remember making any vows to you, nor do I recall your taking any.
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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.
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