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|Index||26 reviews in total|
A great story and a great cast. If you set aside all the early Hollywood
traps about racism and sexism, this is a terrific and watchable
The story is very similar to Gable's later film, "Mogambo." He's the adventurous cad who loves two women - a beautiful ice-queen who represents his link to civilization (Russell); and the cute but stubborn and uncouth "woman of the world" who has the capacity to betray him when it suits her (Harlow). This movie is very well acted. I've always said that if you give Gable an affectation to fall back on, he does extremely well. Here, he's a barking sea captain, which, almost by accident, gives his performance a better range than it otherwise would have. I don't really like Harlow, but she's good in her role.
The editing is a bit strange - many closeups are too obviously added in later, but I guess I can partially forgive this because of the time it was made. It really shows how Harlow was on a roll when she was with the rest of the cast, though. Because these individual shots do not fit in with the movie at all.
There's some amazing effects during the typhoon sequence, with a steam engine running loose on the deck - and you actually see people get run over and flattened. It's disconcerting even though you realize the camera tricks involved. Very inventive for its day.
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.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was the first film I saw that paired Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
I expected a lot from it and I was not disappointed. They were one of
the finest screen teams of the 30s.
In a way, the plot is like RED DUST on the high seas. Gable is again in charge of a location and the leader of men, including a crew of Asians. Harlow is again the woman of easy virtue with a heart of gold. Rosalind Russell, in an entertaining turn as Sybil, Gable's long ago love, is a comedic and decidedly more classy dame who captures Captain Gaskill's attention, and who incites China Doll's jealousy. Wallace Beery, who worked with both Harlow and Gable in "THE SECRET SIX" and with Harlow in the 1933 classic "DINNER AT EIGHT" is enjoyably slick and subtly shady as Jamesy. But it is the chemistry between Harlow and Gable that really holds this movie together. They obviously had great respect and liking for one another, and this only cemented their working relationship on-screen. My favorite lines, one spoken by China Doll: "When I want you to sound off, Golden Bells, I'll pull your rope!" The other by Gaskill, with that unmistakable Gable grin: "And as a man said when they were about to hang him, 'This will be a lesson to me.' " It's a gem, and don't pass it up.
"When I want you to sound off, Golden Bell, I'll pull your
rope"--Harlow to Yu-Lan in "China Seas." There's not another actor,
alive or dead, who could make that line work, but Harlow finds both the
obvious comedy and the hidden pathos in it. (The pathos stems from her
realization that she's out of her league, and her fear that the others
at the table are looking down their noses at her.)
She, Gable, and Wallace Beery, are perfectly cast here. Harlow is the sassy, brassy, slightly shady blonde who's impulsive and emotional, but who really wants to do the right thing. Gable is of course steady and solid, all man, in charge, unflappable, ironic, and irresistible. Beery is by turns roguish, charming, tough, and menacing.
Roz Russell does a fine job as an old flame of Clark's who shows up for the voyage. Her British accent holds up pretty well. Lewis Stone plays the cowardly 3rd Officer who is out to repair his reputation, a far cry from his future as Judge Hardy. And Robert Benchley does his familiar drunkard routine.
Besides being well-cast, the film is exciting, with tropical storms, piracy at sea, and complicated romances. The special effects are excellent for the era, and the pacing is lively. Really a fine film.
High seas adventure with Gable as a run-down captain and Harlow as his lover. Complications involve Rosalid Russell, as a high society widow Gable was in love with before. Harlow takes up with Beery to make him jealous, but ends up being forced to join him in his plot to help pirates rob the ship. Harlow and Gable remain a knockout A-class pairing, and the character roles are well-handled. Juicy dialogue and gory action are also plusses.
Not just a routine trip from Hong Kong to Singapore for Captain Alan
Gaskell(Clark Gable). There is a treasure trove of gold hidden on board.
Among the passengers are two women of the captain's past: Dolly(Jean
Harlow), the brash blonde bombshell and Lady Sybil(Rosalind Russell), the
prim and proper socialite from England. Wallace Beery is a 'blow hard'
gambler that is not to be trusted. Also in the cast are Lewis Stone and
Raiding pirates, one hell of a typhoon plus love on the high seas...a very good adventure film with tense action. Gable and Harlow are dynamic together. Tight direction from Tay Garnett. Special effects are superb.
This is a rollicking, fun, unprofound movie set aboard a ship in the China Seas of the title, and has a little bit of something for everyone, as most Hollywood movies of the time did. It has romance, adventure, tragedy, comedy, pirates, torture, and a largely studio-bound storm at sea that is remarkably effective. There's really no sense in this movie, as it is pure escapism. Stars Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and a very believably inebriated Robert Benchley make it livelier and more entertaining to watch than most films, and the constant movement of the ship is well-conveyed, and enough to send most land-lubbers reaching for the dramamine bottle.
It is a relief to see a vibrantly entertaining film that is well-crafted as a finely made chair. Like most chairs, this film is no classic like "Citizen Kane" or "Gone With The Wind" but it's exciting with charismatic leads like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. The chemistry between the two is gripping, even if a lot of their encounters in this movie are rather repetitious of the "I love you but I shouldn't" variety. One can see why Gable and Harlow were cast together at every opportunity MGM had from "Red Dust" onward. The other supporting actors are quite good especially Wallace Beery as a slippery villain. While Robert Benchley is quite amusing, his drunk act starts getting really old after a while. Also, it's quite sobering to realize that Benchley would die in 1945 from the effects of long-term alcoholism. In sum, despite some unhappy reminders of Hollywood's racism of times past, this is a fine film that probably served as one source of inspiration for Spielberg's Indiana Jones series of films in the 1980s.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
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