Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tonight's Movie: China Seas (1935)

I last saw CHINA SEAS over three decades ago, at one of the many revival theaters in Los Angeles at that time, the Tiffany. My memories of the film were fairly vague, but pleasant; I particularly remembered the typhoon sequence.

CHINA SEAS stars Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell, the skipper of the Kin Lung, a ship which battles precarious weather and pirates as it travels the Hong Kong-Singapore route. Jean Harlow is Dolly, the lower-class floozy Alan's dallied with, and Rosalind Russell is Sybil, a past love of Alan's who reappears in his life.

The cast also prominently features Wallace Beery and Robert Benchley, two actors whose appeal has always escaped me. It also stars Sir C. Aubrey Smith (one of my favorite character actors), Lewis Stone, Hattie McDaniel, Donald Meek, and Akim Tamiroff.

The movie is entertaining, doing a good job of conveying its exotic locale despite the use of back projections. The nail-biting storm sequence was especially well-done, with excellent special effects. I particularly enjoyed Gable, Russell, and Smith. Russell is sympathetic and elegant as the woman who dreams Gable will settle down with her in England. Gable is his usual charismatic self, in an energetic performance as the tough captain with the proverbial heart of gold.

I must say the film was quite a bit more violent than I remembered; over the course of the story many lives are in jeopardy or lost, and a sequence with Gable tortured by pirates had me reaching for the fast-forward button.

My other problem with the film is that the viewer is supposed to feel sympathy for Harlow's character, who is sick with (apparently) unrequited love for Gable, but out of spite she commits an act so heinous, directly leading to deaths and injuries, that I just wanted to see her carted off to jail. She didn't deserve a happy ending.

1935 was a significant year for Gable, as he was nominated for Best Actor for another 1935 film set on a ship, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY; and when filming that year's release CALL OF THE WILD, he and Loretta Young conceived a child, Judy, whose paternity was hidden for decades.

A fun note of trivia is that the little girl Gable saves from being crushed by a piano during the typhoon was played by Wallace Beery's real-life daughter, Carol Ann.

CHINA SEAS was directed by Tay Garnett. It runs 87 minutes.

CHINA SEAS can be seen as part of the library at Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs on July 15, 2008, as part of Rosalind Russell month.

This film is available on video as well as on DVD, where it can be purchased as either a single-title release or as part of the 6-film Clark Gable Signature Collection. The other movies in the Signature Collection are SAN FRANCISCO, BOOM TOWN, WIFE VS. SECRETARY, DANCING LADY, and MOGAMBO.

The trailer can be seen here.

June 2020 Update: CHINA SEAS has now been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.


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