China Seas (1935) was MGM’s answer to … well … MGM. If the premise of this Clark Gable/Jean Harlow film sounds suspiciously familiar to the 1932 Gable-Harlow smash hit Red Dust, that’s because it is suspiciously familiar. Instead of Gable owning a rubber plantation in Indochina as in Red Dust, he’s the dashing captain of a shipping boat that sails the China seas. Harlow, as Gable’s mistress, is not the outright hooker she is the earlier film, but rather a “professional entertainer,” who tags along with Gable on a voyage to Shanghai. The voyage is of much interest to the gruff but likable Wallace Beery who knows the ship is conveying 100 pounds in gold to Shanghai and has a secret plan in the works to commandeer the goods. And, rounding out the formula, is Rosalind Russell: a beautiful English aristocrat who, recently widowed, has boarded the ship in pursuit of Gable whom she’s loved for years. Put all this on a confined boat somewhere in the China Seas and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster—and some top notch popcorn-friendly entertainment.
Harlow finds herself pushed aside by Gable at the arrival of Russell. Overcome with jealousy, Harlow tries desperately to get Gable’s attention, but only ends up embarrassing herself and angering Gable, who washes his hands of her. Knowing she can’t stand a chance against the respectable, refined, much admired Russell, she takes her broken heart to old friend Wallace Beery. Beery, who’s been crazy about Harlow for years, makes a fun and entertaining diversion. Not to mention a great drinking buddy. (Yes, there’s a drinking game. I don’t know if it’s the first drinking game put to film, but it’s got to be one of the earliest.)
But things change course quickly when Harlow discovers that Beery is orchestrating a gang of Chinese pirates to overtake control of the ship and make off with the hidden gold. Beery, although loving Harlow, is violent with her, forcing her to become an accomplice with the plot. When he says he’ll kill her if she doesn’t agree, we know he’s not joking. At first, Harlow tries to warn Gable about Beery’s plot. But Gable is still simmering with anger at Harlow’s behavior, calls her a slut, and shuts her out. Hurt, Harlow decides to willingly go along with Beery’s plan. She wants to hurt Gable and steals the captain’s key to the ship’s arsenal storage room.
From there on out, China Seas is a rollicking adventure of seafaring derring-do: there’s a typhoon, a runaway steamroller (don’t ask), a gunfight between crew and marauding pirates, torture, explosions, and perhaps the greatest natural wonder of all: Harlow in a drenching wet bra-less gown. (As a rich old man once said: Zowee.)
Beery’s plan does not work, however, and once the storm settles Gable presses Harlow and Beery for the truth. Harlow sticks with Beery’s alibi until she can’t anymore and rages at Gable, confessing her guilt, but also telling him “When a woman can love a man right down to her fingertips, she can hate him the same way! If you can dish it out, I can take it!”
Beery, to his credit, still loves his China Doll (yes, queue the David Bowie) and after her confession, Beery calmly tells Gable that she had nothing to do with the escapade. “Here I thought my powers of fascination had finally won her,” he says, “Don’t be so hard on her.”
The famously gruff Beery is strangely tender in this scene: even though he’s a no-good dirty scoundrel, we still like him. And even though he’s committed a truly heinous crime and, knowing he’s caught has poisoned himself, I’ll darned if I wasn’t a smidge sad to see him die.
The tacked on happy ending is a bit of a letdown as it positively reeks of Hays Code morality. Russell gets the hint that Gable still cares about Harlow and says goodbye after they dock. Gable, in line with the code, proposes marriage to Harlow. Her disbelief makes perfect sense. There’s nothing about the marriage proposal that seems necessary, especially since they’ve both been quite happy living together, nor his statement “married life will slow you down plenty.” (Thank you, Joseph Breen.)
The Code, in fact, is the reason that China Seas lacks the steamy, palpable sexual tension that makes Red Dust one of the most exciting films to come from the pre-code years, simply due to the fact that by 1935 the Hays Office was strictly enforcing the motion picture production code. All the tawdry brazenness of the earlier film is severely whitewashed here, but Gable and Harlow have enough sexual chemistry to electrify the screen no matter the material and here they are delicious to watch.
China Seas isn’t necessarily a great film, but it’s sure as hell great fun. It’s a prime Irving Thalberg “super special” that’s light on depth but big on spectacle and delivers exactly what it promises: 90 minutes of nonstop entertainment.
China Seas, directed by Tay Garnett and co-starring Robert Benchley, Hattie McDaniel, and Lewis Stone. China Seas is available on DVD release, and is also included on the TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Jean Harlow.