China Seas (1935): Star Vehicle for Gable and Harlow (one year before her death)

In this successful teaming with sex symbol Jean Harlow (a year before she died), Clark Gable, then at the height of his popularity, having won the Best Actor Oscar for “It Happened One Night” in 1934, plays Captain Alan Gaskell, a skipper of the Kin Lung on its way to Hong Kong from Singapore with a valuable consignment.

Based on a novel by Crosbie Garstin, and directed by Tay Garnett (best known for the terrific film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) “China Seas” is a typical MGM programmer of the Depression era, a star vehicle for Gable and Harlow. It’s nicley mounted by MGM’s genius producer, Irving Thalberg.

Gaskell is annoyed to find his mistress China Doll (Jean Harlow), a “woman of the world,” on board—she has bought her own ticket and intends to sail with him.  Complications arise, when another, more aristocratic woman, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell before she became a star), comes on board, and soon the couple is engaged to be married.

When China Doll finds out about their engagement, she is heartbroken and she consoles herself by playing a drinking man with James MacArdle (Wallace Beery), a vulgar China Seas trader.  Drinking him under the table, she wins a lot of money from him.  Among the bills, is a torn fragment of a 100-pound note which has some Chinese characters written on it.

Gaskell brings the ship safely out of the typhoon that strikes. When he returns to his cabin, he finds China Doll there. She gets his attention when she tells him that MacArdle is involved in a plot to steal the gold.  However, misunderstanding her presence in the cabin, Gaskell dismisses her suspicion and orders her out.

To get her man, China Doll mean-mouthes Russell, and out of pique, she casts her lot with the crooked Beery.  Her temper up, she decides to side with MacArdle and steals the key to the ship’s armory.  A battle ensues during which a Malay pirate ship is signaled and comes alongside.  They board the ship and demand the gold, Gaskell is tortured, but refuses to submit.

A subplot involves the regeneration of ship’s mate Lewis Stone, who has been cashiered out of the navy for cowardice and who redeems himself during the final battle.



Running time: 89 Minues.

Screenplay by Jules Furthman and James Kevin McGuinness.

Released on August 16, 1935.

DVD in June 20, 2006



Clark Gable as Capt. Alan Gaskell

Jean Harlow as China Doll

Wallace Beery as Jamesy MacArdle

Rosalind Russell as Sybil Barclay

Lewis Stone as Tom Davids

Dudley Digges as Dawson