A cinematic look at the history of motion pictures, viewing and studying the films chronologically based on release in order to best understand how each where impacted by their times and in turn impacted the world. In observation we can detect how each motion picture added to medium and helped cinema evolve and impact the world as an art, form of entertainment, and capsule of history.
Take an adventurous voyage on the dangerous waters of the Far East with big name stars Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Wallace Beery in China Seas. MGM brings together a strong star cast with a fine supporting cast, likening along the lines of Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight to a lesser extent. This picture brings courageous special effects that put you in the middle of danger, created to thrill audiences. China Seas provides a rousing story of pirates, danger, mystery, and love all set at sea on a steam liner from Hong Kong to Singapore. Playing to MGM’s strengths of a star cast with a good budget, this picture mixes it ability of well-known actors with quality production value of high seas adventure that would be hard to find anywhere else at that time in motion pictures.
China Seas is an adventure drama of a steam liner captain from Hong Kong to Singapore who must battle love between two women as well as pirates, as both issues attempt to destroy everything he has worked for and hopes to be. Alan Gaskell (Gable), a jaded, but rough American ship captain, looks to sets his life straight after all his years sailing the exotic waters of the Far East. With golden loot secretly stashed on the ship he looks to make his last voyage before settling down with old friend and recently widowed English lady Sybil (Rosalind Russell). An old flame from his more adventurous past is the flirtatious blond bombshell Dolly (Jean Harlow) becomes desperate to win her old lover back, buying a ticket on the cruise to be continually around Alan. One passenger onboard, and acquaintance to Alan, is the gambler and businessman Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery) who secretly plans to rob Gaskell of his hidden gold, using China Seas’ pirates as a front while posing as an innocent victim of the high sea attack. Dolly plays a small role in the pirate invasion as she allows it to happen with her foreknowledge, accompanied by threats from Jamesy. Alan stands strong through torture with his grit, defeating the pirates and cracking down on Jamesy and Dolly, but not without discovering his true love and life is with her and not Sybil.
Directed by former naval aviator and gag writer Tay Garnett, the film played out in two different film styles. Most dialogue is shot very simply, mostly in establishing shots in small rooms within the ship. However, Garnett does a wonderful job shooting the action and suspense sequences. With added great production value of MGM budget we get the high energy action of the stormy seas that nearly wash away the actors. With tons of water washing across the screen and actors, it would generate authentic action that put stunt people’s lives in danger to recreate the peril of the open water. Garnett, though not a well seasoned director at the time, does shoot more suspenseful points with a sense of anticipation, only shooting small parts of actors, instead of the more dangerous pattern that many poor directors fall into, in simply filming full body motion. With a story of love and adventure that is a bit off kilter, and a sometimes creative eye, this picture does become rather entertaining with an ending that leaves you a little happy and little unhappy as Gable and Harlow end up together despite all that had happened.
The three stars, Gable, Harlow, and Beery, would headline the picture, being three of the most recognizable figures in MGM’s stock of stars. Gable fresh off his Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night, which was a picture he was lent out for much to the success of Columbia, and had his way on set thanks to tantrums he would have from time to time. Due to his recent win for his acting skill it was humored by studio head Louis B. Mayer in order to keep the huge star happy. Harlow, the blond beauty with mass sex appeal, had in recent years with the help of MGM turned herself into a decent actress instead of a blond head and feminine body that she was earlier in her career. Previously panned by critics, Harlow is far better from her earliest days, but still needs some work. It is becoming more and more clear that Harlow is turning herself into a serious actress, far improving her skill at portraying emotions and actually pulling you into a story from the character standpoint instead by her tight dresses and curves; though those aspects are still very much there. Beery on this rare occasion would not be the star of the picture. The long time actor, also in possession of his own Oscar in the recent past, would rarely be in a film where he was not the headliner. Here he plays the villain, as a conniving thief in a legit businessman front, a role that seems to suit him well.
Though not headliners, the supporting cast was nothing to stick your nose up to. Rosalind Russell, a former model recently turned actress, would be starting a string of successful roles as she began her career. Here she is more of a plot piece that plays to win sympathy of Alan and annoy Dolly; a small role in the long run. Long time veteran C. Aubrey Smith, usually an English gentleman that is slightly aloof, here plays the ship’s owner that hires Alan. Smith’s character somewhat playfully jabs verbally at Alan, showing the cracks in his emotional armor to manifest what Alan really wants in his life compared to what he says he wants. Smith comes off very likable in a playful grandfatherly way. Long time writer, actor, and humorist Robert Benchley provides a comic relief as an ever drunk character that plays fun with everyone he meets in a non-harmful way; a good sidestep we take now and again from the love story and the pirates. Though unnecessary it would be a fun bit of writing that gives the audience a quick laugh on the side. Lewis Stone plays a former captain shamed by a previous event that destroyed his good name and is mercifully given a job on the ship. His role as Davids would grow in importance as he suffers ridicule, but ultimately sacrifices himself to save the ship from the pirate attack in a suicide bombing after a vicious attack that renders him near useless. Stone’s broken character is sympathetic despite not knowing the whole truth about his past, other than that he is obviously guilt stricken by his history, remorseful for what he did and understand that he will only get by with mercy. Stone makes for perhaps the most interesting character and with the best acting job in the picture.
As for the social outlook of the film, it is seen how racially profiling was at the time, both Chinese and blacks. There is a small Chinese character that is seem smiling much of the time with a big grin, giving the usual racist look at people for the far east. The pirates too manifest how Americans made the race look as if they did not have the intelligence to pull off the raiding of the ship on their own. The Jamesy character is the leader of the band of sea bandits looking for the gold onboard, and scolds the pirates constantly for every little action that does not seem to bring results. It is not a terrible piece of racism, but it does show how Americans were a little off put by the people of Far East Asia, not rather accepting of their ways, but made them look rather lesser than white men. On a small note is the black hand of Dolly, played by Hattie McDaniel. She gives the usual performance of a black woman, though not in a very negative light as Dolly treats her very well, as is seen to have some care for the lady. McDaniel would be very well respected for her acting by the black and white communities as time goes forward.
With big stars, the MGM name, and a budget that provides a good amount of production value China Seas would be a high money maker in 1935. Landing on the top box office list for the year, the picture can be measured a success in usual MGM fashion. With three large names headlining the feature it better be, in a time when multiple large stars in one picture was rare. It continued a sting a huge success for Gable that seemed to ever grow. Harlow was turning into an actual actress, hoping to one day shed the need for tight, revealing clothing to bring her success. Beery would play a usual Beery-like character in yet another high grossing feature, being one of the best character actors of his time. China Seas in not a noteworthy film, not providing much long-lasting qualities that go beyond its time on the screen, but would be a fun adventure film with cast of notable actors. Another check on the board for MGM, the leading studio of Hollywood in the 1930s, when Hollywood was in its so called “Golden Age.”