“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review
For years, film critics and moviegoers have claimed that either Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, “JAWS” or George Lucas’ 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” ushered in or created the summer box office film. I had believed this for years, until I saw Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1935 film, “CHINA SEAS”.
To understand how “CHINA SEAS” came about, one would have to look into the career of MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. For several years, he served as the studio’s Production Chief, supervising the output of movies being released by MGM. After suffering a heart attack around Christmas Eve 1932, he was ordered by his doctor to take a long rest. Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, spent several months traveling in Europe. When they finally returned during the summer of 1933, Thalberg discovered that studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the CEO of parent company Loew’s, had changed the studio’s managerial structure. The position of Production Chief had been eliminated and Thalberg became one of many producers on the lot with their own production unit. Thalberg struggled for two years to personally produce a major hit. He scored a few hits. But he did not really hit it big, until this 1935 movie that starred Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.
Based on the 1931 novel written by Crosbie Garstin, “CHINA SEAS” is an ocean going adventure film about a merchant ship carrying both passengers and important cargo from Hong Kong to Shanghai. British sea captain Alan Gaskell is recruited by his company’s owner to transport a secret shipment of gold in order to fool high seas pirates into believing that the gold is being transported by another ship. Naturally, the plan fails due to an old friend named Jamesy McArdle’s discovering the plot. The latter recruits Malay pirates to board the ship as passengers and crewman so that the gold can be hijacked during the voyager. Also along for the ride are two of Captain Gaskell’s former paramours – a brassy prostitute, dance hall girl or mistress (hell, I have no idea which one) named Dolly Portland and Sybil Barclay, the elegant widow of an old friend; an alcoholic American named Charlie McCaleb; a disgraced ship’s officer formerly accused of cowardice named Tom David; an elegant Chinese lady named Soo Young; and Dolly’s extroverted maid, Isabel McCarthy . . . among others. Not only does Gaskell and his crew have to deal with marauding pirates, but also a typhoon.
Undoubtedly, “CHINA SEAS” is an entertaining movie. It possesses one of the elements that make certain movies particularly enjoyable for me – namely a story featuring long distance travel. In fact, watching “CHINA SEAS” strongly reminded me of a film released by Paramount Pictures over three years ago – 1932’s “SHANGHAI EXPRESS”. Both movies were set in or around Asia. Both movies featured long distance traveling with Shanghai as the final destination . Both movies featured a leading male character who is British, a leading female character in a sexual profession, and a Chinese woman as a supporting character. Both movies featured the violent takeover by non-Western men – Chinese troops in “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” and Malay pirates in “CHINA SEAS”. And both movies featured Jules Furthman as screenwriter. The similarities between the two movies are so strong that their differences almost seem irrelevant to me. If it were not for the fact that “CHINA SEAS” was an adaptation of Garstin’s novel, I would have accused Thalberg and MGM of plagarism.
The reason I brought up the topic of summer blockbusters when I first began this review is that “CHINA SEAS” seemed like a prime example of one. Think about it. “CHINA SEAS” possessed a cast of major stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Rosalind Russell was not quite a star when she co-starred in this film. The movie was given a large budget for its production – at least one million dollars. A good deal of that budget was spent on visual effects. The movie featured heavy action and over-the-top melodrama. And even more ironic, “CHINA SEAS” was released during the summer of 1935, made tons of money and put Irving Thalberg back on top, professionally. If the movie had been made today, Roland Emmerich probably would have directed it. After watching “CHINA SEAS”, I could not help but wonder why film critics and historians failed to remember this film, when citing the origins of the summer blockbuster movie.
Mind you, “CHINA SEAS” is not a terrible film. I would rank it between very good and mediocre. But for some reason, I hardly found it appealing. The problem is that I it did not strike me as particularly original. The movie’s portrayal of its non-white characters struck me as wince-inducing. One aspect of the movie that really annoyed me was how the movie portrayed the Malay pirates a lot worse than Jamesy McArdle, despite the fact that the ship’s hijacking was his plan. However, Hattie McDaniel managed to overcome this racial limitation with a very entertaining performance and warm chemistry with leading lady Jean Harlow. And like 1937’s “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, most of the action in “CHINA SEAS” is set during its second half. The violence, by the way, struck me pretty harsh for a mid-1930s film – especially the tortures of Clark Gable and Lewis Stone’s characters.
Most of the characters struck me as cardboard archetypes, even the more amusing ones portrayed by McDaniel, Bencheley, Edward Brophy and Akim Tamiroff. Lewis Stone’s character, the doomed Tom Davids, came close to being an interesting and complex. But when all said and done, even his “coward who redeems himself” character proved to be a cliche. I love Jean Harlow. And I found her Dolly Portland a lively addition to the cast. And the insecurities that plagued her character proved to be very interesting. But in the end, her performance came off as a bit too shrill for my tastes. I have to give kudos to Rosalind Russell for giving a credible portrayal of an upper-class Englishwoman . . . even if the Sybil Barclay character struck me as one-dimensional. Only Wallace Beery’s Jamesy McArdle managed to avoid any one-dimensional or cliched characterization. His Jamesy proved to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the movie. This would explain why despite his villainy, his character was portrayed with a good deal of sympathy.
From a casting point of view, the biggest problem for me proved to be Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell. Gable was not the first American actor to portray a British character . . . even during that period in Hollywood. Gary Cooper did it. So did Robert Taylor. But they got away with it, due to their ability to project the image of a European (especially British) male without losing their American accent. Through body language and attitude, certain American actors like Cooper and Taylor knew how to get away with portraying British men. They knew how to sell it. Gable, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, as a Midwesterner from Ohio, he did a damn good job in portraying an aristocratic Southerner in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But he was still portraying an American. When Gable’s Captain Gaskell started spouting sentiments about the glories of England, I swear I was simply to astounded to break into laughter. During my second viewing of “CHINA SEAS”, I laughed. I am sorry. Gable was a first-rate actor. The torture sequence obviously proved this. But he lacked . . . something that prevented him from portraying an Englishman with an American accent with any plausibility.
From the numerous reviews I have read, many seemed to view “CHINA SEAS” as an example of the best that Old Hollywood had to offer. Look, the movie is filled with a good deal of action and melodrama that prevents it from being boring. And one can thank director Tay Garnett for keeping it lively. But for me, it is basically a 1930s version of a summer blockbuster movie – one that did not particularly knock my socks off. I do not hate the movie, but I certainly do not view it as among the best that Old Hollywood had offered.
Filed under: Movie Review | Tagged: akim tamiroff, british empire, c. aubrey smith, clark gable, early 20th century, hattie mcdaniel, jean harlow, lewis stone, literary, movies, old hollywood, rosalind russell, travel, wallace beery |