“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

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“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.

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”

Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.

In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.

Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN”such a big hit would have felt the same.

I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.

The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.

Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

In one of Hollywood’s ironic twists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released “BOMBSHELL”, a 1933 comedy about the trials and tribulations of a movie starlet. To this day, many believe that the movie was supposed to be a satire on the life of silent film goddess, Clara Bow. But looking at the movie today, it could have easily been a take on the life of the film’s leading lady, Jean Harlow.

Based upon an unproduced play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane, and directed by Victor Fleming; “BOMBSHELL” begins with movie star Lola Burns being fed up with the machinations of her studio’s publicity chief, E.J. “Space” Hanlon, who continuously feeds the press with endless fake scandals about her. Lola also has to put up with her drunken father who tries to manager her career, and an obnoxious brother; who both sponge from her. She also has to deal with a private secretary that takes advantage of her at every opportunity. Unaware of Space’s feelings for her, Lola is also torn between a fortune hunting European nobleman and gigolo and a brash Hollywood director. Lola decides to put her life in order by adopting a baby. But when Space and her family sabotages her efforts, Lola turns her back on Hollywood and flees to a desert resort.

What can I say? Not only is “BOMBSHELL” one of my favorite movies from the old Hollywood studio system, but one of my favorite comedies of all time. Screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna created a hilarious tale about the chaotic and surreal life of a Hollywood starlet. “BOMBSHELL” featured a rather funny interview between Lola and a writer from a Hollywood gossip rag. While Lola and her father provide the journalist with pretentious tidbits about their lives, the camera gives a view of the journalist’s more realistic take on their answers. Another hilarious scene featured a fist fight between Lola’s sponging Maquis boyfriend, Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and the volatile director, Jim Brogan. During the movie’s last half hour, Lola meets and becomes romantically involved with an East Coast blue blood named Gifford Middleton and his family. This relationship allowed Gifford to quote one of the most cringe-worthy and hilarious lines in film history:

“Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!”

However, Space’s response to Gifford’s uh . . . compliment, had me on the floor laughing:

“He looks like an athlete. I wouldn’t want him puttin’ his foot through my scalp.”

But not only is “BOMBSHELL” funny, it also gave moviegoers a glimpse (and I mean that literally) into life as an actress during Hollywood’s studio era. The movie’s first twenty minutes revealed Lola being prepared for a day of shooting and the type of people that worked at a studio. The only unrealistic moment during this sequence was a scene featuring the studio’s boss, who was portrayed as a benign leader concerned for both his studio and the well-being of performers like Lola Burns under contract. But the egoism, back-stabbing and borderline insanity is all there.

I have always been a fan of Jean Harlow as an actress for as long as I can remember. But I believe that Lola Burns was one of the best roles in her career. Her comedic talent seemed to be at its height in this movie. She conveyed all of the best . . . and worst of Lola Burns. Harlow made it obvious that Lola is a victim of the studio system and her bloodsucking family. But she also skillfully conveyed Lola’s egotism, temper and penchant for illusions. Someone once commented that Lola’s character and situation never changed for the better or worst by the film’s last reel. I cannot quite agree with this assessment. I got the feeling that Harlow’s Lola spent most of the movie indulging in illusions of a possible “normal life”. These illusions led her to pursue relationships with men like the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and Gifford Middleton and make an attempt to adopt a baby. While proclaiming that she had enough of Hollywood, Lola expressed signs of jealousy when Space informed her that another contract player might get a role that she had previously coveted. It is not that surprising that when faced with the end of her illusions, Lola returned to Hollywood.

Lee Tracy was equally funny as studio publicist E.J. “Space” Hanlon. His Space was sardonic, manipulative and quick with his tongue. Best of all, Tracy had a great screen chemistry with Harlow. It is a pity that they never worked with each other – before or after. Both had appeared in “DINNER AT EIGHT”, but did not share any scenes together. Pity. The movie also benefited from other supporting performers such as Frank Morgan, who radiated both bluster and charm as Lola’s deadbeat father; Pat O’Brien, who was very sexy as Lola’s former beau, director Jim Grogan; Franchot Tone, as Lola’s new beau, who gave one of the most memorable lines in the movie; and a sharp-tongued Una Merkel as Lola’s bloodsucking secretary, Mac.  Louise Beavers, who portrayed Lola’s maid Loretta, had two delicious moments in the movie, despite being saddled with a racially cliched role. I especially love the scene featuring her clash with Merkel’s Mac, when the latter threatened to have her fired. It gave her the opportunity to speak another one of the movie’s more memorable lines. The only cast member I had a problem with was Ted Healey. His Junior Burns seemed like a mindless thug that lacked the charm of Lola and Mr. Burns. I found it hard to believe that he came from the same family.

If you want a peek into life at a Hollywood studio during the early 1930s, then “BOMBSHELL” is your movie. If you want a hilarious movie that starred Jean Harlow in one of her best roles, then “BOMBSHELL” is definitely your movie. Not only did the benefitted from the talents of Harlow and co-star Lee Tracy; but also from the directorial skills of Victor Fleming and a first-rate script written by John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna.

“PLATINUM BLONDE” (1931) Review

“PLATINUM BLONDE” (1931) Review

For over seven decades, many movie fans and critics have ignored the 1931 comedy, “PLATINUM BLONDE”. They have dismissed it as some mediocre, obscure film from the early talkies period deemed unworthy of any real film criticism. But due to recent interest in that particular era, the film’s reputation has grown over the past several years.Directed by Frank Capra and written by Jo Swerling, “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a romantic comedy about a newspaper reporter named Stew Smith, who becomes romantically involved with Ann Schuyler, a wealthy young socialite, after writing an expose about one of her brother’s romances. Unaware of the romantic feelings of a female colleague named Gallagher for him, the reporter marries the socialite. However, both Stew and Ann ending up assuming that the other is the one whose lifestyle must change.

Personally, I believe that “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a decent effort by Frank Capra during the early period of sound. Swerling’s script provided an interesting and comic portrayal of a marriage doomed by the couple’s class differences and their own arrogance. Surprisingly, I suspect that many moviegoers in 1931 saw the Ann Schuyler character as the cause behind the marriage’s failure. After all, she was a woman and from a wealthy background. Many probably felt that she should have been the one to change her lifestyle for the sake of her marriage. The movie did portray Stew giving in to her demands on two counts – living with her family and changing his wardrobe. But he did so, protesting rather loudly and still believing that Ann should surrender to his demands. Instead of condemning both Stew and Ann for their joint failure to compromise for the sake of their marriage, Capra and Swerling decided to portray Ann as the “villain”. Even worse, the script provided Stew with a potentially perfect mate in Gallagher, after his marriage ended before the film’s last reel. Watching a professional journalist like Gallagher portray the little housewife, fetching and cooking for the now free Stew did not exactly leave a glowing feeling within me.

Many of the early talkies had a reputation for being nothing more than a filmed play. Most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to avoid getting bogged down with a slow pace. I found most of the movie surprisingly fast-paced. This is a miracle, considering that most movies during that period were bogged down in pacing, due to the studios’ inexperience and insecurities on how to deal with sound technology for films. Although most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to move at a brisk pace, the scene featuring Stew’s first meeting with Ann and the rest of the Schuyler family did not. Only during this sequence, did the movie threatened to bog down into a filmed play. Not even Swerling’s sharp dialogue or actor Robert Williams’ frenetic acting could prevent this.

I have heard that the movie was supposed to be a vehicle for Loretta Young and the movie’s original title was “GALLAGHER”. I also heard that “PLATINUM BLONDE” was supposed to be a showcase the 20 year-old Jean Harlow and the color of her hair (which was one of several aspects that made her a star), hence the name of the movie’s title. Yet, Loretta Young ended up receiving top billing. Frankly, I found this confusing. It seemed obvious to me that Robert Williams was the real star of this particular movie, given his exuberant performance. It is a mystery to me why Columbia Pictures’ boss, Harry Cohn, could not see this. Sure, I could see why they pushed Harlow’s role, considering that she was fast becoming a sex symbol. But Young’s role seemed a lot smaller than both Williams and Harlow’s roles. Why give Williams second billing? He deserved first billing. Another aspect of “PLATINUM BLONDE” that took me by surprise was that it did not seem much of a Pre-Code film to me. Despite Jean Harlow’s presence, the movie seemed too much like a Frank Capra film, with its emphasis on class warfare. Despite the main male character involved with one woman and another woman desperately in love with him, there is very little hint of sex or sexual innuendo in this film. The sexiest scene I could recall featured Harlow and Williams’ horseplay on a sofa that struck me more as adolescent than something worthy of a Pre-Code film or anything Post-Code.

Many critics and fans have claimed that Harlow had been miscast as an heiress. Apparently, many seemed to have the notion that Harlow was incapable of portraying a role that did not call for her to be a spunky member of the working-class. First of all, Harlow did not come from such a background. She came from an upper middle-class or upper-class Kansas City family and was indulged as a child. Which made her, in my opinion, capable of portraying an heiress. And she did a pretty damn good job, as far as I am concerned. Loretta Young was sweet and spunky as the love-sick Gallagher. However, her role did not struck me as strong enough to warrant her top billing. I have heard about Robert Williams in the past and comments about his road to stardom being cut off by sudden death from peritonitis three days after the film’s release. After seeing his exciting performance in “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I believe that he had what it took to become a star in 1930s Hollywood. He was generally good-looking, talented, adjusted to talking pictures like a duck to water, and possessed a strong screen presence. Alas . . . fate had something else in store for him.

And as much as I liked “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I find it difficult to get over my distaste toward the movie’s portrayal of the Stew Smith-Ann Schuyler marriage. I did not care for Capra and Swerling’s decision to make Ann the “villain” of the marriage, considering that both she and Stew were determined to be the one who controlled the marriage. I found the scene featuring Stew’s introduction to the Schuyler family rather long and slow-paced. And I believe that Loretta Young’s top billing undeserved. But aside from one scene, Capra directed a fast-pasted and entertaining movie filled with sharp dialogue written by Jo Swerling. And audiences were given a brief glimpse of the potential stardom that actor Robert Williams could have enjoyed, if fate had not stepped in.