“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.

“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

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“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

“EVELYN PRENTICE” marked the third collaboration between William Powell and Myrna Loy in 1934. MGM Studios first had the pair co-star with Clark Gable in the hit crime melodrama, “MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Then the pair hit gold and became solidified as a screen team in “THE THIN MAN”. Following the success of the latter, MGM paired them in a melodrama called “EVELYN PRENTICE”

William K. Howard directed this adaptation of W.E. Woodward’s 1931 novel about Evelyn Prentice, the neglected wife of a successful attorney, who drifts into dangerous waters when she becomes involved with another man. Although she loves her husband, John Prentice, Evelyn begins to despair of his long hours and begins to wonder if his career is more important to him than his family. John becomes engrossed in defending a young socialite named Nancy Harrison and has a brief affair with her before she is acquitted. Before Evelyn can celebrate his latest success, John is called to Boston for another case and during the train journey, encounters Miss Harrison. When Evelyn learns about Miss Harrison’s presence aboard the Boston-bound train, she commences upon a flirtation with a handsome man named Lawrence Kennard. Unfortunately, Lawrence proves to be a gold-digging gigolo, who blackmails Evelyn with a compromising letter. Just as Evelyn finds a gun inside a desk drawer, Lawrence’s girlfriend, Judith Wilson hears gunfire. But Evelyn manages to leave Lawrence’s room before being spotted by Judith. Evelyn eventually learns that Judith has been arrested for murder. And out of a sense of guilt, she convinces John to defend the younger woman.

I did not know what to expect with “EVELYN PRENTICE”. I had never heard of it, until recently. I knew it was a drama and did not expect any of the usual witty exchanges that highlighted the best of their “THIN MAN” movies and other comedies. Actually, screenwriters Lenore J. Coffee and Howard Emmett Rogers (uncredited) provided a good deal of witticism in “EVELYN PRENTICE”, but only for Una Merkel, who portrayed Evelyn’s best friend, Amy Drexel. I liked the costume designs created by Dolly Tree, who had served as Myrna Loy’s usual designer at MGM . . . even if I found them a tad over-the-top. Frank E. Hull’s editing proved to be valuable in the scene that featured Lawrence Kennard’s shooting. As for the performances, they proved to be solid, although not exactly dazzling. There were two or three performances that impressed me. They came from Merkel’s sharp-witted performance as best friend Amy; Isabel Jewell, who gave a passionate performance as Lawrence’s abused girlfriend, Judith Wilson; and even veteran actress Jessie Ralph, who gave a brief, yet lively performance as a charwoman who lived in the same building as the victim. Rosalind Russell made her screen debut as John Prentice’s lovesick client, Nancy Harrison. Mind you, I found her performance a bit theatrical, but at least she injected some fire into the movie.

Unfortunately, there was a good deal about “EVELYN PRENTICE” that made it difficult for me to really enjoy this film. I have nothing against melodrama. But there is good melodrama and there is bad. As far as I am concerned, “EVELYN PRENTICE” was not good melodrama. One, the performances of the two leads – Myrna Loy and William Powell – annoyed me. They did not give bad performances. But Loy spent a good deal of the movie utilizing enough pensive expressions that rivaled Evangeline Lilly from Season One of “LOST”. She almost bored me senseless. Powell, on the other hand, bored me. Although his John Prentice did not cheat on his wife during that train journey from New York to Boston, he did sleep with his client earlier in the film. I never realized that adultery could be so boring and I am afraid that Powell is to blame, not Russell. Cora Sue Collins portrayed the Prentices’ young daughter, Dorothy. She was sweet, cute and typical of the early 1930s child actors that I have always found nauseating. Shirley Temple made this kid look refreshing. And Harvey Stephens’ Lawrence Kennard proved to be one of the dullest gigolos in film history. This guy made sexiness seem like a bore.

In the end, it was Coffee and Rogers’ adaptation of Woodward’s novel, along with Howard’s direction that sunk this movie for me. For about the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I had no problems maintaining interest in this movie. But it did not take long for my interest to drift away from the plot. I was in danger of falling asleep. My interest perked again, following the death of the Lawrence Kennard character. I found myself wondering when Evelyn would tell the truth about what happened and save the girlfriend from a noose. I have never read the 1933 novel, so I do not know whether the solution to the movie’s plot came directly from the novel or was created by Coffee and Rogers. Needless to say, the legal solution to the Kennard murder took me by surprise . . . in a very negative way. I found myself disgusted by how the writers resolved the whole matter, when I first saw the film. And thinking about it later, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

What else can I say about “EVELYN PRENTICE”? I have read some reviews of the movie and there are some movie fans who liked it. I had hoped to become a fan of the movie. But between the lackluster performances of the leads, the mind-boggling bad writing, and William K. Howard’s dull direction; I can honestly say that I hope to never lay eyes on this film again. I am a big fan of Powell and Loy, but I feel this movie was one of their major missteps during their tenure as a screen team.