China Seas

“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell

When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.

Inhabiting the skin of hard-drinking steamer captain Alan Gaskell, Clarke Gable is picture perfect as he struggles to pilot his ship from Hong Kong Harbor to Singapore, doing his best to avoid rip roaring typhoons and marauding Malay pirates. This being an adventure movie, of course, he will successfully avoid neither. But he will look damn good while failing. As the tough talking, hard drinking ship captain who trades sneers and insults and kisses with Jean Harlow’s chain smoking, street tough “China Doll” Portland, Gable crackles with energy and charisma. And Harlow’s somewhat obnoxious Portland matches him sneer for sneer, insult for insult as they ply the waters of the South China Seas with a superb cast of characters, including the drunk writer, the sailor with a dark past, the wide-eyed rookie deckhand, the elegant lady, the wise old mentor with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet permanently grafted to his head, and of course the jovial businessman who ends up being a dastardly traitor.


Much of the film is taken up with banter and witty exchanges between the principals, all of whom perform remarkably well. The setting is exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be aboard an old steamer ship — one possibly laden with a secret shipment of gold — sailing across the China Seas while one dons a tux, drinks champagne, and worry about pirates? It’s a picture perfect old-school adventure setting, and that and the chemistry between the actors as they rattle off the whip-smart dialog is all this film needs to propel between its two main action setpieces. Using just the old sets and practical effects, China Seas manages to successfully convey both a ship-rattling typhoon and a pirate attack. Both sequences deliver the thrills with ease, though ultimately this is a movie carried entirely on the shoulders of Gable, and he’s more than up to the task.

If there’s any weakness in the film, it’d be Harlow’s China Doll. Most sassy femme fatales have some characteristic that makes them worthy of redemption, or at the very least, we can understand why the hero would destroy himself over this woman. But China Doll is less fatale and more just irritating. While Harlow delivers clever dialog and obviously works incredibly well alongside Gable, I found I had a hard time understanding why Gable was so haunted by their relationship with one another. And this coming from a man who willingly and actively seeks out dangerous women I know will destroy me and plunge my life into a state of decadent destruction. It’s real easy to believe the scenes where Gable looks like he just wants to haul off and dump her overboard, but less so the scenes where he supposed to be struggling with the smoldering flame of their love. But whatever — that’s love, right? And when I point this out as a potential weakness in the film, I also need to point out that it’s an extremely small weakness, and the sheer force of personality and the interplay between Gable and Harlow is more than enough to carry the film over any tiny rough patch it may hit.

Mystery, pirates, exotica, typhoons, romance, rum drinking, and Clark Gable’s pencil thin mustache and perfect old-school tough, dashing guy hair all get drawn into a script that is lean and streamlined but never crude or lacking in elegance, making China Seas cracking good adventure romance cinema from the golden age of the silver screen.

Release Date: 1935 | Country: United States | Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, William Henry, Liev De Maigret, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy, Soo Yong, Carol Ann Beery, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Lebedeff | Screenplay: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness | Director: Tay Garnett | Cinematography: Ray June | Music: Herbert Stothart | Producer: Albert Lewin | Availability: DVD (Amazon)