China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935) 🇺🇸

China Seas |

November 20, 2021

Hong Kong, 1935. The hard-working Kin Lung knows how to keep a secret. Quietly moored at its home port, the vessel awaits its latest cargo. On the quayside, scurrying travellers dodge baskets balanced on porters’ shoulders, stepping over caged pigs as they weave their way through the hustle and bustle of sedan chairs and rickshaws. You need your sea legs for the film’s opening 15 minutes as we bob up and down before even getting onboard. Afterwards, prepare yourself for seasickness during the 1,000 or so nautical miles that lie ahead across choppy seas, visited by a typhoon, a pirate attack – and tempestuous love affairs!

Everything seems to start so well for Alan Gaskell, played by Clark Gable, more seductive than ever in his well-tailored captain’s uniform. However, despite the irreproachable façade of a man in charge, Gaskell contrives to secretly load a shipment of gold onto his vessel, hidden inside a steamroller. He also manages to uncover a gang of pirates disguised as women passengers but betrayed by the size of their feet: they forgot to bind them, as was the custom at the time.

The watchful Captain Gaskell is mildly put out as he accepts onboard a brazen and bra-less buxom blonde who is none other than his former girlfriend, China Doll (Jean Harlow). The spark between the two of them, which we enjoyed in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust, is as strong as ever, despite China Doll’s insistence and exasperating wiles as she clings to him, absolutely determined to win back her ex. Just as he swapped the (equally well-fitting) singlet of the reformed drunkard for his magnificent pristine white uniform, Gaskell is also determined to turn over a new leaf by resuming his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful and now unattached Sybil (Rosalind Russell, perfect as a sophisticated British aristocrat). He is so smitten that he becomes poetic, comparing the merry widow to an English river, “cool, clear and clean”, compared to which any other waterway seems “dirty, yellow, muddy”. While China Doll recognises an allusion to herself in these troubled waters, she is not deterred and persists with her attempts at seduction, as vulgar as they are embarrassing, humiliating herself in public during a drinking game. I’ll simply say that she’s in love and eventually wins the game – but I won’t reveal the ending! We’ll forgive the simpering, infantile caprices of an actress who would be dead two years later, at the age of just 26. We’ll remember this wanton Lolita as a charming, abandoned stowaway, pictured on the poster in the muscled arms of Clark Gable as his elegant moustache brushes her smooth, doll-like face. 

We’d feel no more than slightly giddy if the film’s plot was confined to this love triangle. But you need to hold on tight once the storm blows up. A mighty typhoon worthy of the deepest of China’s seas creates panic and provides Garnett with another opportunity to film scenes of chaos. The grand piano in the main salon starts to dance to the rhythm of the huge waves. Echoing this burlesque number, we are then plunged into a scene of horror when the crucial steamroller breaks free and slides in all directions across the coolies’ deck. People who, just before, were enjoying an innocent game of cards are horribly injured by the out-of-control machine. Humour replaces horror as the camera focuses on the alcoholic writer in need of nicotine and fresh air (played by humourist Robert Benchley) vainly attempting to light a cigarette in the pouring rain.

But what of the hidden treasure, has it fallen overboard? With no gold there can be no pirates, and with no pirates, corsairs or buccaneers we’d be left horribly short of adventure. It’s no real surprise when they board the vessel and methodically remove the ladies’ necklaces – giving Garnett an excuse to film some plunging necklines. Elegantly bedecked in a colourful jacket, their leader has a look of Red Rackham about him, using equally barbaric methods to torture the captain and force him to reveal where the gold is hidden. I’ve never seen Gable more stoical than when his feet are imprisoned in a Malay boot. Where others would have divulged the hiding place, he laconically gives them a children's shoe size: “My size is 9C!” he tells them before passing out.  I now also understand the mocking look on Wallace Beery’s face on the poster, keeping his schemes well hidden beneath his colonial helmet.  The man I had taken for a loveable big-hearted gambler infatuated with China Doll (in league with him to spite Gaskell) is a sneaky liar in cahoots with the pirates. After the pirates leave empty-handed, Beery’s character kills off his dreams of wealth by swallowing fast-acting poison. A similarly spectacular death awaits a demoted former captain (Lewis Stone, a silent movie mainstay): he dies, grenade in hand, as he leaps onto the flaming sails of the pirate junk. 

Still want more? You should have bought a return ticket! You’ve now arrived at Singapore and the trusty Kin Lung is tied up in port, waiting for new adventures. You can try to imagine them by sitting on your sofa and gazing at this stirring, romantic poster whose lovely verticality cleaves to the line of the ship’s bow. Happy travels!

Check out the French version of this article.