MGM set sail in 1935 with "China Seas," an exotic trip from Hong Kong to Singapore -- although no one left the back lot. Still, the stars were out in full force, and producer Irving Thalberg kept everything moving full steam ahead, which keeps this film from capsizing.
OK, how many bad boat metaphors can I use in one lead?
Actually, think "Grand Hotel" meets "Mutiny on the Bounty." While it's not as good as either of these films, "China Seas" works in spite of itself. The stars look fabulous, the dialogue clips along at a fast pace, the action scenes are exciting, and the audience can just sit back and forget the fact that story is pretty flimsy.
It's worth noting that Thalberg had produced "Grand Hotel" in 1932, which featured for an unheard-of five top-line actors and multiple story lines going at once. The formula works even today, and in the years following "Grand Hotel's" success, MGM wasn't afraid to tap into its vast acting pool and bring together that much talent for a film. "Dinner at Eight" from 1933 is a good example, and this film follows suit with three stars and story lines to spare. Thalberg knew that star power can detract from lesser material.
The movie opens by introducing all of the various characters and plotlines -- and there are TONS of plotlines, big and small, for a 90-minute film. It's like every nook and cranny of the ship is filled with some intrigue. You've got Captain Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), arriving somewhat drunk yet feared by his crew for being an unrelenting taskmaster. He's broken off with the earthy Dolly (Jean Harlow) in port, although she's decided to book passage to be near him. He then runs into Sybil (Rosalind Russell), a classy woman he befriended years ago, and he pursues a romance with her. In retaliation, Dolly works with Jamesy MacArdle (Wallace Beery), who is in cahoots with a band of pirates wanting to steal a secret gold shipment that's on board.
These are the main plotlines. Then you have Davids (Lewis Stone), a fallen captain detested by the others for being a coward who Gaskell hires to be third officer; a female passenger with fake pearls she's trying to hide from her husband and a man blackmailing her; and McCaleb (Robert Benchley) as an author who's constantly inebriated. A few other minor characters are around for color and you've got to keep track of a lot.
The plotting gets to be too much at first, and the romantic triangle isn't all that intriguing. Once you get to the action, though, the movie picks up. A typhoon and a pirate raid provide plenty of excitement, and the second half of the film is really quite fun.
Plus there's plenty of focus on the stars. Harlow plays the dame -- typecast once again. But she does it with so much energy that it's hard to resist. The film cuts awkwardly at times to her closeups that clearly look like they were shot at a different time than the rest of the scenes, almost saying "here's the gratuitous star closeup for her fans." But what would a Harlow film be without a few gorgeous closeups of its star?
Gable looks even more handsome and dashing than usual. His charisma is fully in use here -- he gets to be hero, lover and tough guy. Plus there's a chance to see him in an undershirt and a sleek black knit long-sleeve shirt during the typhoon that ups the swoon factor.
Beery, like Harlow, plays the same type of character in his films. Usually they are earthy or men who have made something of themselves but are rarely polished. There's no exception here. Gable, Harlow and Beery were all established stars at this point, and MGM knew it and draws on that star power here.
On the other hand, Russell was just beginning her long movie career. For anyone who's enjoyed the force of her comedic skills or the strength of her dramatic talents, she's simply playing a throwaway role here -- the love interest, and one who is secondary to Harlow. Russell doesn't have much to do, but I don't think MGM knew what to make of her yet. Thankfully, that would change.
During the past year, I've been watching a lot of MGM films from the 1930s, and I'm enjoying seeing how the great studio managed to turn out so many likable films, whether they were truly great or simply enjoyable like this one. MGM had the stars and instructed its directors and cameramen to make their stars look amazing, even if their characters weren't glamorous. This is a film where the studio's know-how is on full display.
Or, really, it's Thalberg's touch at work once again. This was one of his first films after a long hiatus from the studio due to his health. He was on the "China Seas" set constantly, giving advice to the actors, until director Tay Garnett confronted him and pointed out that Thalberg was undermining his authority. Thalberg immediately stepped back and thanked Garnett for being open and honest about it. This is one of the stories that makes me appreciate Thalberg. He was a genius, but he also tried to treat people with respect.
So, with "China Seas" you've got MGM in the 1930s with Thalberg as producer and Gable, Harlow and Beery as stars. What's not to like about this crew?