Friday, April 17, 2015

China Seas

TCM is showing another evening of movies dedicated to MGM's special effects man A. Arnold Gillespie. Concluding tonight's lineup is China Seas at 4:30 AM.

Clark Gable plays Alan Gaskell, the captain of a ship which is currently taking on cargo in Hong Kong. These are the days before container shipping, so a ship like this has a fair amount of both cargo and paying passengers who expect to have passage in the luxurious manner they've come to expect. Among those passengers are two women: Sybil (Rosalind Russell) is the proper woman, who Alan is supposedly going to be settling down with -- if he ever decides to take a desk job with the shipping line, that is; China Doll (Jean Harlow) is the woman with whom Alan has a past. China Doll is shady, presented partly as a nightclub performer, but likely being a woman of somewhat less repute. Among the men, there's Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith), who heads the shipping line, and a man named Jamesy (Wallace Beery), whom we'll get to in a minute. This being an MGM film, there's a supporting cast of various high-caliber actors rounding out the passengers.

This isn't going to be an easy voyage for a couple of reasons. First is the fact that they're going to be transporting gold bullion, which is difficult no matter where a ship is doing it. But this is the 1930s, and they're going from Hong Kong to Singapore, which is going to put them in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Back in those days, those were the havens for pirates, although in the past few decades international cooperation has largely cleaned up the problem there, with Somali piracy being the big problem. So there's a risk for piracy regardless, but if anybody found out that the cargo includes gold, there's a huge problem. Needless to say, Jamesy has gotten some inside information that there may be a shipment of gold in this voyage. So he 's really there to coordinate with the pirates who are planning to waylay this voyage! Finally, further complicating matters is the presence of crewman Davids (Lewis Stone). He disgraced himself on his last journey by abandoning ship before he should have, so no nobody really wants him on their ship.

You can guess some of what's going to happen in this volatile mix. China Doll is going to hit on Alan, but of course he's going to rebuff her advances at first even though you'd think the two of them are right for each other. After all, Alan does have that fiancée. So once she's jilted, she's going to start working with Jamesy. And you know almost from the beginning -- you don't need my synopsis to figure it out more than about five minutes in -- that there's likely to be a pirate attack. And Daniels' perfidy from his previous voyage really telegraphs that he's going to get an opportunity to redeem himself, although whether he actually takes that opportunity, you'll have to watch the movie to find out.

Although there's a fair bit about China Seas that's predictable if you've watched enough 1930s movies, that's not to say it's not a good movie. It's quite entertaining. MGM had more stars than there are in the firmament, so the claim went, and they use that to good effect here, both with the leads and the character actors. Production values are, as usual, excellent from MGM. The acting is good enough. This is a bit more of an action movie than a serious drama, you you're not really looking for the sort of acting you'd get from Gable or Harlow in something like Wife vs. Secretary.

China Seas is available from the Warner Archive collection.

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