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The Films of Jean Harlow: China Seas (1935)

I think these movies are starting to blend.  That or the screenwriters and directors were just so uninspired that they started recycling from other works.  I mentioned the numerous influences in yesterday’s film Reckless.  Today’s film China Seas is almost a direct sequel to Red Dust and considering we’re in the Hays Code 30’s it’s a highly watered down sequel at that.  China Seas is what Red Dust would be if it came out a few years later;’ a film that introduces a sexual relationship, but never goes into detail.  The characters are woodenly written, there’s a loose love triangle, action/adventure, heist film, and at a certain point all the characters start yelling at each other, mimicking what I wanted to do while watching this film!

Ship captain Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) is captaining a boat that holds his rejected lover China Doll (Harlow) and his past love Sybil (Rosalind Russell).  When the scheming Jamesy (Wallace Beery) gets China involved in a scheme to rob Gaskell, Alan will have to do everything he can to seize back control of his ship.

I’ve mentioned several times during this blogathon about how much I enjoyed Red Dust, and yet it seems many of these movies have been trying to recreate that and failing miserably.  Today’s film is the most blatant attempt to make another Red Dust as it repairs Clark Gable with Jean Harlow.  Gable is four years away from superstardom as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (and this movie include a pre-Wind appearance from Hattie McDaniel).  He plays the gruff, strong ship captain under pressure here.  Gone is the seductive jerk of Red Dust.  Harlow also isn’t nearly as strong-willed and independent as past movies.  Hell, she’s not even as strong compared to Reckless!  Her character China Doll meets up with Gaskell at the beginning of the film.  We’re led to believe they’ve had some type of relationship (sexual of course) and while Gaskell says “We’re friends and we’ve had some fun,” he has no interest in going on this voyage with her.  If you need anymore proof this is a continuation of Red Dust...the movie takes place in China with more stereotypical depictions of Asians!

Since the movie starts after the duo have broken up, we really have no idea what their relationship was like before (aside from the friends with benefits relationship).  So when Gaskell starts treating China like crap because his ex-love Sybil shows up, it’s not machismo like in Red Dust…he’s just an ass.  And where Vantine in Red Dust fought for Donald because she knew what he was really like, here she chases after him and cries like a baby!  She looks like a stalker because, again, we have no idea what their relationship looked like!  If anything, their relationship was one of sex and utter contempt.

Also like Red Dust we have to emphasize how different the two women are.  Here Harlow plays the same brassy, smart mouth although she’s neutered in terms of how strong-willed she is.  She is a total reactionary character, only being engaged in the plot when Jamesy forces her into distracting Gaskell while he plans the mutiny.  On the other side you have Rosalind Russell playing the same character from Reckless; that of a snooty, athletic girl although this time we’re supposed to find her elegant because she can shoot!  Funny, she can shoot a gun but when the Asian pirates show up she sits in a chair and cowers.

That is ultimately the film’s biggest problem, it doesn’t realize what it is.  Is it a drama, an action/adventure on the high seas, or a romance.  I kept noticing how little screen time Russell has, making the triangle seem moot because we hardly see her and Gaskell interact.  She mainly sits in a chair and stares.  On the other hand, China doesn’t have much of a role either, only being seen next to the various male characters.  The majority of her interactions with Gaskell after the 50 minute mark are just them screaming over each other and if I wanted to hear two people scream at each other I’d watch an episode of Jerry Springer.  It’s not sexual tension, it’s just arguing because that’s what the screenwriters assume audiences think is sexual tension.  Since I’ve been focusing on these shoddy scripts, let’s see how many screenwriters contributed to this….Wow.  According to IMDB there’s two people who wrote the script, One uncredited contributor to the story, one uncredited contributor to the dialogue, one uncredited contributor to screenplay construction and two, uncredited early script writers!  No wonder this movie is a mess, there’s far too many cooks in the kitchen.

It’s funny, people complain about the lack of original ideas, well in 1935 everyone seemed to want to remake Red Dust or The Girl From Missouri.  If it starred Harlow, you were trying to remake these movies.  Sadly, I haven’t found a film I’ve liked as much as Red Dust.  Maybe tomorrow.

Grade: D

ANNOUNCEMENTS: So much has happened today and hopefully it pays off for the blog.  I did create an official Twitter for the blog, you can find it @Journeys_Film (sadly there wasn’t enough space to make it sound better).  I’ll work on getting an official email address although considering I haven’t received any emails I think that can wait.  If you looked near the Blog Roll you should see a banner for the Gone to Soon Blogathon starting this Friday and Saturday.  I’ve signed up the blog for the first Blog-a-Thon ever and I’ll be taking a brief break from Jean Harlow to detail another actress who was taken way too soon.  I’ve found a lot of interesting blog communities so hopefully I’ll be doing more Blogathon’s in the future.  Also, I’m going to be trying to intersperse some more diverse material amongst the reviews; maybe some cinematic lists here and there.  So if you have ANY suggestions (and I mean ANY) please email or comment!

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

3 thoughts on “The Films of Jean Harlow: China Seas (1935) Leave a comment

  1. [” Is it a drama, an action/adventure on the high seas, or a romance.”]

    It’s a summer action blockbuster . . . circa 1935. You know, lots of action, one-dimensional characters and acting, and special effects. By the way, it cost a lot of money back then and it was released during the summer.

    • I didn’t necessarily equate it as a summer blockbuster (mostly because the summer blockbuster as we know it didn’t exist and I didn’t want to make assumptions). I just think considering how great Gable and Harlow were in Red Dust, I wanted that recreated in some way. Thanks for reading!

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