Jean Harlow has always been one of those stars that absolutely delights me whenever I see her onscreen. From her alluring blonde locks and sense of fashion that can only be envied today to her brassy speaking voice and her larger-than-life onscreen presence, Jean ranks easily among my most beloved actresses of my favorite decade in cinema. Something about watching new-to-me Harlow films in particular brings me so much joy, and my memories of discovering her pictures for the first time are almost always fond ones, possibly even more memorable to me than any other actress. That’s why I knew that I had to pay proper tribute to “Our Baby” this year by giving Jean her very own blogathon, hosted by yours truly along with my dear friend Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. More than that, I knew that I wanted to honor the platinum blonde by unearthing yet another feature of hers that I hadn’t seen before, and this time I knew exactly which one it would be: none other than China Seas (1935), the fourth of six films that Jean made with Clark Gable, her most well-known onscreen leading man.
China Seas (1935) is certainly among the most famous features in Jean Harlow’s filmography that I still hadn’t had the opportunity to watch until now. While the characters and details of the story are largely forgotten today compared to the likes of Dinner At Eight (1933) and Libeled Lady (1936), I still recall seeing references to China Seas (1935) as early as my preteen years, long before I ever truly developed an interest in classic movies. Crossing this film off of my watchlist was such a satisfying experience for me for that reason along with many others, and I was pleased to learn that the picture chronicles the voyage of the Kin Lung, a tramp steamer making its way from Singapore to Hong Kong. The ship is helmed by Captain Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), a roguish, no-nonsense sailor who doesn’t seem to care much about anything or anyone. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone on the ship, Gaskell has been given the responsibility of safely transporting £250,000 in gold (worth nearly $46 million today) along on the voyage. To make his task even more difficult, the Kin Lung has two stunning passengers to distract its captain.
The first is China Doll (Jean Harlow), who is considered his former girlfriend by the rest of the characters, but it’s heavily implied that Doll is merely a call girl who Alan had previously shared a physical relationship with. Similarly to Red Dust (1932), Doll still harbors an emotional attachment to Alan due to their prior offscreen liaison, and decides to remain aboard his vessel in hopes that she can convince him to reciprocate her feelings during the ship’s crossing. At first the situation appears to be in her favor, but that all changes when Alan reunites with Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), a prim and boring British socialite who also shared a former relationship with Alan. It’s clear that Alan and Sybil’s romance was more than just a fling, and they essentially begin making wedding plans as soon as they reconnect, which sends Doll into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery) is another passenger on the ship who deeply admires Doll, but when she learns about his plan to hire pirates to commandeer the Kin Lung and steal the gold, he forces her to make a choice: either betray Alan and assist him in looting the ship, or lose her life.
Great care was put into making every aspect of China Seas (1935) appear as realistic and impressive as possible. Fifty tons of water were used in the climactic typhoon sequence, and those special effects nearly cost two stuntmen their lives as the weight of the water swept them over the side of the artificial steamer. The same scene also happens to be the only one in the film in which we see Jean Harlow’s genuine hair, as she had cut her legendary tresses before filming began and wore wigs for the rest of the production as she waited for her natural color to grow back in. All of MGM’s efforts in making China Seas (1935) into a spectacular production were all worth it in the end. The film earned $2.8 million in box office revenue, making it the fifth-highest grossing picture of the year despite being banned in Malaysia and Hong Kong, one of the settings of the film.
China Seas (1935) may have found worldwide success, but at the end of the day I personally found the plot to be essentially a lesser version of Red Dust (1932). There were far too many similarities between the two, and to make matters worse, I’d say that there are only two standout players in this picture. The first was the always lovely Hattie McDaniel, who portrays Isabel, Dolly’s maid in the film. Despite her character’s station, there’s a scene in which Dolly gifts Isabel her wardrobe, and I absolutely adored seeing Hattie in lavish gowns for the first time onscreen. As for the other performance, I really only commend Wallace Beery’s acting as the best of his that I had seen when compared to other films. Gable, Harlow, and especially Russell all shined much brighter in other features, almost to the point that this cast’s talents were wasted on this production. While the movie was entertaining and I’m glad that I finally watched it, I’ll either discover more of Harlow’s films or revisit my tried-and-true favorites like The Girl From Missouri (1934) or Red-Headed Woman (1932) for her next birthday.