“When a woman can love a man right down to her fingertips, she can hate him the same way.”
Passion, jealousy, and revenge are at the heart of China Seas–one of six films Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made together. Harlow plays tough talking, entertainer Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland. Clark Gable plays the roguish Captain Alan Gaskell. When the film begins, Captain Gaskell arrives on his ship unshaven and somewhat the worse for wear after several days R&R in Hong Kong. China Doll appears in Gaskell’s cabin, and even though they’ve had a relationship, Gaskell makes it clear that he wants her to leave. When China Doll begs to be allowed to remain on the ship–citing a job in Singapore–he reluctantly agrees to let her stay on board. China Doll obviously sees the voyage as chance to wear down Gaskell’s resistance, and to worm her way into a long-term relationship.
China Doll’s plans to win over Gaskell are crushed with the arrival of Lady Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell). She’s a former love from Gaskell’s past–a woman whose marriage caused him to leave England. Lady Sybil is now widowed, and apparently her trip to the Orient is for the sole purpose of finding Gaskell again.
Positioning the well-mannered Lady Sybil against the rather “common” China Doll is a masterstroke. The two women are soon squabbling over Gaskell using their own unique tactics. In Lady Sybil’s case, this means dropping references to Gaskell’s former life in England. In China Doll’s case, she reacts with crass behaviour that amuses the audience but alienates fellow passengers and embarrasses Gaskell. Soon China Doll discovers that she is a social outcast at the Captain’s table, and she throws in her lot with Jamesy MacArdle (Wallace Beery).
The second half of the film shifts from its romantic overtones and delivers action. Gaskell struggles against a typhoon, and then his ship is overrun with Malay pirates who seek a secret gold shipment Gaskell has hidden on board. China Doll faces some tough choices–will she rise to the occasion and become a better human being, or will she sink and fulfill Gaskell’s expectations of her character? China Seas is a delightful Harlow vehicle, and she delivers a fierce, impressive performance when she finally takes her moral stand. Directed by Tay Garnett.