Friday, March 11, 2011

Jean Harlow in China Seas (1935)

I never got China Seas (1935) on DVD until very recently.

It's almost like I'm so mad that so few of Jean Harlow's films are on DVD that I'd rather not bother getting the ones that are.

But China Seas (1935) is a great flick. I had read about this title when I was a kid but somehow never saw it until I was in my early 20s; it never turned up on cable where I lived and I never saw it for rent.

Now that I've been to Hong Kong 4 times, the film takes on another layer of interest, even though the Hong Kong portrayed in this film is a very 1930s' version of the British colony. It's the stuff of dreams of a kind of exotic Orientalism but what did anyone expect in 1935?

I remember that my first reaction upon seeing this film was wondering what my grandfather thought of it?

As his favorite film of all time was the previous year's Treasure Island with Wallace Beery -- and as we did discuss Jean Harlow in my teenage years -- I know he probably saw this flick when it was new and probably loved it as much as I do now.

China Seas (1935) walks a very fine line between humor and adventure and the 86 minutes of this film go down easily. Don't expect anything deep here but who cares?

I'd rather spend a frisky hour-and-an-half with an at-their-peaks Clark Gable and Jean Harlow than spend 2 hours with any other acting pair from this era.

When I watch something like this, I can only wonder if any other actress in 1935 Hollywood could have pulled off what Jean pulls off here? I mean, there were gals aping Jean's look but none of them had her talent, did they?

As China Doll, Jean is -- let's not mince words -- a hooker but she's a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold as evidenced by her snappy-and-soft back-and-forth in her first scene with Gable, after stowing away aboard his ship by hiding in his closet.

In Mae West's hands, this role would have turned into parody; in Loretta Young's, maybe a suffering gal trapped in a life of servitude in the Far East.

Jean has attitude and heart and that's a rare combination in Hollywood, then or now, frankly.

When Gable's Captain says something about "We're both a little bit soiled", Jean knows what he means. The scene oddly forces the viewer to view the captain as a bit of a hard-hearted cad while the loose woman is the one who gets our sympathy.

It's hard not to love Jean here, watching her veer between bluster and bashfulness, hoping onto Clark's bed in her tight skirt.

When the captain's analogy about the purity of an English river finally clicks with her, she tosses a book at the guy as he leaves the cabin.

As Gable gets more and more annoyed with Harlow's antics here, it's hard to see why he's pushing away the sexy Harlow. In Red Dust (1932), it's a bit more perplexing why Gable's character is so drawn to the fainting Mary Astor.

In China Seas (1935), Harlow's romantic rival is Rosalind Russell who brings a certain class and wit to this sort of thing. She's no sexpot but at least she's got a bit of life to her, enough to justify Gable's captain finding her interesting when he's also got Harlow beating down his door.

One has to wonder what a film like China Seas (1935) would have been like without the Hays Office around.

Despite the threat of those censors, the filmmakers got in some delights.

Got to love that scene where Jean outdrinks Wallace Beery in the midst of a typhoon at sea!

When Beery threatens to strangle Jean after she finds out his plan to rob the ship, Gable's captain and his crew burst through the door and Jean says: "The Marines have landed."

But the actress delivers the line with such an odd reading that it bears scrutiny.

It's not a sense of relief, nor is it totally sarcastic. It's said with a sort of weariness that she can't win. She's either getting roughed up by Beery, or saved by Gable only to be ignored by the guy in favor of Rosalind Russell.

Unlike some other Harlow pictures, the dialogue here is not entirely crackling but that lack of snap-and-pop gives Jean the actress more to work with.

A viewer can see Jean defining this almost cartoonish character right before our eyes.

China Seas (1935) is not a masterpiece but it's essential viewing for any Jean Harlow fan. Does that sound like a contradiction?

The makers of this picture clearly were out to please the audience and that's an admirable thing. That they were doing it in the midst of the Great Depression makes what seems like a throwaway genre picture all the more precious.

Was China Seas messily mixing pirates and comedy and drama and romance? No, I'd venture to say they were just delivering the goods.

Just like Jean's China Doll.