Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

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