Harlow was beautiful, of course, but what truly made her a star’s star was the attitude. She was a blonde fireball as much as a bombshell, able to go toe-to-toe with any gruff male, as she does repeatedly with Gable in “China Seas.” Yet, at the same time, we sense a second layer beneath all that feistiness, as she convincingly demonstrates a vulnerability covered up with sassy retorts. Per TCM, Irving Thalberg, producing boy wonder, supposedly said of the film: “To hell with art this time.” He merely wanted a box office bonanza, an action-adventure on the high seas, rollicking stunt work on a display in a studio-made monsoon, and that’s all there to fine effect, sure, but there is also emotional oomph for a garnish.
As the unfortunately named China Doll, Harlow is the main squeeze of Gable’s Captain. Or so she thinks. Because when the Captain enters his quarters who comes traipsing outta the powder room but China Doll. He was set to set sail without her, see, and then tries to escort her back to dry land, but, nuh uh, she’s staying put. Alas, when an old lost love of Gaskell, the elegant and refined (she’s English!!!) Sybil (Rosalind Russell), comes aboard and makes eyes at Gaskell and he makes eyes at her, poor China Doll’s whole life plan is on the verge of going overboard.
Here, we might expect a screwball scheme to emerge as China Doll attempts to re-woo Gaskell and slander Sybil. Not quite. Rather during dinner at the Captain’s table, China Doll cozies up to the Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery), a hard-drinking lout, cut of the same uncultured cloth. In the process, China Doll quite obviously makes a fool of herself, talking loud and saying a lot of nasty stuff, apparently assuming that misplaced bravado will fool people into thinking this is her brave face. Sybil sees right through it and calls her out. And though you feel bad for Sybil and everyone else at the table, Harlow lets you feel her hurt too.
She loves Gaskell, she does, and fears it’s her down by the boondocks countenance that has caused him to seek solace in the arms of high society. Thus, when she discovers that McArdle, posing as Gaskell’s ally, has hatched a scheme to allow pirates onboard, arm them and steal all the gold squired away in the safe so that he can get a cut, she is torn. Torn by love, torn by anger, torn by jealousy. That sounds dark, but it is handled more in the manner of the yarn the title suggests.
Action scenes abound, including the obligatory typhoon that swoops in and sends waves crashing across the deck which, in turn, allow for bouts of both heroism and cowardice. Pirates attack and shots are fired and they seek the gold in the safe as Jamesy subtly plays both sides. And these effects, I must admit, remind me how much I prefer manmade wind and rain to computer made wind and rain. The computer stuff looks real. The manmade stuff feels real. Not that it matters so much since the effects are merely filler between the Harlow and Gable and Beery banter. Harlow and Gable and Beery banter, as we know, trump any tempest.
And Harlow, as we know, must trump Russell. Which Russell found, per TCM, “patently absurd.” She may have got along winningly with Harlow the person, but the character Harlow was playing? “How can you spend time with her?” Russell theoretically wondered of Gable. “She’s rather vulgar, isn’t she?” Maybe. But maybe one woman’s vulgar is another man’s lively.
On the surface, “China Seas” might appear undone by a classic Idiot Plot development, in so much as China Doll goes to Gaskell’s cabin to warn him of McArdle’s behind-the-scenes nefariousness. Gaskell keeps stopping her warning short, telling her off, sending her away, wanting nothing to do with her. It could be argued as an Idiot Plot because if China Doll simply were to shout “McArdle and a bunch of pirates are going to steal the gold!”, the remainder of the film would cease to exist. That she chooses to refrain from shouting it out is not on account of her being idiot, far from it. Rather she is demonstrating who rules the roost.
If her behavior puts all the other passengers in peril, well, so be it. Harlow is the queen, the ship is her castle, and all the rest are merely her subjects.