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China Seas (film)

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China Seas
Lobby card
Directed byTay Garnett
Written byJames Kevin McGuinness
Jules Furthman
Based onChina Seas
1931 novel
by Crosbie Garstin
Produced byIrving Thalberg
Albert Lewin
StarringClark Gable
Jean Harlow
Wallace Beery
Lewis Stone
Rosalind Russell
Robert Benchley
Akim Tamiroff
CinematographyRay June
Clyde De Vinna (2nd unit)
Edited byWilliam LeVanway
Music byHerbert Stothart
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • August 9, 1935 (1935-08-09)
Running time
87 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.1 million[1][2]
Box office$2.8 million[1][2]
Lobby card with Beery and Gable
Lobby card with Gable at gunpoint
Lobby card with Gable and Harlow
Publicity still with Gable (center)

China Seas is a 1935 American adventure film starring Clark Gable as a brave sea captain, Jean Harlow as his brassy paramour, and Wallace Beery as a suspect character. The oceangoing epic also features Rosalind Russell, Lewis Stone, Akim Tamiroff, and Hattie McDaniel, while humorist Robert Benchley portrays a character reeling drunk from one end of the film to the other.

The lavish MGM epic was written by James Kevin McGuinness and Jules Furthman from the 1930 book by Crosbie Garstin, and directed by Tay Garnett. This is one of only four sound films with Beery in which he did not receive top billing.


Alan Gaskell is an abrasive, gambling captain of a steamer, the Kin Lung, shuttling between Singapore and Hong Kong. Tensions are high before the Kin Lung sails from Hong Kong because some pirates are discovered disguised as women passengers, while others try to smuggle weapons aboard.

Dolly Portland is Alan's former girlfriend, who Alan later describes at the Captain's table as a "professional entertainer," who travels with her maid. Another of Alan's former loves, aristocratic Sybil Barclay from Sussex, England boards the Kin Lung. "I am in your hands again," Sybil taunts Alan. As the story develops, they plan to marry when the ship docks in Singapore. However, Dolly tries to win back Alan.

Meanwhile, Jamesy McArdle is a corrupt passenger in league with a gang of pirates planning to steal a shipment of gold bullion worth £250,000 GBP carried on the steamer.[3] Dolly discovers the plot and attempts to warn Capt. Gaskell against McArdle but he deflects her warnings.

In calm seas following a typhoon in which the ship suffered damage to its cargo and the deaths of some of the crew, the Kin Lung is boarded by Malay pirates with whom McArdle is in alliance. The pirates steal personal possessions from passengers. Finding no gold in the ship's strongbox (Captain Gaskell had replaced it with sand), they torture the captain using a Malay Boot, but he will not reveal the gold's location. Instead, with bravado Gaskell instructs the pirates, as they prepare to torture him: "My size is 9C", before fainting from the pain. While leaving the Kin Lung without the gold they had intended to steal, one of the two pirate junks is bombed by Third Officer Davids, who dies while throwing a Mills Bomb as a grenade, which sinks it. The second junk sinks in the South China Sea after a bombardment from a light cannon manned by Captain Gaskell.

Frustrated by the failed robbery, McArdle commits suicide. When the Kin Lung docks in Singapore Captain Gaskell, still limping due to his tortured foot, concludes that his love for Sybil is superficial. He recognises that Dolly gave him good warning, and that he loves her more. They decide to marry. He says farewell to Sybil.

As the film closes, Gaskell reveals the gold was safe all along. He had concealed it in a piece of deck cargo – the toolbox of the steamroller stowed on deck he had risked his life to lash down during the storm.



Gable and Harlow portrait

Irving Thalberg had worked on the film since 1930 when he assigned three different writers to come up with three different treatments. By 1931 Thalberg had decided on the one storyline and spent the next four years working on a script with two dozen writers, half a dozen dir/and three supervisors.[2]

John Lee Mahin said he and Jim McGuiness were called in by Irving Thalberg to look at the script by Jules Furthman. Mahin said Faurthman "had stolen so much—practically word for word out of famous pieces. Things by Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham—and there was a well-known English novel of the time that he had taken a whole speech from. We discovered these, and we had to do quite a lot of rewriting. Granted, nothing’s new, but Jesus, you don’t just take whole lines of dialogue!"[4]

Gable had several temper tantrums on the set, which were tolerated by MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer because the star had recently won an Academy Award for Best Actor in It Happened One Night (1934) on a loan-out to Columbia Pictures, and he did not want to risk losing him. Mayer even tolerated that Gable risked his life by refusing a stunt double in a sequence in which he assisted numerous Chinese extras in roping in a runaway steamroller that crashed up and down the decks of the cantilevered studio ship.[5]

China Seas was an early Hollywood formula adventure-movie loosely using the plot of Gable and Harlow's earlier film titled Red Dust (1932) featuring Mary Astor in Russell's role, which was subsequently remade with Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly two decades later as Mogambo (1953).

Wallace Beery had worked with both Gable and Harlow in The Secret Six (1931), in which Gable and Harlow had smaller supporting roles and Beery played the lead. Beery and Gable also appeared together later the same year in the naval aviation film titled Hell Divers (1931), this time with Gable's part almost as large as top-billed star Beery's. The pairing of Gable and Harlow was so popular after Red Dust (1932) that they wound up making six films together, with the final one being finished posthumously after Harlow's untimely death.


The film was a big hit earning $1,710,000 in the US and Canada and $1,157,000 elsewhere resulting in profits of $653,000.[1][2]


  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. ^ a b c d Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Robson, 2005 p. 155–156
  3. ^ "China Seas". AllMovie.
  4. ^ McCarthy, Todd; McBride, Joseph (1986). "John Lee Mahin: Team Player". In Patrick McGilligan (ed.). Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age. University of California Press. p. 251. ISBN 9780520056893.
  5. ^ Higham, Charles (Dec 1994) [1993]. Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood (paperback ed.). Dell Publishing. p. 265. ISBN 0-440-22066-1.

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