China Seas (film)

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China Seas
China Seas lobby card 2.jpg
Lobby card
Directed by Tay Garnett
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Albert Lewin
Written by James Kevin McGuinness
Jules Furthman
Based on China Seas
1931 novel
by Crosbie Garstin
Starring Clark Gable
Jean Harlow
Wallace Beery
Lewis Stone
Rosalind Russell
Robert Benchley
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography Ray June
Clyde De Vinna (2nd unit)
Edited by William LeVanway
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • August 9, 1935 (1935-08-09)
Running time
87 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,138,000[1][2]
Box office $2,867,000[1][2]

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 Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Akim Tamiroff, and Hattie McDaniel, while humorist Robert Benchley memorably 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 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 (Clark Gable) is an abrasive, gambling, captain of a tramp steamer, the "Kin Lung," chugging between Singapore and Hong Kong. Tensions are high before the Kin Lung sails from Hong Kong because pirates are discovered disguised as women passengers while others try to smuggle weapons aboard.

Dolly Portland (Jean Harlow) is Alan's former girlfriend, who Alan later describes at the Captain's table as a "professional entertainer," and travels with her maid. Meanwhile, another of Alan's former loves, aristocratic Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) from Sussex, England boards the Kin Lu. "I am in your hands again," Barclay taunts Gaskell, and eventually they plan to marry when the steamer docks in Singapore. However, Dolly tries to win back Alan. Meanwhile, Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery) is a corrupt passenger, in league with a gang of pirates who plan to steal the gold shipment of GBP250,000 gold bullion being carried on the steamer.[3] Portland 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 crew, the Kin Lung is boarded by Malay pirates, as McArdle expected and with whom he is in alliance. The pirates steal personal possessions from passengers. Unable to find gold in the ships strongbox, which Capt. Gaskell has replaced with sand, they torture Capt. Gaskell using a Malay Boot but the captain 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 pain. While leaving the ship, minus the gold they intended to steal, the pirate's ship is bombed by 3rd officer Davis, who dies while trowing a Mills Bomb as a grenade, and later strafed by Capt. Gaskell. Their ship sinks in the China Seas.

Frustrated by the failed robbery McArdle commits suicide. When the Kin Lu docks in Singapore, Captain Gaskell, still limping due to his torture, settles that his love for Sybil is superficial. Instead he recognises that Dolly gave him good warning and he loves her more. They decide to marry. He says farewell to Sybil. As the film closes Capt. Gaskell reveals the gold was safe all along, hidden inside the ship's cargo (the toolbox of a steamroller stowed on deck).



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 directors and three supervisors.[2]

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.[4]

"China Seas" was the first Hollywood formula adventure-movie which was repeated again and again, and that formula is used to this day -- invented by Thalberg.


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. ^
  4. ^ 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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