Ring a Ding Ding
I love China Seas, and not just because of Jean Harlow‘s “nip slip” (see below). I am hesitant to call it the best Harlow-Clark Gable collaboration because Red Dust is also stellar, but this one really packs a punch. The chemistry between the lead players is the same hot-headed Harlow against equally stubborn Gable the two typically ignited on screen, but I think Harlow really plays that part best in China Seas while maintaining a vulnerable edge that easily wins over the viewer.
The story is not just a romance set on a voyage between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It also offers pirates, betrayal, heroism and a conflicting love interest for Gable as ship’s captain Alan Gaskell. Alan is surprised to find before shoving off that China Doll (Harlow), a girl he picked up in Hong Kong –a performer of some sort– has booked herself passage on the non-luxury boat because she’s mad for the captain. Also on board is a friend to both China Doll and Alan, James MacCardle, played by Wallace Beery, but we are tipped off early on he has some shady connection to pirates hiding aboard the ship that seek a shipment of gold.
Alan immediately discovers that also on board is an ex-lover, Sybil, played by Rosalind Russell, who immediately ignites a passion in the captain who is far more gruff than the man she used to know. China Doll notices this right off and voluntarily backs away from her man, although she does a poor job of severing the ties. Alan plans to marry the now-widowed Sybil as soon as they dock and leave his sea life behind, but Russell’s character quickly fades into the background once a typhoon and subsequent pirate takeover come to the forefront.
China Doll seems to be missing during the storm during which all passengers have headed for the lounge area of the ship. She is partaking in a drinking/gambling game with MacCardle in his cabin when she finds half a 100 pound note in his wallet that is surefire evidence he is a pirate. MacCardle notices the missing money and forces China Doll to join up with him or essentially be killed. The dame runs to the captain after the storm calms down, but he, drunk, refuses to listen to a word because he thinks she is just there to win him back. That pisses the gal off and she steals the key to the armory, delivering it to MacCardle.
In the midst of the pirate takeover, a crewmate (Lewis Stone) who chickened out during the typhoon and was arrested because of it, is shot, has his foot broken and still manages to save the day by crawling to the captains quarters to gather grenades. Despite a Chinese torture device, Alan never gives up the location of the gold and convinces the criminals and MacCardle –who is translating with the pirates and pretending to be on Alan’s side– that there is no gold.
Alan solves the mystery of how the pirates got the key to the armory and sends China Doll to trial, but not before making his decision about what broad he wants to marry.
Now to touch on that accidental indecent exposure to which I alluded. There is a scene that I have noticed both times I watched this movie when Harlow’s gown slips from her soldier and she flashes a full breast at the camera. I am doing my best to not sound like a pervert here, but I found it pretty amazing that such a mishap could make into a final film print. For those wanting to look for this incident, it occurs in the scene when China Doll is fighting off a drunken MacCardle who wants his half 100-pound bill back. In stumbling around the room on a ship rocked by the storm, Harlow’s dress strap slips off her soldier, the what would now be deemed “nip slip” occurs and she, realizing what happened, throws her shoulder back to force the gown in place. I find it comical that this happened to Harlow, who always wore slinky dresses that seemed poised to slip from her shoulder at any moment. Call it fate.