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China Seas

Ring a Ding Ding

China Seas (1935)

     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.

The Girl from Missouri

Dullsville

Girl From Missouri (1934)

     I was excited to come across a pairing of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in a romantic flick as I enjoy Harlow and find Tone quite charming, but their pairing in The Girl From Missouri produced poor results on the acting front.

     Both Harlow as Eadie and Tone as Tom gave amateurish performances in this story of a girl who wants nothing more than to marry with her virtue in tact. Eadie leaves her home in Missouri because the booze joint her mother and step-father run will eventually create a fate similar, I suspect, to that which befell Barbara Stanwyck‘s character in Baby Face. In New York with her pal Kitty (Patsy Kelly), the two work as chorus girls while Eadie plots how to land a millionaire husband. Performing at the party of one such wealthy gent, Eadie wrangles a suspiciously easy proposal from host Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), who gives the girl ruby cufflinks to make into an engagement ring. Once she is out of the room, Cousins shoots himself over financial trouble, thus explaining his willingness to “marry” the dame. Eadie and Kitty rush into the room and are held there as police search for the missing rubies. Another millionaire, T.R. Page (Lionel Barrymore), who somehow knows the girls are innocent of the theft, sneaks the gems out of Eadie’s stocking and returns them to the girl later.

     The next day, Eadie is on the hunt for T.R.’s hand in marriage and follows him to Palm Beach after he gives her some dough on which to get by. There she runs into Tom, who happens to be T.R.’s son, but she does not know that at first, so she resist him. Despite everyone’s suspicions, Eadie is not a gold digger but merely someone who wants a proper chance in life for her children. When Tom locks her in his room one evening and tries to put the moves on her, she convinces him that she is on the level about being “clean”. They love each other but Tom has had sex on the brain more so than marriage. When he does come around to the idea, his father superficially agrees to the union but conspires with the district attorney and newspapermen to frame Eadie not only for stealing the rubies but for having an affair with a stranger.

     So the concept is Eadie is a girl who everyone thinks is a hussy but who really just wants to get married without compromising her virginity. Her forward approach with men and flashy looks suggest just what everyone thinks, but her words are the only thing insisting otherwise. She is supposed to be in love with Tom, but neither actor convinced me. Tom is first introduced as on the phone with a sweetheart whom he quickly hangs up on when he spots Eadie, so naturally we think he is a playboy. Indeed, all he really wants from the blonde is a good time until he finds out she is “pure”, which is apparently all it takes to be marriage material, never mind the social boundaries or her continually deteriorating reputation.

     There is a cute scene when Tom throws a drunk Eadie in the shower and gets in himself, hat suit and all, and tells her they are going to get married immediately. The moment seems romantic and sexy, but it is cut short before anything profound can be said. This might have been the result of Production Code restrictions. The Girl from Missouri was the subject of many re-shoots and re-editing because of the decency code that was now in full enforcement. The title too underwent many changes before landing on the bland Girl from Missouri. At first it was “Eadie is a Lady” based on a popular song at the time, the lyrics of which suggested the opposite of the title. The Hayes Office also felt the option of “100% Pure” suggested otherwise, and also nixed “Born to be Kissed” as too suggestive.

     Despite the code restrictions that perhaps dampened the quality of the story, the actors have no excuse for their performances. Harlow is a poor crier and both she and Tone had moments of lousy acting that is not present in most of their work. It just goes to show you cannot pair two good-looking people together and expect magic.

Source: Robert Osborne

Yellow Jack

Gasser

Yellow Jack (1938)

     Robert Montgomery the soldier is certainly not my favorite incarnation of what has proven to be my favorite classic Hollywood hunk of the moment. I prefer the tuxedo-clad woman-chaser, a hint of which is found in Yellow Jack making it an enjoyable Montgomery flick.

     Montgomery is Sgt. O’Hara, part of the American medical corps stationed in Cuba in 1900 at the close of the Spanish-American war. Troops are being retained on the island as military doctors search for the cause of Yellow Fever, which seems to find a new victim very day. Discovering a particularly curious incident involving one soldier becoming ill after spending 10 days sharing food, water and lodging with a dozen other soldiers who remain well, Maj. Walter Reed (Lewis Stone) begins to suspect an insect bite is to blame. Information from another doctor on the island has the major looking to a particular species of mosquito as the culprit, but must experiment on men to prove it.

     When no soldiers immediately volunteer to take on such a risky job, nurse Francis Blake (Virginia Bruce) decides to take advantage of O’Hara’s fond feelings for her by trying to pursuade him to volunteer while on a romantic outing. O’Hara is offended and angry with the girl, but when he discovers his men are morally inclined to becoming involved but too scared to make a move, he opts to lead the way. An interesting experiment set up has O’Hara in a safe position, but to prove he is not immune to the disease, he must expose himself to the infected mosquitoes. Francis is opposed to the risk, but the soldier goes through and battles with Yellow Fever.

    Montgomery uses a subtle Irish accent for his character that I particularly liked. It made him seem more every-man unlike the wealthy roles he regularly played. He did not seem like a cad in his pursuit of the nurse but humble and genuine. Among his fellow soldier characters was Buddy Ebsen as “Jellybeans” who lent the entirity of comic relief as a redneck goofball.

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