Of the six films in which Jean Harlow and Clark Gable appeared together, China Seas is one of the pair’s better outings. By this time in her life, at the tender age of 24, Harlow had come into her own as an actress, demonstrating the combination of sharp-edged femininity and self-assurance that marked the final roles of her too-short career. For his part, Gable was coming off an Oscar win for Best Actor (for the previous year’s It Happened One Night), and the award had brought Gable immense popularity as well as more power at his home studio, MGM. The pair had previously made three films together–1931’s The Secret Six, 1932’s Red Dust, and 1933’s Hold Your Man–and had developed an easy rapport both on and off the screen. By the time China Seas began filming in 1935, they were old pros at playing combative lovers.
China Seas puts bickering former paramours Gable and Harlow in the middle of a love triangle on the other side of the world. Alan Gaskell (Gable) is captain of a ship traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai with troubles aplenty on board. He has a store of gold below decks; a ferocious storm on the horizon; a former lover, Dolly “China Doll” Portland (Harlow), in his cabin; an English widow and former objet d’amour, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), among his passengers; and, unbeknownst to Gaskell, a duplicitous old friend, Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery), who is plotting to steal the gold. When Gaskell renews his relationship with Sybil and decides to marry her and return to England, China Doll jealously aligns herself with Jamesy, assisting in his plot by stealing the key to the ship’s arsenal so his pirate cohorts can arm themselves and take the ship. With the help of his crew, Gaskell is able to turn the tables on Jamesy and comes to realize that his adventurous and dangerous life on the seas is exactly where he belongs.
The film presents two very different women. Harlow’s character, China Doll, is pure vamp, oozing sex with every step and sideways glance. When Gaskell discover her in his bathroom and asks what she’s doing aboard his ship, she blithely replies, “Nothing alarming. Just showering dewdrops off the body beautiful.” That she thinks nothing of stripping down and jumping in Gaskell’s shower indicates the scope of their relationship–they were previously lovers, and judging by Gaskell’s anger at her unexpected appearance, he has attempted (and obviously failed) to cut her loose. China Doll calls herself “the gal that drives men mad,” and it’s true: from Gaskell to Jamesy (who later claims that loving China Doll was “the only decent thing I ever did in my life, and even that was a mistake”), she leaves a series of frustrated male libidos in her wake.
On the other hand, China Doll’s polar opposite, Russell’s high-class Sybil Barclay, is refinement personified. She views China Doll, a woman of poor breeding and “ill repute,” as nothing short of vulgar, and Sybil manages to convey her utter disdain of the woman while maintaining the regal bearing of the aristocrat. Still, Sybil’s measured personality does not prevent her from making incisive observations about her romantic rival when pushed too far by China Doll’s barely-concealed contempt. During an ill-fated dinner one evening, as China Doll becomes increasingly drunk and belligerent, Sybil finally defines (and implicitly judges) the motivation behind the woman’s uncouth behavior: “You must be very fond of him, to humiliate yourself like this.” It’s interesting to note the difference between the women as exemplified by this scene. While China Doll lets her emotions get away from her and spirals into self-destructiveness, Sybil contains her feelings behind a veneer of civility–it’s passion versus propriety, lust versus genteel sentiment.
In this way, the movie sets up the archetypal (and stereotypical) Madonna-whore complex, with each woman respectively being shunted into the role of “good girl” and “wicked woman.” In his interactions with China Doll, Gaskell is rough and animalistic, exuding wild, untamed lust; she responds in kind, seemingly welcoming the captain’s brutality, at least until it turns to outright rejection. Gaskell’s relationship with Sybil, by contrast, is almost entirely devoid of eroticism; the well-bred Englishwoman is a figure of virtue, one Gaskell intends to marry instead of ravish, and thus is not subject to the same unbridled passion that he shares (however unwillingly) with China Doll.
Gable’s relationship with these two women is like some kind of weird, wonderful Freudian wet dream. He spends the entire film torn between his feelings for each woman, each of whom represents a particular facet of his own personality. China Doll is indicative of the freedom he desires (and has found in the sea): as a woman of “loose morals” (so to speak), she does not require commitment to be enjoyed for what she can offer. As Gaskell tells her, “Now wait a minute, Dolly! You and I are friends. We’ve had a lot of fun together, and, as far as I’m concerned, you’re number-one girl in the archipelago, but I don’t remember making any vows to you, nor do I recall your taking any.” In the same breath, he both belittles her (by pointing out her “popularity” among the men of the area) and indicates approval of their no-strings-attached “friendship.”
Sybil, on the other hand, represents a level of respectability that Gaskell craves–a return to “normalcy” away from pirates and stormy weather and the daily risks of captaining a crew in such a dangerous part of the world. Their connection goes deep into their shared past, as they had loved one another years ago, but had forsaken those feelings out of respect for Sybil’s husband (who dies before the movie begins). Had Gaskell remained in England and forged a life that was not fraught with strife and danger, then settling down with a now-free Sybil would have been the logical choice. In the end, though, Gaskell lets her go, forgoing the promise of civilization in favor of a woman who is much like himself–a rebel bucking the norm.
Harlow and Gable are an indelible film pair–it’s hard to think about a Harlow film without Gable coming to mind. That shouldn’t be too surprising, all things considered–of the almost two dozen feature-length movies for which Harlow received on-screen credit, Gable ultimately co-starred in 25% of them. Gable and Harlow would go on to make two more films together after China Seas: Wife vs. Secretary in 1936, and Saratoga a year later. The latter film was Harlow’s final project before her untimely death, and was eventually completed using a stand-in and a voice double. That Saratoga was completed at all is a testament to both the actress’ popularity and the potency of the Gable-Harlow pairing–in the end, no one could resist the idea of seeing these two brilliant and beautiful actors play off one another just one more time.