Tuesday, April 7, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'China Seas'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation….

To look at the list of actors in “China Seas” (1935), you might suspect that the MGM casting director merely stuck his head into the studio commissary and ordered everyone who happened to be there at that very moment to put down their bowls of L.B. Mayer’s mother’s chicken soup and follow him to Stage 19. And what followers: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell, Lewis Stone, Robert Benchley....

From its title you won’t be shocked to learn that “China Seas” is about a voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore. You might be a mite surprised to learn that the skipper is Clark Gable -- not that he’s not up to the job, but after all, he did seem to have some, um, issues with authority in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and now, wonder of wonders, he’s the big cheese himself. It might have been interesting to find Charles Laughton skulking aboard this ship and plotting some sort of revenge, but apparently Laughton was lunching at the Paramount commissary that day.

Even without Laughton’s presence, the film’s voyage is a stormy one. Gable has to put up with an “entertainer” from his past, played by Harlow, while falling for Rosalind Russell, who plays the widow of an old friend. For some reason, the Connecticut-born Russell is cast as a British woman, and her accent is so plummy that it's a wonder she isn't stalked by Little Jack Horner.

But the storms on this ship aren’t just emotional: The plot also includes a typhoon and an attempted takeover by Malay pirates. (I suppose they could have worked in an invasion of locusts, but MGM was probably hoarding all the insects for its upcoming production of “The Good Earth.”)

As I watched “China Seas” (which I’d seen once before, many years ago on TV), it occurred to me that it’s the best Howard Hawks film ever made by someone who wasn’t Howard Hawks – in this case, Tay Garnett, hardly a household name, though film buffs rightly remember him for the original American film version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and for “One-Way Passage.”

Although Hawks’ name isn’t on the movie, and although I have no reason to believe he was associated with it, there are a few tropes or motifs (or whatever pretentious term you want to use) that are typical of him: the scrappy relationship between the male lead and the “entertainer” (think Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings”); the coward who wants to redeem himself (the type of role Richard Barthelmess pretty much owned, though this time it’s Lewis Stone, a few years before he became Judge Hardy); the young pup trying to learn from the master (played here by William Henry and played years later, in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” by Ricky Nelson).

Then again, a closer look at the credits perhaps reveals the real reason for the similarities to Hawks’ movies: Jules Furthman, who co-wrote the screenplay, also worked on “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Rio Bravo.” (And “Rio Bravo,” come to think of it, also features Dean Martin in a role that’s similar to the Barthelmess-Stone parts, though unlike his predecessors, Martin’s character gets to survive to the final fadeout.)

Putting auteurist speculations aside (often a very good idea), you have to admit that in “China Seas” the dull moments are few and far between, if they exist at all. And aside from the melodrama, there are such delights as C. Aubrey Smith (for once cast not as a stuffed shirt or blowhard but as a fairly witty guy) and the always welcome Benchley, who, as a drunken novelist, provides my favorite moment: ”See that chess game over there? When I was four years old, I played 10 people all at once. Blindfolded. Lost every game."

No comments: