Watched TRADE WINDS and CHINA SEAS this week, two movies using rear projection footage director Tay Garnett gathered on a round-the-world cruise in his boat. One way to make the trip pay for itself.
CHINA SEAS, watched after a meal of buffalo and marmalade sausages, in the company of Fiona and our guest Marvelous Mary. I saw this as a kid on TV, when I guess I was twelve or something. Watched it with my granny, and I *think* I had Halliwell’s Film Guide so I could look it up. It’s probably the earliest example I can recall of what became a weekend afternoon film viewing ritual, back when BBC2 could be relied upon to run an old movie on a Sunday afternoon. Robert Benchley’s drunken writer character seemed a lot funnier then, but I still like his last line ~
“These streets are in deplorable condition.”
Hilarious to see Clark Gable playing an Englishman, an ex-navy officer — this is the kind of casting that really should necessitate a swift (and not too tricky) rewrite. Ros Russell, as his old flame, lays on the accent real thick, so it’s bizarre to see them together, him with his Ohio tough guy persona, her with her phony cut glass. I guess her character was so dull she had to do something. Fortunately, Jean Harlow is authentic enough for everybody — we get more of her braying than we’d expect in an MGM show. We also get her falling out of her dress (and she has competition from the lustrous Lillian Bond).
Co-written by Jules Furthman (with seven other guys), this is pretty close to a rehash of his SHANGHAI EXPRESS in story, though of course Garnett’s robust style is a mile from Sternberg’s elegant filigree. Thinking about it, maybe Clive Brook would have played the lead if they’d made it a few years earlier. It might’ve been more credible, but it wouldn’t have been better. Wallace Beery has a grand role and a grand time — interesting how the film can make him loathsome and kind of admirable in alternating instants — it’s really kind of an amoral, man’s-man view of the world, where horrible people can be admired if they’re good at what they do.
Sadistic, too — an ankle-breaking is maybe more suggested than shown, but it’s wince-inducing nonetheless. Clark is tortured in a hideous hand-cranked metal boot (much talk about how he’ll never walk again, but he’s hopping about a scene later, quite chipper), and worst of all, a typhoon breaks loose a steamroller being conveyed to Singapore, which slides about the rain-slicked deck, graphically squashing “coolies.” Garnett recalls in his fine autobio that he refused to have anything to do with such a dangerous scene, but was assured that Cedric Gibbons was building a fake steamroller to replace the five ton original. He did, and his replacement weighed a mere two tons.
“I’m so glad this thing is three tons lighter than it could have been.”
Garnett continues with the long, fluid camera moves he enjoyed so much in HER MAN and PRESTIGE, only somebody at the studio sabotages them at every turn by cutting in inserts.
It’s one of those films where the pre-code spirit survives a little, and the MGM spirit (glamour, “class,” sentiment, sanctimony) is made palatable by an infusion of added weirdness — violence, exoticism, wit, a shipment of contraband ladyboys, Akim Tamiroff at the piano, Hattie McDaniel, Soo Yong as a Chinese snob (a welcome anti-stereotype), berserk plotting and nonsensical character reversals, and a happy ending that makes no sense but is accepted in the desperate spirit in which it’s trumped up out of nowhere.