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.

China Seas

13 Responses to “Spangles”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I thought CHINA SEAS was truly fantastic when I was a little boy…but it was on TV right after THE MUPPETS, so I was already in a good mood!

  2. China Seas is at heart yet another remake of Red Dust (my favorite version of which is Congo Maisie)

    So glad you put a pic of Hattie McDaniels at the top as the finale of China Seas features one of my favorite Hattie moments. Bidding aideu to Harlow she quips “Well goodbye Miss Doll. Sure hope they don’t hang ya!” — clearly indicating in her delivery that she hopes they do.

  3. As for that Robert Benchley line … didn’t Charles Winneger have a similar line at the end of NOTHING SACRED?

    (pause for Googling)

    Yes. Tipsy doctor, Dr. Enoch Downer — sounds like something out of William S. Burroughs! — wakes on a cruise line, where he is with the hero and heroine, and exclaims “Run for your lives! Run for your lives! The hotel is flooded!”

  4. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”

    Hattie’s every moment is a pleasure in this film. Perhaps a slightly guilty pleasure, but that’s the best kind.

  5. F Watson Says:

    *Hattie, making off with one of Harlow’s dresses * “I’ll have to let it out a mite.”

  6. …and wear it as a legging.

  7. or an accessory… definately one of the highlights of the film plus Jean’s lack of undergarments

  8. Tay Garnett on Harlow: “Her morals were really no worse than those of any staggeringly beautiful girl in a large metropolitan city.”

  9. david wingrove Says:

    David E – many thanks for the update on Bertolucci! I have often wondered what that man was up to, ever since he ruined one of my favourite novels (Gilbert Adair’s sublime THE HOLY INNOCENTS) in his anaemic film version, THE DREAMERS.

    Love Ingmar Bergman’s theory that LAST TANGO is actually about a gay relationship. Is that one way to make sense of the most tedious and idiotic piece of twaddle ever perpetrated by a ‘major’ film director?

    An ex of mine worked in the costume department at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and was convinced that Bergman had a crush on him. Of course, that says far more about my ex and his profound narcissism than it does about the late great Ingmar.

  10. Glad to have BB back also. And may I say I’d love to see him work with Morricone again. Not to mention Storaro.

    I didn’t find Last Tango dull. But I do find it horribly sexist.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    I might find LAST TANGO sexist, except there are no recognisable human beings in it anyway!

  12. I think Marlon’s recognizably Marlon — I imagine that’s a lot of what he was like. Whether the result is human may depend on where you draw the evolutionary line…

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