Her eminence Jean Harlow was born this day 105 years ago in Kansas City, Missouri. In her illustrious honor, we serve this week’s Old Fashioned a day early. Cheers.
As Tay Garnett’s “China Seas” opens, hard-charging Capt. Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) tends to various matters of escalating importance as his steamship gets set to depart port for a jaunt to Shanghai. Passengers must be sucked up to; crew members must be issued orders; cargo must be accounted for; pirates trying to sneak aboard in disguise must be revealed; and, of course, Gaskell must sober up after an on-land bender. It all comes fast and furious, but none of it is as fast or as furious as when he enters his quarters and is confronted by the girl he got close to while in port.
That's China Doll (Jean Harlow). She emerges in his quarters to advise in no uncertain terms that she will be making the voyage to Shanghai with him. Oh no you won’t, he basically says. Oh yes I will, she basically retorts. Back and forth they go in of those Golden Age verbal sparring sessions that automatically justifies any narrative contrivance to make it happen. And in the midst of this sonically-glorious disagreement, which has been filmed primarily in two shots of our principal stars, Garnett cuts to a close-up of Ms. Harlow, one of those ravishing soft-lit frames so sumptuously composed you half-suspect he set it up over the course of several hours with just her, not Gable, on set in order to ensure its precision. Forget the typhoon special effects that come later; the most persuasive shot in cinema is a Movie Star in close-up, and Jean Harlow was more Movie Star than most.
Of course, you can’t just have her tag along and that’s that. No, you need some drama, you need some intrigue, and so as they set sail, English aristocrat Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) strides up the gangplank, which causes Gaskell to do a double take and China Doll’s shoulders to slump. It seems Gaskell was once in love with Sybil, and she with him, only she wound up married to someone else, and that someone else has now passed away and here she is. The old flame flickers in Gaskell’s and Sybil’s eyes while China Doll’s eyes burn with jealousy. She acts out by cozying up to Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery), a passenger and cohort of Gaskell’s, who, it turns out, is in league with pirates. Round and round they’ll go, where it stops...well, you know, but gettin' there is still just the tops.
Harlow has some improbably delicious insults in this one (“When I want you to sound off, Golden Bells, I’ll pull your rope”) and her flirtations with Beery’s character suggest another movie altogether, one where China Doll skulks about the streets of Shanghai with the riff-raff, making like a heaven-sent outlaw. But it’s Gaskell she loves, naturally, and in spite of the pugnacious attitude she cops in the face of having her one true love possibly taken away, she occasionally lets moments of genuine hurt and insecurity seep out.
Harlow could do that, you know. She was rarely a subtle actress, though she had it in her, and was still learning the craft before she tragically, terribly perished and may have pushed it into other places. But she had an evocative way of unleashing a torrent of indignant insults and then stopping on a dime, assuming a put upon look, dropping her voice to a near whisper, and letting an insecure admittance peep out. Even better is when she goes to great lengths to get the best of Russell’s Sybil, only to have it turned right back against her, and then practically sinks into herself, ashamed, for sure, but also knowing that she can’t quite help it.
There is a moment when China Doll uncovers Jamesy’s ruse with the pirates and goes to warn Gaskell. She could simply declare the dangerous situation the second she enters the room, but doesn’t. Instead she keeps trying to tell him, only to have him thwart her, and finally she keeps it to herself, content, apparently, to put them all in harm’s way. In another movie, or with another actress, that would have been a classic Idiot Plot moment. In the hands of Jean Harlow, however, it becomes something else; she’s not an Idiot, she’s an Insecure Renegade. “I’ll show you,” she’s communicating, and she does, damn the consequences.
And while the first time I watched “China Seas” left me indifferent to the pirate takeover of the ship and the typhoon at sea, a re-watch crystallized their purpose, which goes beyond simply rounding out a romance with derring-do. Because the derring-do is what Gaskell digs so much, and it is in China Doll, not Sybil, that he sees that same sort of bravado, even when she’s putting them all at risk. She lies to convey that she loves him, and it’s the truth.