Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) is a boat captain with a reputation for hard drinking, but that all changes during a voyage in which he finds himself on a boat with Sybil (Rosalind Russell), a former lover who is now a refined, high society woman. Well, at least he wants to change for her. But on board the same ship is China Doll (Jean Harlow), another one of Alan’s former lovers who still adores him. China is much less refined than Sybil and is more like the hard-drinking and fun-loving Alan.
When China sees Alan with Sybil, she becomes incredibly jealous. Things get even worse when China finds out Alan and Sybil plan to get married as soon as possible. She spends the night drinking with her friend Jamesy (Wallace Beery), and accidentally finds out Jamesy is working with some pirates to steal a large amount of gold that is being transported on the ship. Once Jamesy finds out that China knows what’s going on, he intimidates her into helping him. China tries to warn Alan, but he’s drunk and says hurtful things to her. Out of anger, she steals his key to the ship’s arsenal so the pirates will be able to hijack the ship.
China Seas is one of those movies that’s a bit formulaic, but I don’t mind that because I like the formula. It reminds me a lot of Red Dust in the sense that they’re both about a man (Gable) who has an unrefined woman (Harlow) in love with him, but he falls in love with a more upper class woman (Mary Astor in Red Dust and Rosalind Russell in China Seas), only China Seas takes place on a boat instead of a plantation. But unlike Red Dust, China Seas was made while production codes were being enforced, so it lacks a lot of the incredible steam and innuendo that Red Dust had. But even with the production codes, Gable and Harlow are still a first-rate team and the movie itself is a nice mix of romance and adventure with very high production values. It might not be one of the absolute best movies either Harlow or Gable made, but it’s still really entertaining.