I love Warner Brothers Archive Collection! Thanks to them, the majority of Clark’s films are available to us fans for our home viewing pleasure. And FINALLY they have just released a few of the missing titles: After Office Hours (1935) with Constance Bennett! Buy it here. Hell Divers (1931) with Wallace Beery! Buy it here. Parnell (1937) with Myrna Loy! Buy it here.
In a Nutshell: Hell Divers (1931)
Directed by: Richard Boleslawski
Co-stars: Wallace Beery, Dorothy Jordan, Marie Prevost
Synopsis: Gable is Steve Nelson, a budding Navy pilot constantly at odds with Windy Riker (Beery), who has been in the service for years and has no patience for newbies. When Windy stages a farce that makes Steve’s girl Ann (Jordan) leave him, their relationship becomes hostile and costs one of them their position in the Navy.
Best Gable Quote: “Say, there isn’t another girl in the world for me but you.. Never has been and never will be.”
Fun Fact: Gable was in the midst of a heated affair with Joan Crawford at the time of filming. His next project was supposed to be the Crawford vehicle Letty Lynton, but studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted Crawford and Gable as far apart as possible to avoid further scandal. He cast Robert Montgomery in the role with Crawford and sent Gable to make Hell Divers.
My Verdict: This film got rave reviews at the time, because of the exciting air footage, which is, naturally, less exciting to us modern day audiences. The film feels like it was thrown together with a formula for me—Clark Gable throws punches, is a hero, wins the girl. THE END! I suppose, though, it is packaged and marketed as more of a man’s man film, so clearly I am not the audience! But it does have some great dramatic scenes in which Clark can show his budding dramatic promise.
In a Nutshell: Polly of the Circus (1932)
Directed by: Alfred Santell
Co-stars: Marion Davies, C. Aubrey Smith
Synopsis: Gable is Father John Hartley, a small town minister living a peaceful life. The circus
comes to town, with its star attraction: trapeze artist Polly Fisher (Davies). She is
enraged when her risqué posters are covered up and confronts Hartley, who admits that her posters aren’t appropriate in the town. The crowd mocks her at her next performance, causing her to fall. She recuperates at Hartley’s house at his insistence since he feels guilty. Soon they fall in love. But his parish and bishop uncle (Smith) don’t support him marrying a circus girl. When the church turns its back on him, the newlyweds struggle as he refuses to let her return to the circus and she doesn’t understand his devotion to the church.
Best Gable Quote: “Oh yes, I quite approve of marriage. I might even go so far as to get married myself some day.” (all his quotes in this film are so sugary they’ll give you a toothache)
Fun Fact: Gable and Davies had a brief fling during filming, despite Davies’ long time relationship with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (whose Cosmopolitan Pictures produced the film). Although the affair didn’t last, their friendship did and they remained friends for years.
My Verdict: Both Clark and Marion are out of their element in this one. She is a far better comedic actress than a dramatic one, and Clark is wasted as the saintly preacher. Not that I feel like he should have been pigeon-holed as the gangster all the time, but it seems silly to take this lusty newcomer who audiences fell in love with because he smacked around Barbara Stanwyck and Norma Shearer, and then put him in a white collar. The story is old, old, old—Career vs. Love. Girl leaves Boy so he can keep his career. Boy thinks it’s because she doesn’t love him and is heartbroken. Boy finds out truth and tries to win her back.The film is sweet at its core though.
From March 1932:
The height of swank was reached the other day when a Hollywood florist started delivering flowers in a Rolls Royce. At the other extreme, Clark Gable and Wallace Beery, two of the town’s brightest celebrities, drive Fords.
Clark Gable, by the way, never spends a weekend in Hollywood if he can help it. His latest hobby is jack-rabbit hunting, which is pursued far up in the hills at night, with an old car and a powerful searchlight.
It’s interesting to see what a few short years in Hollywood will do to one’s stardom!
Clark Gable burst on the scene in 1931 and literally went from a nobody to a somebody over night. His path can be traced through MGM’s magazine advertisements….
In 1931, he was a newbie and certainly didn’t merit a picture in the stars at the top or even listed in bold among names such as Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer (all of which would be Clark’s leading ladies!). No, Clark is listed in the small print among names such as Dorothy Appleby, Gus Shy and Edwina Booth. But also among the names are the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard and Robert Young. A Free Soul, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise and The Secret Six are all mentioned, but not with Clark’s name attached–he wasn’t a name every one knew…yet.
Just one year later, Clark has been bumped way up in the order! Not only does he merit a picture right next to the grand dame Greta Garbo and among the likes of John Barrymore, Helen Hayes and Buster Keaton, but he also merits a second picture with Norma Shearer for Strange Interlude. She is, of course, billed first but still, that’s quite a bump in one year’s time! Hell Divers, Possessed and The White Sister are also listed, although Helen Hayes is the only star mentioned in the latter.
By the time MGM’s Leo the Lion was celebrating his tenth birthday in 1933, Clark was cemented as one of the top elite of MGM’s sparkling roster of stars. There he is, pictured second below Queen of the Lot Norma Shearer, among the likes of Jean Harlow, Jimmy Durante and Wallace Beery. His films Night Flight and Dancing Lady are singled out as some of MGM’s “happiest hits” on the way to viewers.
Not too shabby for a boy from Cadiz, Ohio…
China Seas is a real MGM high octane thriller, set on the high seas, with… Romance! Pirates! Deception! A torrid love triangle!
Gable is Alan Gaskell, a roguish captain of a ship that sails between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It’s established pretty early on that he’s been having some adult fun ashore with a Shanghai harlot, Dolly, who goes by the name China Doll (Harlow). So imagine his surprise when setting his ship off to sea that she is on board as a passenger! She confesses she is madly in love with him; he is weary of her and rejects her advances. She is green with jealousy upon the arrival onboard of Sybil,(Russell), a distinguished former paramour of Alan’s from England. Lily sets out to win her man back but ends up embarrassing herself in front of him and the lady by telling of Alan’s seedy behavior. Rejected by him once again, she decides to get even and is persuaded to be in cahoots with Jamesy (Beery), a crooked first mate who is collaborating with Malaysian pirates to loot the ship. She steals the keys to the armory cabinet from Alan’s stateroom and passes them on to Jamesy. Pirates overrun the ship and torture Alan so he’ll reveal where the gold is hidden. When Alan won’t give in, they assume there is no gold and give up, and a courageous officer blows them up with grenades. Alan, aware that the pirates were helped from someone on the inside, interrogates Jamesy and China Doll. They confess and Jamesy commits suicide. Once they dock in Hong Kong, China Doll is led off the boat by the authorities to be tried for conspiracy. Gable admits his love for her and tells her he’ll stand by her during the trial and marry her.
Perhaps Gable was able to give such a compelling performance as a troubled sea captain because he himself was quite troubled during the film’s production. Loretta Young contacted him at this time and informed him of her pregnancy (that had to have been a stressful day…), Louis B. Mayer was breathing down Gable’s neck about his affairs with Elizabeth Allan and others, and Gable and Beery were not getting along.
Production had to be shut down and the men had to be separated one afternoon when Beery slapped Gable across the face instead of pretending to do it like in the script.
Gable does have some of his best lines to Harlow’s China Doll:
“Someday you’ll say something nice and never forgive yourself.”
“Let’s quit good friends instead of like a couple of cab drivers after a drunken brawl.”
“You’ve always got a good reason for anything you do. In fact I don’t know anybody who can think of more remarkable good reasons than you can on short notice!”
I must say this is not one of my favorite Jean Harlow movies. After years of her hair being bleached by harsh chemicals and curled and dried under high heat, her hair was completely fried and had started falling out. It was cut very short so it could grow back in healthier. The result is that Jean was fitted with rather-ridiculous, cotton-candy-looking fluffy platinum wigs for this film. They look rather silly, especially when her hair doesn’t move in the wind! During the storm scene, they couldn’t use a wig on her because it would look so fake wet, so for a few seconds you can see Jean’s soaking wet real hair. Also her eyebrows were at their pinnacle of ridiculousness–thin and in a complete semi-circle over her eyes. I much, much prefer the natural-looking Jean in Wife vs. Secretary.
She also doesn’t have very much to do other than pout about losing Gable to Russell. But her scenes with Beery are full of snap and crackle. She’s at her best playing a wisecrack!
And in the end, of course, despite everything she has done, Gable loves Harlow and forgives her…even for her bad wigs…
China Seas is available on DVD as part of The Clark Gable Signature Collection.