Robert Benchley Steals a Movie in Five Minutes

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           China Seas is big-budget, all-star orientalist tosh with exciting action sequences, well-directed by Tay Garnett. I don’t know that it’s much worth seeing today unless you love Jean Harlow (which I do) or want to see how movie star like Gable can sleepwalk through a performance and still be appealing or are curious as to just how bad Rosalind Russell was at playing English aristocrats early in her career. What I most loved about the movie was the way Robert Benchley was deployed as a kind of punctuation mark in the narrative. He’s got no role really. He’s just brought in to punch up the tired narrative, lift the tenor and add a laugh, all of which he succeeds magnificently in doing. It’s a lesson to performers in how to steal a movie in five minutes and to screenwriters in how a movie is not all story and meaning and how in the words of the immortal Lubitsch, one shouldn’t ‘sneeze at a laugh’; though one is at all times willing to drink to it.

The clip below is the entirety of his role, a collection of all his scenes in the film in chronological order; bits, lines and gags; all totalling just over five minutes; and, aside from a few cracks between Jean Harlow and Hattie McDaniel, the only scenes from the movie one is tempted to see again.

José Arroyo

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