Gable is Alan Gaskell, an English (not that you can tell by his accent) captain of a tramp steamer that is sailing the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Singapore. On board is Dolly Portland (Harlow) a brassy (Jean Harlow was never not brassy) "entertainer" who has a job in Singapore. She is also an old girlfriend of Gaskell's and she's interested in starting things up again. Complicating this is Sybil Barclay, an English widow and aristocrat (Russell, in one of the Fake Brit roles she played early in her career). It turns out that Sybil was an old girlfriend of Alan's as well, and in fact the reason that Gaskell is in East Asia in the first place is that he left England after Sybil rejected him.
Jamesy McArdle (Beery), a roughneck admirer of Dolly's, is aboard to provide further romantic complication. But the real complication is the £250,000 of gold that Gaskell and his ship are carrying to Singapore.
- The Alcoholic: Robert Benchley provides comic relief as Charlie McCaleb, who is drunk throughout the movie and perpetually spouting nonsense.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: The pirates use a "Malay boot", a Real Life torture device with which they crush Gaskell's foot in an attempt to make him give up the gold. He holds out until he faints from the pain.
- Driven to Suicide: When he not only doesn't get the gold, but finds out that Dolly doesn't love him, Jamesy kills himself via an overdose of sedatives.
- Foreshadowing: The reference to how pirates on the China seas make themselves known to each other by matching up the halves of a torn £100 note. This lets Dolly find out what's going on when she goes into Jamesy's wallet and finds half of a note.
- Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: The Malay pirates don't speak English. So, while smiling cheerfully and acting like he's trying to talk to the Malay chief, Gaskell actually yells to Davids the location of the bombs that they will use to counterattack the pirates.
- Love Dodecahedron: There's Gaskell, Gaskell's two girlfriends, and Jamesy who would like to make Dolly his girl.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Falling in love again with Sybil makes Gaskell much nicer, and he stops yelling at his officers to straighten their uniforms and polish their buttons and such. The officers, in turn, are disturbed by this personality change.
- Right Behind Me: Rockwell, an earnest but green junior officer, puts on Gaskell's cap in Gaskell's cabin and is barking orders to a mirror, imitating Gaskell, when Gaskell strolls in behind him. Rockwell is much embarrassed.
- Ruthless Modern Pirates: Modern for 1935, anyway, and definitely ruthless, as McArdle and the Malay pirates he's smuggled onto the ship seize it in an attempt to steal the gold.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: Dolly wears these the whole movie.
- Sexy Soaked Shirt: How to make Jean Harlow's Sexy Backless Outfit even sexier? Soak her to the bone while she's wearing it? This happens when Dolly is caught outside as the ship is caught in a typhoon.
- Spiritual Successor: To Red Dust, a smash hit that also featured Clark Gable in an exotic Asian setting, torn between Jean Harlow as the earthy, sexually available love interest (in Red Dust, which was pre-Code, she's explicitly a prostitute) and a more refined, aristocratic girlfriend.
- Title Drop: Multiple references to sailing through the "China seas".