Friday, February 12, 2010

Red Dust (1932): Sex in the Tropics

Sex. It permeates almost every frame of the pre-Code classic Red Dust (1932), and why shouldn't it? It starred Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, both at their physical peak and professionally, well, this film shot them to superstardom. It was raw, it was wanton and, if audience attendance was any indicator, it was extremely entertaining. In the world of pre-Code Hollywood (the time before the Hollywood censors would banish any naughty behaviour onscreen), Red Dust fairly reeks of sex with nary a nude scene or onscreen intercourse. Who needed these things with Gable's virile masculinity and Harlow's open sensuality coming together with a charged electricity that crackles in front of the camera (and if rumour is correct, behind it as well).

Set on a rubber plantation in Indochina, Red Dust smells of rugged machismo, Gable and his cronies out in the middle of nowhere, cultivating raw rubber "so some old lady somewhere can take a hot water bottle to bed with her". Enter stage left, Harlow as Vantine, a fun loving harlot on the run from officials in Saigon, who shows plenty of leg, along with everything else. Just as she and Denny (Gable) are getting cosy, enter stage right, Gene Raymond (usually the partner to Ann Sothern in a series of lighthearted romps) and Mary Astor as Gary and Barbara "Babs" Willis, the plantation's new surveyor and his prim, proper and quite pulsating new wife. Gary is immediately stricken with malaria, giving Denny and Babs a chance to ignite a few sparks of their own. Vantine, not the kind of gal who takes a back seat quietly (not alone anyway), lashes out with wisecracks aplenty, making some of the snappiest dialogue this side of the Hays office.

Dialogue was one of the best ~and most brazen~ assets the film had going for it, second to its zesty stars. When Harlow's Vantine first encounters Gable's Denny and his male assistant, she playfully asks them, "What else do you do besides work? Do you play any games?". As her constant chatter irritates a grumpy Denny, he finally shouts, "Do you want me to slap you out of this room?", to which she retorts, "You and what man's army?", and of course this verbal sparring leads to eventual laughter and a seductive fade out. Harlow is ready for Gable. He manhandles her just the way she likes to be manhandled.

The film is not the typical fare produced by MGM at the time. The mega studio had no glamorous backdrop to present its stars and yet, it was immensely popular with the public. The film's director, Victor Fleming, was a "man's man" and a close friend to the macho Gable. Red Dust was the kind of film Fleming thrived on (he also directed Gable in 1939's Gone with the Wind). Gable's role as Denny was originally thought to be filled by silent film star John Gilbert, but studio politics and boss Louis B. Mayer nixed the idea and Gable came away famous.

The movie's tropical setting only adds to the heat already generated by its cast. As Barbara, Mary Astor is even more unwillingly libertine in her adulterous lust for Gable's Denny when one knows the background of the actress' torrid and infamous real life amours. The fireworks are in their scenes together as well. Early on when Astor slaps Gable hard for a verbal offense, he enjoys it, grinning that Gable grin from ear to ear. Then she can barely conceal her growing desire for him as she watches the strong, dark and commanding Denny hold her fair and weak husband, nursing him back to health from the fever. The comparison of the two is indeed notable to the tingly Astor. Then in the scene immediately following, Vantine happily and boldly watches Denny undress for bed, only to be told to go to her own, which she does in disappointment. These two ladies have it bad. The wise-cracking, off color dialogue continues when a disgruntled Harlow proclaims to the parrot, whose cage she is cleaning: "What you been eatin', cement?" The steamy shenanigans culminate in a carnal wrestling match between Denny and Vantine, which ends with our anti-hero being shot in the torso by a jealous Babs.

Jean Harlow was only 21 when Red Dust was released but her erotic, world wise persona is decades older. MGM slated their new cash cow couple into several popular money makers over the next five years. Harlow's last film before her untimely death in 1937 was Saratoga, again with Gable.


  1. she was so beautiful. an improbable combination of etherial & earthy.

  2. A wonderful review Rupert! MGM was very nervous about this movie coming on the heels of the Paul Bern tragedy-it was a Harlow triumph all the way-what a trouper she was considering her private life was a circus for part of the filming

  3. It is hard to believe Jean was only 21 when this came out because she exudes more sexuality on the screen than most actress now...and they show everything.

    Isn't it rather ironic that Mary played such good girl (or trying to be good girl) parts when her personal life was quite different!

  4. Rupert, a great post on a film I didn't see until recently and enjoyed immensely. The 1953 remake ("Mogambo," directed by John Ford and also starring Gable) looks pretty pallid next to this. Harlow was so saucy, and the sexual banter between her and Gable went beyond innuendo. I like Astor too and was pleased at how good she was in this role, subtly conveying a lot of sexual confusion that Grace Kelly's shrill performance in the remake didn't. I was especially impressed by her scenes with Harlow after they come to a sort of truce. And you're sure right about Gable being so convincing as a self-confident macho man. Still, it's Harlow--whose earthy, ininhibited sexuality made her perfect for the part--who makes this film.

  5. Just after reading your post last night I had to watch "Red Dust". I had not seen it in quite a while and it's always a pleasure to watch.

  6. I'm another fan of this film - I've seen in many times. So many times, in fact, that it's not much fun watching it with me - I love to recite the one-liners along with Clark and Jean!

    I agree with Mr. Finch above - the remake is a limp and lame pale imitation of the original. It's hard to believe somebody could out-sex Ava, but Jean does it in spades!

  7. ah fantastic review. Red Dust is a favorite of mine. Love gable and harlow. I am going to get my copy out and watch it right now. Superb movie. I adore harlow in red headed woman also. sex appeal big time.

  8. It's interesting that many make such a big deal over Harlow in this film. I thought that the scenes between Gable and Astor were very sexy.

  9. After hastily listing off Harlow's 1931 work -and how they were mostly humorless 'moll' roles- Mick LaSalle, in his "Complicated Women," comes to exactly why, with the two "Red" movies, 1932 was Harlow's miracle year:

    "With Garbo, sex was a sacrament. With Shearer, sex was emancipation. With Crawford, sex was a commodity. With Harlow, sex was just sex, and that's refreshing...

    ...She was learning her craft. She was also, though no one knew it, suffering from miscasting. Harlow was not about the dark side of sex. She was a happy pagan with a face unmarred by any jadedness or dissipation."

    It's from this point on, in the films that allow Harlow both a brazen adventurousness and a grounded, warm humanity that she shines the most. And her health would give out long before any perceived dimming of her star.

    Harlow was the first 1930s female MGM star I became fascinated with, back in my 20s, and of course, she began my soon-ravenous appetite for all the rest: Garbo, Shearer, Crawford, Dressler, Davies, MacDonald, Loy, Hayes.... While I often chime in with that group that says 'stars were bigger then,' it doesn't hurt to remember that they didn't have the competition of television also.



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