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.