Directed by: Victor Fleming
With: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, Gene Raymond
The majority could know the plot of Red Dust although they’ve never seen it. That’s because this Pre-Code drama set in Indochina has been remaked twenty-two years later by director John Ford with the new name of Mogambo (1953), always starring Gable as the leading man and Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly to replace Harlow and Astor. But of course times changed, and by 1953 pre-Codes were just a memory as well as the fake rubber plantation in the MGM’s backlot. But forget the remake for a moment to analyze this saucy picture full of allusions and with a hot love triangle, that can reveal a lot about the society back then and it’s universally considered one of the best pieces of cinematography during the era before the Production Code (indeed, Red Dust has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry).
Red Dust is the second of the six films Gable and Harlow did together during the decade. Preceded by the successful The Secret Six (1931), this movie wanted to promote the potentiality of the pair and was directed by Victor Fleming, a close friend of Gable who played a fundamental role in his career, directing box-office hits like Test Pilot (1938) and Gone with the wind (1939). The plot is based on a 1928 play written by Wilson Collison, and was adapted for the screen by John Mahin. The film was produced by an uncredited Irving Thalberg and the cinematography was by Harold Rosson, who became Jean Harlow’s husband the following year. The two socialized on the set and Rosson helped her to deal with the death of her husband, producer Paul Bern. The film, produced by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, premiered on October 22, 1932.
The manager of a rubber plantation in French Indochina, Dennis Carson (Gable), has to face the monsoon season. His routine in interrupted by a young and pretty prostitute named Vantine (Harlow), coming from Saigon for unclear reasons, who settles comfortably in the plantation and spend their days wisecracking and pursuing Dennis.
Their first approach isn’t friendly, but the informality of Vantine soon catches Dennis’eye and they start a sort of relationship, so casual that they call each other with the made-up names of “Fred” and “Lily”.
Things change, though, when the young engineer Gary Willis (Raymond) and his young wife Barbara (Astor) come to the plantation. Dennis is immediately attracted by the ladylike beauty of Barbara, and takes advantage of the temporary illness of her husband to get close to her. Vantine isn’t glad of his change of mind and does everything to dissuade Barbara, but Dennis tells her to stay out of the way.
When Gary gets better, Dennis sends him on a surveying trip and spends all the time seducing Barbara until he succeeds. He convinces her to leave Gary and stay with him in the plantation, ignoring the continuous provocations of Vantine, like having a bath outside.
But, after a chat with Gary, Dennis realizes how much his employee loves his wife and have doubts if his affair with Barbara is worth enough to break a marriage. He also understands Barbara couldn’t live in the plantation for much time, lacking the ability to adapt Vantine has.
He goes back to Vantine and, when Barbara asks him explainations, he tells her he has never loved her and was all a “joke”. Angry and humiliated, she shoots him on his arm with a gun. When Gary bursts into the room, Vantine says Barbara has shot Dennis to defend herself from his avances, and suggests the couple to leave the plantation as soon as possible. They do.
The ends sees Dennis and Vantine reconciled and in love. By the way, gorgonzola or roquefort? (If you’ve seen it you know what I mean)
The first impression you have of Red Dust is: pre-Code. Despite the fact I’m not an expert of the genre, this is the most pre-Code-ish movie I’ve ever seen. First of all, Vantine is someone the Hays Code would have banned; she has such a sultry behavior, with the bath, the look, and, of course, the profession. Jean is good and can handle fast dialogues with natural nonchalance, but sometimes her low-class manners prevent her character from having the charm Ava Gardner’s has. However, her platinum mane is like a beacon in the dark plantation. We have Clark Gable still in his primitive days, as a rought and disinterested ladies’ man, and he fit the role. Moustacheless, he hasn’t acquired the down-to-earth charm that marked all his following performances, so sometimes he lacks of something, but he’s always Clark Gable and Clark Gable would never let you down. He had such a coherence in his actions on screen that always makes him believable. The couple Gable-Harlow works perfectly. Mary Astor did well; not what I would say a swell job, but she didn’t fall into the pretence of Grace Kelly in Mogambo. Also, she has to honor to give Clark the usual slap and to share a kiss with him. Astor talked about the filming of the kiss in her autobiography A Life on Film; check out Second Sight Cinema for more.
There are aspects of Red Dust I liked less. The portrayal of the Asian servants it’s incredibly silly and in some situations Gable’s character’s unbearable for a modern audience. Then, the plot is definitely old-fashioned. Red Dust is an excellent Pre-Code, but this doesn’t imply it is an excellent picture; thanks to its stellar cast, though, it still have a certain value. You can watch the trailer here.
This review is part of the Colours blogathon hosted by Things All Sorts.