#245) Red Dust (1932)
OR “Harlow If Ya Hear Me”
Directed by Victor Fleming
Written by John Mahin. Based on the play by Wilson Collison.
Class of 2006
The Plot: Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) runs a rubber plantation in French-Indochina. A cargo ship brings in stowaway prostitute Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow), and sparks immediately start flying between her and Dennis. Shortly afterwards, engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives at the plantation, alongside his wife Barbara (Mary Astor). Dennis is also drawn to Barbara, and he starts to seduce her, much to Vantine’s envy and Gary’s obliviousness. A sudden monsoon forces them all to stay in close quarters, where tempers, and passions, flare.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “well-remembered humor, star chemistry and atmosphere” while singling out director Victor Fleming. They also use such exciting adjectives as “steamy”, “virile” and “saucy”. Someone had fun writing this entry.
But Does It Really?: “Red Dust” is not a perfect movie by any stretch, but there’s enough star power on display to hold your interest. Gable and Harlow are irresistible together, and while this isn’t Harlow’s only film on the list, it’s the only one that showcases her iconic persona. “Red Dust” is quite archaic in its production value and attitude towards the sexes, but if you’re willing to forgive that, there are definitely some redeeming qualities. A pass for NFR inclusion from me.
Everybody Gets One: Gene Raymond’s character may be a total cipher, but the man himself was anything but. In addition to being an actor, composer, and WWII pilot, Raymond was married to legendary singer Jeanette MacDonald. Their 28-year marriage was arranged by Louis B. Mayer for two reasons: to prevent MacDonald from marrying long-time co-star Nelson Eddy, and to hide Raymond’s bisexuality from the press.
Wow, That’s Dated: Chinese actor Willie Fung plays Hoy, the extremely stereotypical coolie/comic relief. It’s very uncomfortable. On top of that is the very dated gender politics between Gable and Harlow (complete with butt-patting), and a character named “Captain Limey”.
Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “Red Dust”. MGM’s Best Picture nominee that year was “Smilin’ Through”, a more prestigious romantic film with such Oscar bait as Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Leslie Howard.
- Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room right now: During filming, Jean Harlow’s newlywed husband (producer Paul Bern) committed suicide. Louis B. Mayer tried to get Harlow replaced on “Red Dust”, but public sympathy was on her side, and she returned to the film 10 days later. Any sign of Harlow’s personal trauma does not seep through her performance.
- Victor Fleming directed over 40 movies in his career, but he is best remembered for the one-two punch of helming “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind”.
- Does anyone know what the original play was like? It’s probably dated as hell, but it seems like a fun idea.
- Sure Gable was handsome, but it took him a while to grow into those ears.
- Everyone in this movie pronounces the city of Saigon as “Say-gon”. Was that an acceptable alternative? Or did no one bother to look it up?
- Harlow definitely has that indefinable star quality. She’s everything the role requires, plus her own alluring, funny persona. I find myself in the odd position of being attracted to a woman who’s been dead for over 80 years.
- “Well for the love of mud!” said Jean Harlow.
- Most movies pan to blowing curtains during a love scene, “Red Dust” pans to an excitable parrot.
- No one says the word “prostitute”, but this movie is not subtle with the implications. At one point Dennis gives Vantine money! Y’all better get this out of your system before the Hays Code shows up.
- Wow, Fung’s getting a lot of screentime. Did test audiences demand more coolies?
- Gable takes his shirt off but no one talks about this movie tanking undershirt sales. What the hell, Hollywood lore?
- And now we get to the infamous Jean Harlow bathing scene. It’s quaint by today’s standards, but not without its provocative elements. The story goes that during one take Harlow stood up from the barrel au naturel and announced “this one’s for the boys in the lab!” If that footage still exists it would be added to the NFR in a heartbeat.
- A very talky film with no soundtrack and constant rainfall? Are they trying to put me to sleep?
- Due to some re-looping rear projection, the clouds behind Gable and Raymond jump several feet instantly. Is that what causes monsoons?
- Gary is really laying on how much he loves Barbara in front of Dennis. I keep expecting him to say he’s also three days away from retirement.
- [Spoilers] Boy, the last 10 minutes of this movie escalated quickly. That being said, Gable has the best reaction to being shot, “Alright, if that makes you feel any better.”
- And one last shot of Fung for the ride home. What a weird little movie.
- The box-office success of “Red Dust” helped MGM survive the Depression. MGM was one of the few movie studios to turn a profit in 1932, thanks in part to this movie.
- “Red Dust” was remade 21 years later with John Ford’s “Mogambo”. The action was transplanted to Africa, with the love triangle now being comprised of Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and…Clark Gable? That’s what Gable loves about his co-stars: he gets older, they stay the same age.
- Harlow sent up the bathing scene while playing a movie star in 1933’s “Bombshell”.
- Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made four more films together, including Harlow’s final film, “Saratoga”.
- As for Harlow’s legacy, her tragic death of kidney failure at age 26 solidified her legendary movie star status. She is still one of the best remembered of the early Hollywood stars. Harlow’s life story spawned two movies in 1965, and she was immortalized on Judge Harry Stone’s office wall on “Night Court”.
Further Listening: “You Must Remember This” did an excellent episode on Jean Harlow as part of their Hollywood Blondes series. Karina Longworth (that’s her) takes a detailed look at Harlow’s life and sudden death that will probably be the most accurate report we’ll ever get.