Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Jean Harlow plays a prostitute cooped up on a rubber plantation in Indochina. “Don’t mind me, boys. I’m just restless. I guess I’m not used to sleeping nights anyway…”
- Old hand Tully Marshall tells Harlow, “If it was the summer of 1894, I’d play games with you, sister…”
- Clark Gable is the swaggering barrel of machismo who pays handsomely for a prostitute. “You know, you talk too much, but you’re a cute little trick as that.”
- He also threatens to throw Harlow to the coolies at one point, promising that she’ll get back to Saigon one way or another.
- Mary Astor is the young sophisticated bride of Gable’s newest worker, and the woman he sets his sights on. Plenty of extramarital everything here.
- Harlow on Astor’s character: “Don’t you suppose she’s never seen a French postcard?”
- Gable also does a bit of a striptease, showing of a fair bit of skin while Harlow does her best to arouse his attention to her.
- A scene involving both bloomers and bird crap, which is a rarity in any time period.
And a Harlow New Year
Three days up the river from Saigon sits a rubber plantation that’s barely above water. Managed by Denny (Gable), he works his coolies to the bone in a desperate attempt to keep his head above water. Denny’s spent practically his whole life on the plantation, so isn’t very used to it when a woman shows up looking for a place to stay.
That’s Vantine (Harlow), on the run for reasons wisely left unspecified. The important thing is that she manages to overcome Denny’s hurdles to having a woman around the house, even if, in the course of it, she ends up leaving her guard down for a little too long and falling for him. When the month is up and it’s time for her return trip to Saigon, she tries to refuse the money; he won’t even listen, promising more if he ever makes it to her neck of the woods.
This is barely the end of the first act, and we already see Vantine’s chops. Look at Harlow’s picture on the right as her character realizes that her feelings are unmatched and that Denny still sees her as just a prostitute. Whenever I thought back to this scene later on, I thought I saw it in color– Harlow’s emotions are just that vivid.
Vantine of course isn’t long on that boat, but when she returns she finds something horrifically depressing: Denny’s a new surveyor and his lovely wife have arrived. The surveyor comes down with a serious fever, but Denny gets it worse– he falls for the wife but hard.
She’s Barbara (Astor), a blushing newlywed who still fawns over her husband even during the deepest fits of his illness. Gable’s brutishness, even as he’s saving her husband’s life, immediately arouses her righteous fury. When Gable nonchalantly refuses to dote on him along with her, she expels her anger with a hard slap; he sees this as a come on.
After helping the surveyor recover, Denny immediately dispatches him to the field for a month, leaving him and Barbara in the house with only Vantine and the Vietnamese cook to watch over them. I’ll get to the cook here in a moment, but Vantine’s reactions oscillate between desperate flirtation and bitter despair.
The most memorable scene of this– and the one you’re most likely to catch as a clip– is Harlow taking a dip in a rain barrel. She’s giddy with temptation, as she eagerly asks for Gable to join her.
He refuses, and as the passion heats up between Denny and Barbara, the love triangle continues to sizzle. Eventually it comes down to whether or not Denny is going to tell the surveyor about the affair– or giving him a more magnanimous end at the hands of a local angry tiger.
Clark Gable: The Power
The story that Red Dust tells should sound familiar to anyone who’s seen their share of torrid romance films. From the exotic setting to the heightened sexual bravado of all involved, this movie eagerly ramps up the sexual tension, using every tool that its Pre-Code origins allow it.
The presence of the sweat, the heat, and the resulting passion are all self explanatory. I find the fact that this is set on a plantation to be a bit revealing as well. If Denny was just a single farmer working the land, would that place this film closer to something like The Purchase Price? This film makes it important for his character to be a Lord of the Manor, his power just as important as his raging lust. Without that power, he wouldn’t be the danger that he is.
I think that sort of power is required for most roles Gable plays. As a gangster back in A Free Soul to the lothario of No Man of Her Own, his ability to project authority comes from a necessary place in his persona, both off screen and in reality. Even in his lighter films-– take Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as an example– his knowledge of the female protagonist’s identity gives him an edge over her, even without her knowing it. Showing him with a measure of power was necessary because Gable exuded it.
Gable’s machismo is allowed to flourish in this picture, even to the point where it makes the character a fair bit unlikeable. You see the same thing in Gone With the Wind to a degree, though that film– unwisely, in my opinion– made him consistently reasonable. Red Dust doesn’t give the audience much in terms of Denny’s motivation throughout besides a desire to get beyond his labor-centric life. He’s been with women before, but possessing a woman of fine upbringing and dress understandably drives him mad with desire. Gable manages to make this man fluidly change from a wretched heel and a charming bastard for the women, and, not surprisingly, he’s fantastic.
Jean Harlow: The Pleasure
Jean Harlow, who’s sadly been overlooked by history books in favor of the bawdier but less interesting Mae West, turns in another great performance. Director Victor Fleming (who would go on to co-direct Gone With the Wind and direct The Wizard of Oz) has often by history been cited as a “men’s” director, and while I won’t say his handling of the women here sharply contrast that, he gives Harlow ample emotions and scenes to demonstrate her handle on her craft.
She’s always consistently surprised me with how good she is, and, like her role in Red Headed Woman, she’s played up to be a bit of a sexual virtuoso operating along nymph-ish lines. Where this film gains some traction is that her libido is not her end all/be all, as she’s forced into not only confront the other pointy end of the love triangle but to Barbara conceal her indiscretions for the sake of everyone.
The ending of the film is very Pre-Code, from the hilariously calm handling of a gunshot wound to all sins being covered up and forgiven, relieving everyone from the true consequences of their actions. It speaks to both a sense of worker righteousness, as Denny/Vantine still know more and become satisfied with their sex-filled lots in life, and it dresses down the pretensions of the better off. Barbara and her husband bring their tennis rackets to the plantation, illustrating their complete ignorance of how barbaric the world is far from the grasp of civilization.
The ones who know about the rotten apple core let the privileged surveyor and his wife, perhaps wiser but unwillingly so, off to try and return to sleepwalking towards an idyllic New York home life. Barbara’s become identical to the unfaithful maid in Downstairs, leaving me with little doubt that Gable’s seductions in this film may have completely ruined their intimacy forever.
That makes Red Dust incontrovertibly classist, but not in favor of the rich and naive.
One aspect that’s fascinated me about some of the Pre-Codes I’ve watched so far is the fact these are all firmly set in a time period where colonialism is still a real, accepted thing. The setting for this one, in particular, takes place in Indo China, which a few decades from this movie’s production would become something much more real than this for many American soldiers.
The portrayal of the Vietnamese here is far from polite, as most are seen laboring begrudgingly in the background. The worst of it is vested in the house’s cook, Hoy (Willie Fung).
He’s lamented as being ‘a little slow’, and that’s the nicest thing anyone can say about him. He’s stupid, loud, and lacking in subtlety. He’s bad comic relief and will make any viewer of the modern era cringe every time he’s on screen. I won’t say the film didn’t need comic relief, but the way his role is written reeks with condescension. The way the coolies are discussed, they, too, are little more than savages, tamed by Gable’s mighty hand.
When it comes to looking back at race and film, there’s always a debate about how people now are supposed to view these portrayals. I think characters like Hoy should be viewed as educational, the way a white Hollywood viewed the distant corners of the globe.
And since Hollywood’s underestimation of the Vietnamese here foreshadows Washington’s, it’s invariably a historical lesson demonstrating that the United States has always had issues seeing those who keeled at the hands of Western colonialism as equals. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that this viewpoint has changed greatly since then.
If you have trouble handling outdated viewpoints on race, this film may be some sort of horror show for you; sadly, it’s not the worst I’ve seen (hello, yellow faced The Good Earth). This movie isn’t about those racial issues, but you can’t help but feel them percolate under the surface, making Red Dust not only into a torrid fable, but an interesting relic of a world long gone.
- The always excellent Mythical Monkey writes about Harlow’s appeal and amazing roles in 1932.
- Classic Film Freak compares Red Dust to its during-the-code remake Mogambo, which was made 21 years later. Starring Clark Gable (again!), Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly, it sounds like the update doesn’t fare very well.
- Movie Diva dives into the film’s background and making of. She also touches on Jean Harlow’s husband’s suicide that occured during the making of this film.
- Mordaunt Hall reviews the film for the Times back in ’32, and he (she? what the hell kind of name is ‘Mordaunt’?) doesn’t exactly do much in nailing the picture down. I liked this bit, especially his description of Gable’s acting:
The dialogue is not especially bright or strong, but some of the lines spoken by Vantine, who is impersonated by Jean Harlow, aroused laughter from the audience. Miss Harlow’s presence in the picture apparently attracted a host of other platinum blondes, for on all sides there were in the seats girls with straw-colored hair. Miss Harlow’s performance suits the part. Mr. Gable is efficient in his rôle.