February 24, 2014

Pre-code Perversion: Red Dust* (1932)


I've never hated Mary Astor more than I did whilst watching Red Dust (1932). But more on that later.

Can you believe I hadn't seen this film in its entirety since now? Yes, I've seen bits and pieces of it when I was lucky enough to catch it on TCM, but I've never had any luck tracking it down on either ancient VHS or DVD for that matter. It was one of the only Harlow films that I didn't own and I'm feeling heaps and heaps better about life now that it's nestled comfortably on my movie shelf. Thanks to the kind folks at the Warner Archives, I can watch this movie whenever and as often as I like!

A clean-shaven Clark Gable plays Dennis Carson, the owner of a rubber plantation located in primitive Indochina. Jean Harlow plays Vantine, a down-on-her-luck prostitute with a heart of gold who drops in and causes a stir amongst the lads whilst parading around the place in transparent kimonos and flimsy gowns (care of MGM's chief designer Adrian, of course). Dennis and Vantine begin to get along just fine - if you catch my drift - until a preppy engineer and his snooty wife show up at the plantation (played by Gene Raymond and the aforementioned Mary Astor).

When two women who have eyes for the same man (i.e. Gable - and who wouldn't?) are forced to inhabit the same home with him, you better believe that there's going to be fireworks! Despite the fact that only one of these women is single, both of them actively pursue Dennis and it leads to all sorts of witty dialogue and titillating scenes (namely a very naked Harlow bathing in a rain barrel). Much to my dismay - and to the rest of the audience's, I suspect - Dennis casts Vantine aside for the more ladylike Barbara Willis (Astor) and when the two of them get caught in a rainstorm things between them quickly escalate.

Jean Harlow and Mary Astor face off in Red Dust (1932).

What we have next are gale-force winds, a terrified sissy of a woman, a virile man, buckets and buckets of rain and two sets of lips that must meet (or dry up, probably). It's like a scene out of The Notebook but more sexy and with less Ryan Gosling. Vantine rightly suspects that something is going on between Dennis and the very married Barbara and she doesn't like it one bit, going so far as to push a servant out of her way and onto the floor in a fit of jealous rage. I can't say I blame her really because I honestly didn't think Astor was attractive at all until she was nearly drowned in the storm; she looks surprisingly fetching when he's dripping wet from head to toe! If she had spent the rest of the movie with her hair wet and makeup smudged I wouldn't have blamed Dennis for falling for her. But to cast aside a wonderful, fun-loving woman like Vantine for some snooty, entitled socialite is just WRONG.

The dialogue in this film is absolutely fantastic (the screenplay was written by John Lee Mahin) - there is a whole three-minute conversation between Dennis and Vantine about cheese. Cheese! Listening to them made me feel absolutely famished and frustrated at the same time because I'm lactose intolerant and can't go near the damn stuff - Grrr! My favourite line in the film was uttered by Harlow (naturally) upon her arrival at the plantation: "I'm not used to sleeping nights anyway!" Oh ho ho! If you weren't aware of the release date of this picture, you'd still know it was a pre-code just by that one line alone.

Harlow and Gable worked together on-screen beautifully, and having just said that, I'm mourning the fact that I didn't include them in my list of favourite on-screen pairings. They performed in six films together for MGM from 1932 right up until Harlow's premature death in the summer of 1937. The last film she ever made, Saratoga (1937), co-starred Gable and he was absolutely devastated when her passing was announced. He went on to serve as a pallbearer and an usher at the actress's funeral.

Red Dust was later re-made by MGM in 1953 and was retitled as Mogambo. It starred Clark Gable (reprising his starring role, but this time labeled a big game hunter living in Africa), Ava Gardner (taking over Harlow's role), Grace Kelly (a suitably stuffy stand-in for Astor), and Donald Sinden playing the dejected husband who is cheated on. Now that I've seen both films, Mogambo is a poor imitation of the original Red Dust. If I had to choose only one version to watch for the rest of my life, there's no doubt in my mind which version I'd opt for. For those of you who are curious, I'll give you a couple of reasons why: I've never been able to stomach Grace Kelly, this story looks better filmed in good old black and white, and despite how good Ava Gardner is in her role, there's no comparison between her and Jean Harlow.

Red Dust can be purchased on DVD through the Warner Archive website [click here].

12 comments:

  1. I have to agree with you; I prefer "Red Dust" over "Mogambo" as well. I try not to compare the two too much, as the only similarities are the bare bones of the romantic triangle. "Red Dust" is a sweaty, swarthy romance while "Mogambo," in perfect 1950's fashion, sets out to be an epic. I stomach Mary Astor a lot better here than I do Grace Kelly in "Mogambo." Kelly has this air of "oh, my, how very scandalous" like she's shocked at everything even though she lures Clark in like a moth to a flame. Mary at least seems to be enjoying herself in the moment!

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    1. Great point (about Astor vs. Kelly in their roles)! That's very true.

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  2. I've always been bored with Grace Kelly. She's all chill and no warmth, which makes me care less about what happens with her characters.

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    1. Ugh, I know exactly what you mean. I've never been a fan of her's. Like, NEVER.

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  3. Wait a minute...there was another in this film beside Jean Harlow? I think it's pretty Harlow's picture and your "sleeping nights" is a classic. Nice review.

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  4. I agree with you, Red Dust has it all over Mogambo. I've never cared for Grace Kelly (that girl's-finishing-school accent of hers drives me up the wall whenever she speaks), and I think Astor much more gets at her character's depths, of a 'proper' woman who discovers how sensual she is -- and doesn't regret it! I like Ava Gardner, but she doesn't hold a candle to Jean Harlow in the Vantine role - there's just no pretense in Harlow. And I love that conversation on cheese also - it's unexpected and hilarious.

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    1. Looks like both you and I detest Grace Kelly :P It's always nice to meet a like-minded individual!

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  5. Great review and happy to have found your blog! Red Dust is one of my all-time favorites (with Harlow and Gable in Hold Your Man as a close 2nd). I have to say that the Mary Astor "Babs" character doesn't bother me as much as Gene Raymond's character. You have to feel bad for the guy who just plays the straight man/fool as all of this wonderful romantic chaos is happening around him. His character is at his best when he's bed-ridden with whatever illness he had.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! You know what? Each time Gene Raymond appeared onscreen, I caught myself thinking: "why is he even IN this film??" HAHA That's so bad, but it's the truth. In all honesty, I'm sure Raymond felt like a useless tool the whole time he spent making this film.

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  6. I've never seen all of "Red Dust" (and why IS that) but I agree with the other commenters. "Mogambo" is a pretty big bore in comparison, despite Ava Gardner's performance and the fabulous clothes.

    Jean Harlow was a true gem as an actress, wasn't she? Honestly, you can't help but love her.

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  7. I *despise* Grace Kelly in every movie of hers I've seen. Her diction is so stilted. You just want to tell her to shut up & look pretty. Since she can't speak naturally. I can't believe she ever won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

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