Gable smoldered, Harlow sizzled and the jungle trembled with raw sexuality in Victor Fleming’s classy pre-code dazzler Red Dust (1932) – a vivacious romp through the lascivious backwaters of Indochina with Gable cast as a rubber plantation owner and Harlow his latest fling from the red light district of Saigon. Only two years earlier neither was likely to be branded a reigning sex symbol; Gable with his ‘Dumbo’ sized ears, false teeth and crooked jaw, Harlow attempting to Theda Bara her way into the talkies as a raucous vamp with her raunchy platinum and painfully exaggerated bee-stung lips. Yet both rose like cream to the top of their profession; each giving the silver screen something it had never quite seen before and likely will never be seen again – pure animal magnetism.
Of their six films together Gable and Harlow are probably best known for Red Dust, its slick screenplay by John Lee Mahin treading lightly on Wilson Collision’s play about devilish gadabouts and their tricked out harlots who throw caution and everything else to the wind to satisfy an urge in the sticky heat. Red Dust inflames our desire primarily because of its visual restraint rather than its explicitness. Save a brief romp in a rain barrel, Harlow spends much of the film sheathed in a slithery silk robe, looking something like a cheap knock off of the frilly lounger she would sport for David O. Selznick in Dinner At Eight a year later. It’s a good look for Harlow, whose physical appeal has never quite appealed to yours truly, but whose glycerin sass always had me floored.
It’s rumored that Gable and Harlow were having a torrid liaison while making this film – a formidable indiscretion considering Gable was married to his much older manager while Harlow’s marriage to MGM producer Paul Bern had ended with his ‘apparent’ suicide that same year. On screen this pair suit one another to a tee, Harlow’s initial admonishment of the wickedly cool Gable eventually giving way to a tempestuous détente and then, inevitably, a mutual fascination to possess the other. In Red Dust that desire is a bit one-sided for most of the film’s run time, Gable preferring to trade up for the society wife (played by Mary Astor) of his underling engineer (Gene Raymond).
It’s interesting to note that of this foursome, Astor had the most uninhibited backstage lifestyle; its torrid truths revealed when her private diary was stolen and then made public. On screen Astor never had the chance to play such a female tiger, relegated to supporting parts as the piss elegant lady fair who endures, suffers and occasionally is allowed to keep her man before the final fade out. Gable, who remained ‘the king’ at MGM, was actually a quiet introspective man in life. He preferred the company of chauffeurs and bus boys to studio vixens and moguls, while Harlow has been described as a ‘homey’ girl who went to great lengths to cover up the fact that she enjoyed sleeping in the nude, and frequently sat on her father’s lap in between takes on the set. In one of cinema’s great tragedies Harlow would die of uremic poisoning in 1937, age 26, just as she and Gable were in the middle of shooting Saratoga.
Red Dust is a Victor Fleming production and the director’s penchant for hard-edged characters placed under even harsher living conditions is working overtime herein. We begin in the wilds of southern French Indochina with rough and tumble plantation owner/manager Dennis Carson (Gable) running his lazy coolies ragged as the monsoon season approaches. Dennis’ overseer, McQuarg (Tully Marshall) is a good friend and devoted worker. But fellow worker, Guidon (Donald Crisp) is a shiftless drunkard, more sullen than friendly. The rugged quarters are looked after by Hoy (Willie Fung); a scatterbrain cook and simpleton houseboy. Into this stifling hot enclave arrives Vantine (Harlow); a prostitute who had to get out of Saigon fast and is hoping to elude authorities by hiding out for a while in the last place anyone would think to look for her.
When the only boat traveling the river becomes mired in a low tide mud Dennis is forced to accept Vantine as his guest for six weeks. At first Dennis rebukes the harlot, ordering her about like a servant. But during their time together Dennis begins to see the upside of having a gal like Vantine around the place. The two become passionately involved. For Vantine, the allure is permanent. But Dennis sees her as just another passing fling, even more so after the arrival of his new engineer, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his cultured wife, Barbara (Mary Astor). Dennis is mildly amused by Barbara’s gentile nature, a pleasurable diversion that has Vantine fuming.
Barbara finds Dennis crude and calculating. But when her husband comes down with a potentially life threatening fever she glimpses a softer side to Dennis that begins to grow on her. In the meantime Dennis has decided that Barbara would do very nicely on his knee. After Gary recovers Dennis sends him away, along with Guidon and McQuarg, on an extensive surveying job at a makeshift camp a whole day’s journey removed from the plantation. Barbara is seduced by Dennis without much prodding; particularly after Dennis rescues her from a violent thunderstorm by carrying her all the way back to the plantation on foot.
Vantine decides to play devil’s advocate. She tells Dennis that he’s a rotten lot like herself, unable to bring lasting happiness to Barbara’s life without destroying Gary’s, hers and even his own in this foolish seduction. But Vantine’s words fall on deaf ears. After all, why should Dennis believe her? She’d do anything to stay on at the plantation. But Dennis has a change of heart after spending a night with Gary at the base camp, up a tree to catch a tiger. Gary, whose loyalty and devotion toward Dennis border on idol worship, has been working his fingers to the bone for him. McQuarg wisely assesses that despite Gary’s desire to make good he’s too nice and refined a kid to ever make a career out of this rugged lifestyle.
Dennis agrees and suddenly realizes that Vantine was right. He must send Gary and Barbara away. Returning to the plantation after he’s killed the tiger, Dennis is confronted by Vantine. Their verbal sparring leads to a renewed passion momentarily interrupted by Barbara. Dennis is glib and arrogant about their relationship, claiming it was just one of those things and that Barbara has meant absolutely nothing to him. Consumed with anger and jealousy Barbara draws Gary’s pistol and shoots Dennis in the side. Gary, who has been led by Guidon to suspect an affair, bursts in too late to confront Dennis and his wife.
Smoothing over the rougher edges, Vantine claims Dennis simply made a pass at Barbara, one that frightened her to overreact. Gary vows to take a tearful Barbara away from the plantation in the morning, leaving Vantine to clean out Dennis’ wound and care for him in her room until he fully recovers. Realizing the true merit of her love for him, Dennis rekindles his lust for Vantine as the screen fades to black.
Red Dust is bawdy good fun. The strength in the Gable/Harlow alliance can be distilled into one very genuine and tangible commodity; their rougher than sandpaper sex appeal creating a genuine and palpable friction guaranteed to chafe the skin. It’s easy to see why both their Hollywood legends have long endured. When she’s working opposite Gable, Harlow’s déclassé vixens always had the proverbial heart of gold, while Gable’s greatest contribution to the team remains his sensual masculinity. Arguably, Gable carried this aura about him regardless of his costar. And although I have to concede Gone With The Wind as my personal favorite Gable movie, never in his teaming with Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Claudette Colbert or even Vivien Leigh, does Gable manage to generate so much testosterone-infused turbo charisma as he does opposite Harlow.
Harlow and Gable: the two were made for each other – at least on the screen. Off camera they cut their teeth and wore out their cuffs and collars on a seedy little fling that ended as quickly as it had begun, each moving on to new partners with incomplete results. Gable would marry Carol Lombard in 1939, but lose her to a plane crash three short years later, while Harlow had just decided to settle down with William Powell when she suddenly fell ill and unexpectedly died. Thankfully, we’ll always have Red Dust a film where Gable and Harlow are hotter than ever and ready to devour one another as readily and ravenously as the scenery. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore and more’s the pity indeed.
It’s taken a while to get Red Dust to home video on any other format except VHS. Warner Home Video has always maintained that the surviving print masters were in such poor shape it would take a minor miracle to resurrect the movie on DVD. That may indeed be the case, but Warner has performed such miracles in the past. One had hoped for a standard DVD release – and ideally, a Blu-ray – but alas Red Dust has gone straight to the Warner Archive – their inferior burn-on-demand DVD-R format. The results are actually quite good. Although Red Dust exhibits a lot of age related artifacts, including chips, scratches and the like, and some key scenes have been transferred from less than first generation materials, with the inherent and obvious impediment of severe grain, on the whole this is an adequate viewing experience with moments of startling clarity and some very fine detail in evidence.
The gray scale exhibits no chorma bleeding. Red Dust isn’t advertised as one of the archive’s ‘remastered’ titles but it’s fairly obvious that some preservation work has been done to get this title ready for its rather inauspicious debut. The audio is mono, as originally recorded and yielding a solid texture with slight hiss and pop, but otherwise easy on the ears. The only extra is a Spanish language trailer – a disappointment. Note to Warner Brothers: one sincerely hopes that the brain trust in your front offices will slowly begin to restore and remaster such classic offerings in hi-def and soon. Red Dust deserves better, as does Johnny Eager, Idiot’s Delight, The Student Prince, The Brothers Karamazov, The Catered Affair, etc. etc. etc. For now: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)