Still hot as hell...but I want to see that Spanish version in the trailer (and who writes that copy on the back of these Archive discs?). Warner Bros.' fabulous Archive Collection, their M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service that provides hard-to-find cult and library titles, has released Red Dust, the 1932 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer smasheroo starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, Gene Raymond, and Donald Crisp. Based on the play by Wilson Collison, with a horny screenplay by John Mahin and steamy, sweaty direction from he-man helmer Victor Fleming, Red Dust certainly isn't original, but it's sexy as all get-out, with the famed pairing of Gable and Harlow (and let's not forget perfectly gorgeous Astor) resembling two jungle cats in heat. An original Spanish title-card trailer is included...with intriguing (and hornier) alternate scenes featured.
A Cochinchina rubber plantation, upriver of Saigon. Owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) has had enough of drunken foreman Guidon's (Donald Crisp) incompetence, his latest screw-up involving cutting the rubber trees too soon and spoiling the sap. Arriving from Saigon on Limey's (Forrester Harvey) boat, the completely smashed Guidon is thrown into his bed...where hooker Vantine (Jean Harlow) is waiting. Vantine hitched a ride with Guidon―while keeping him at arm's distance―because the gendarmes back in Saigon wanted to have a word with her. Carson wants the tough-talking chippie out, particularly after she keeps needling him, but when she makes him laugh, they embrace as the camera pans away, and you know what that means.... Giving her the brush off the next morning ("It's been nice having you,"), Carson is more interested in Barbara Willis (Mary Astor), the willowy, ladylike wife of weakling nice guy Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), Carson's new surveyor/engineer. Arch Barbara doesn't like the crude, openly admiring Carson...which means she wants to sleep with him repeatedly, which she eventually does, once Carson ditches doofus Gary out in the weeds for a month. And that new development doesn't make Vantine happy, either, when she comes waltzing back into camp.
Based on a Broadway play that jaded critics called hackneyed even back when it debuted in 1928, Red Dust's basic framework and storyline certainly didn't win any awards for originality by the time it reached screens in 1932. However, its potent combination of exotic jungle melodrama and the then-popular Pre-Code "woman's sex" picture―jacked up to insane pheromone levels by Irving Thalberg putting in two of his heavyweight protégés to give the ticket buyers out there more bang for their buck (sorry)―still elicits a surprising amount of erotic pull 80 years later. Obviously the Pre-Hays Code liberties help immensely with the sex-soaked dialogue and situations (if you don't think so, check out Red Dust's 1953 sanitized, boring remake, Mogambo). John Mahin's script (Scarface, Captains Courageous, Quo Vadis, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) is loaded with situations and one-liners that may surprise newer viewers who aren't as familiar with that brief, licentious talkie period that flowered prior to the studios' 1934 crackdown on actually enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code.
In the 1953 remake Mogambo, Jean Harlow's character, played by Ava Gardner, is only suspected of being a "loose" woman by Clark Gable (who reprised his role), but in Red Dust, no bones are made about Harlow being a prostitute. Gable calls her a "cute little trick," and laughingly offers up a wad of dough for her services the morning after they have sex, stuffing the roll down her dress (that nasty bit of physical action would never make it past the script stage in any subsequent post-1934 project, either). Harlow's blasé attitude towards sex (she clearly wants it and enjoys it...with Gable); her willingness to make love to Gable only hours after they meet (and her willingness to patiently wait for him to stop making love to Astor so he can rejoin her in bed), and the fact that she isn't punished for being a prostitute at the end of the movie, all point to a brief time during the early evolution of the American motion picture where permissiveness in adult themes was as mainstream as Shirley Temple.
What's also striking about Mahin's script, as interpreted by Fleming, is its playful, cynical approach to eroticism ("flip" might best sum it up). Aside from the constant stream of innuendo and double entendre lines ("I've been looking at her kind since my voice changed," "I thought you might like a change," "Yes...a change," discussing pheasant for dinner...but meaning a new sex partner for Astor), Mahin, largely through naughty-but-nice Harlow, keeps lightening the tone by having this cookie with a heart of gold constantly needling/teasing Gable (her notorious, taunting barrel bath is a delight). Many critics at the time pointed out sex melodrama Red Dust's welcome comedic tone; specifically, Harlow's funny, sexy turn here, as well as her molten hot-but-still-wisecracking chemistry with Gable. However, had director Fleming (and L.B.) the notion to just tweak the tone and delivery of Gable's and Astor's dramatic scenes, Red Dust could have worked equally well as a full-on bedroom farce, such is the constant sexual thrusts and parries of the characters as they jealously heave and sweat over each other's infidelities, busting in on each other from room to room...to jungle (Raymond's bright, amiable, clueless Gary character in particular would have made a marvelously weak, ridiculously comedic cuckold).
Certainly Victor Fleming's contribution to Red Dust shouldn't be slighted, though. Known today mostly for "helming" The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind (with historians frequently diluting his credit by noting the former's multiple directors, and David O. Selznick's obsessive control of the latter), Fleming is particularly good here in getting across an intense, obsessive gaze at his sensational-looking cast, keeping the camera squarely on them as they seethe with lust. Some of the more overheated montages and mise-en-scene may strike some as corny today (the raging storm outside reflecting Astor's hysterical libido; all that business with the
unfettered jungle eroticism tiger outside―which Harlow likes, which Astor fears...and which poor Raymond can't even shoot). However, Fleming's handling of the actors (Gable has never been more masculine; Astor never more attractively conflicted and passionate), and his concentrated, focused peering at the actors in various stages of undress is impressively steamy and hot, particularly the scene where Gable brings in a soaking wet Astor and kisses her, as she resists...and then succumbs, her thin, wet dress clinging to her impossible, might-as-well-be-nude body (no wonder George S. Kaufman drilled her brains out). You can talk about Red Dust's comedic elements (or sniff at its outright melodramatic hokum), you can fret over its few brief racist undertones (you say Willie Fung's turn is demeaning? I say get off your moral high-horse and enjoy it; he's hilarious), or you can marvel at how beautifully...glossy M-G-M makes that supposedly inhabitable jungle. Nevertheless, Red Dust's main function clearly is to erotically entice the viewer, and after 80 years, it still does that―not bad.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 black and white transfer for Red Dust looks as good as I've ever seen it: pretty good blacks, a nice gray scale, reasonably sharp image, and acceptable screen anomalies.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is relatively clean, with a moderate (but not distracting) bit of hiss, and crisp dialogue.
Very cool. There's an original trailer, intended for Spanish-speaking territories (the actors aren't dubbed, but the title cards are in Spanish), that appears to have some alternate―and hotter―takes and even staging of some scenes. In this trailer, the camera doesn't pan away to Polly the parrot when Gable first kisses Harlow. When Gable brings a soaking wet Astor back to the plantation, there's a much closer shot of Harlow seething in rage as she watches. Most interestingly of all, the denouement where Astor shoots Gable is completely different here, with Gable seated alone at a table, as a crazed Aster, pistol already aimed at him, insists he declare their love never meant anything to him. Were these shots from the "international" cut of Red Dust? Or was it the original U.S. version...which may have been subsequently altered post-1934? I'm no expert, so any M-G-M scholars who might know, drop me a line. And on a peevish, picayune point...on the back of the DVD cover, someone wrote that "...Gable has never been more the unwitting [emphasis added] prey of wily women." I defy anyone to watch Red Dust and tell me when the macho, arrogant Gable is passive, "unwitting prey" to anyone in the movie (sounds like someone is reading all that goofy reverse post-feminism nonsense over at the Archives...).
Slutty, rutting jungle melodrama farce, thank you. Harlow is hilarious and sexy, young Gable is impossibly handsome and uber-masculine, and Astor's body is perfection. Junk in the wrong hands, Red Dust comes off as an early talkie classic. I'm highly, highly recommending Red Dust.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.