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A highly entertaining 1932 Pre-code hit for MGM, Red Dust ought to be considered a classic on sex appeal alone. Its only other subject focus involves getting rubber sap out of Vietnamese trees, and that sounds fairly sexy as well. The romantic triangle formed between Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor is still hot stuff, with the less-remembered Ms. Astor giving Harlow a run for her money in the heavy-breathing sweepstakes. As for Gable, he was already every woman's dream and an identification figure for every man. Perhaps the most likeably natural masculine star Hollywood ever produced, Gable makes you believe the claims that he bedded hundreds of his co-stars -- and whatever other gorgeous girls happened to wander by.
Upriver from Saigon (here pronounced Say-Gone), Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) runs a rubber plantation from a rustic house in the middle of a rainforest shared with uncooperative natives and hungry tigers. Prostitute Vantine (Jean Harlow) stays awhile, and Carson overcomes his initial dislike to welcome her into his bed. Then Carson's new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives to help expand the plantation. Gary brings along his new wife Barbara (Mary Astor), a woman unaccustomed to roughing it out in the wild. Vantine leaves on the same boat. When it breaks down she's forced to return, which makes things awkward all around. No matter -- after Carson cures Gary of a nasty jungle fever, the husband goes to work in the field, leaving Barbara alone with the very interested Dennis. Sparks fly during a tropical storm, and Carson's little plantation house becomes adultery central. Not one to let a good man go, Vantine flaunts her easy virtue in Barbara's face, including taking a bath in the house's water cistern -- where both Barbara and Dennis can get a good look.
A quality product all the way, Red Dust was produced and directed by Victor Fleming (although no director credit is given, amazingly) and written for the screen by John Lee Mahin and Donald Ogden Stewart. The story isn't simply an opportunity for leering and innuendo, as the screenplay is intelligent and witty and the characters are likably imperfect. It also has twice the chemistry of most Hollywood movies, Pre- or Post- code. Harlow in particular is interesting as a contented fallen woman. She doesn't bother to hide her profession yet also doesn't think she should be on the untouchable list, at least not in this godforsaken corner of creation.
Clark Gable's 'noble bwana' transplanted to Southeast Asia does his share of bellowing and strutting, and dishing out abuse at Vantine. He also knows how to hit the bottle and doesn't worry about what behaviors might be liberated in doing so. Gable's broad smile can be express pride and sincerity, or leering lust as needed. Whatever he's got, it works, for even when covered with smeary Vietnamese mud he's got plenty of sex appeal. It is painfully obvious -- if Gable and his leading ladies weren't making it on the side (and this is not a particularly dirty mind speaking) all three deserve acting Oscars.
The toughest role is handed to Mary Astor, perhaps the only other Hollywood personality with a boudoir reputation to challenge that of her co-stars. Below those sad eyes beats a heart that knows desire, and Astor makes her Barbara character thaw from prim discomfort ("Oh, this is rather primitive, isn't it?") to total submission. Dennis and Barbara take a walk around the plantation and see how liquid rubber is made into a flexible solid. When was tabletop chemistry ever so sensual? Nature takes its course when they're caught in the rain on the way back; we believe every soggy embrace. When Dennis eventually realizes that he must somehow dump Barbara so that life can continue for the foursome, Red Dust has worked itself up into a fine hormonal frenzy.
The famous scene is of course the one in which Harlow bobs about in what looks like a slightly oversized rain barrel, clearly topless. It's all for the benefit of the strait-laced Barbara but we in the audience know it's meant for us. Although the scene would seem a natural for excision, I don't remember it ever being cut for old TV screenings. Poor Gene Raymond has the thankless role and must spent the entire movie out of the loop, so to speak. It's rather unfortunate the way that movies make it seem as though people on the outside of an intimate triangle are non-playing nonentities. That's Hollywood sex 'n' glamour for you. Red Dust at least allows Gary Willis some dignity, even though the losing couple ends up being the civilized outsiders. It's easy to imagine an alternate version in which Dennis and Vantine are little more than seductive scum.
MGM manages a convincing location feel by packing in the greenery. Ace cameramen Harold Rosson and Arthur Edeson slightly overexpose some exteriors, giving the impression of a blazing sun cutting through the forest canopy. Filters do the rest. As for the house interiors, they're a tropical fantasy. With Tully Marshall as a fellow planter, remarking that if he were thirty years younger he'd be chasing Vantine around the veranda (what's stopping him? He can walk...) and Willie Fung making goo-goo eyes at all the hugging and kissing going on, the house is a primitive delight.
Red Dust was of course relocated to Africa for a remake by John Ford, 1953's Mogambo. It brought back Clark Gable as an older but still spry big game guide. Ava Gardner took Harlow's spot, but was naturally promoted to the slightly more respectable status of an international playgirl. Grace Kelly is the prudish equivalent of Mary Astor. It's a good movie that manages to stage almost the exact same climax, but the sex quotient is way, way lower on the scale. I don't believe it's implied that anybody sleeps with anybody. That's the Production Code in a nutshell.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Red Dust is a great encoding of this popular picture, which must have been re-run to death for thirty years in television screenings. I'm really not sure how it survived its own subject matter -- I guess if a Pre-code was sufficiently popular, it could slip by without being censored or shelved. I was informed that Red Dust had been withheld for quite a while because it was in poor shape and a decent transfer could not be made. There's no evidence of that there. A scene might pop to a slightly less sharp copy for a moment, and that's it. There is no real damage. Contrast and sharpness are fine and the audio is quite clear. That couldn't be said for the old TV prints I was accustomed to seeing. Harlow and Gable fans will be pleased -- and perhaps converted into Mary Astor fans as well.
An original trailer is actually a Spanish language version, which allows us to read the usual text hyperbole in a different language. The audio track synchronized to it would seem to be an English version, however.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Red Dust rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.