Red Dust (1932)

“Don’t mind me, boys — I’m just restless.”

Synopsis:
A prostitute (Jean Harlow) on the lam falls for the owner (Clark Gable) of a rubber plantation in Indochina, but Gable is primarily interested in the wife (Mary Astor) of a visiting engineer (Gene Raymond).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “hot-blooded jungle romance” by director Victor Fleming (remade as Mogambo by John Ford in 1953) “still has the sexual charge that caused it to break box-office records in the early thirties”. He points out that “unshaven Gable and braless blonde Harlow have immense sexual chemistry at all times — whether he’s standing next to her while she takes her famous nude bath in a barrel or she sits by him as he lies on a bed, reading to him a children’s bedtime story while he’s putting his hand on her knee.” The storyline is simple but powerful, showing Gable’s sway over “well-bred Astor” (who hates herself for cheating on her noble husband), as well as Harlow’s immense patience and world-weariness. She’s been through enough that a disappointment like Gable choosing Astor over her stings a bit, but she’ll survive intact, and never loses her self-possession or sense of innate dignity. It’s easy to imagine Joan Crawford in a role like this; indeed, Red Dust and Rain (1932) — another film about a fugitive prostitute on a rainy island — would make a potent double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Harlow as Vantine
  • Harold Rossen and Arthur Edeson’s cinematography

  • A smart and sassy screenplay: “If it was the summer of 1894, I’d play games with you, sister. But life is much simpler now.”

Must See?
Yes, as a pre-Code classic. Selected in 2006 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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3 Responses to “Red Dust (1932)”

  1. Imagine my surprise: I just revisited this and found myself… bored.

    I recognize the stir that the film must have caused on its release – for reasons brought out above. And, yes, Harlow is occasionally afforded a fun, snappy line (though way too few for my liking).

    But I found most of the dialogue in the film to be wanting and tedious – and Gable and Astor’s secret rendezvous a bit of a snore.

    Of course, there is the exotic locale – and the environment of that is captured well by director Fleming. But, overall, I find the film rather thin and not all that engaging. In short, time has not been kind to whatever first drew in audiences. So, personally, I don’t consider it a must-see.

  2. What I liked about this film was watching Harlow’s character so — in control. She had every reason to be pissed time and again, but instead, she maintained her cool and was the “bigger person”. There was something satisfying in watching Gable and Astor go at their terrible-idea romance and wait to see how the other shoe would drop, and know we could count on Harlow to be our predictably practical heroine.

    I didn’t get at Astor’s husband’s in my review, but I also felt there was plenty of tension there in terms of when and how he would find out about his wife’s betrayal — so the plot twist was a genuine surprise, and I felt till the very end that we wouldn’t quite know what would happen. Astor is left having to feel pretty awful about herself and her secret, so there’s also some satisfaction in knowing she didn’t really get away scot free like it seems.

  3. Some of these points are well-taken, esp. re: Harlow. If I had to give a reason to recommend the film it would be her. Even as is, she’s the most potentially interesting person to watch. I don’t think there’s enough of her in the film, though, and – when she is there – she’s not given enough juicy things to say (the kind her character would be likely to have) to make her a truly memorable character.

    In my view, the husband comes off a little too milquetoast to hold much interest. It’s easy to see why Astor would fall for someone as commanding as Gable.

    To be fair, I’m certain there are viewers who would take to this film more than I did. I just don’t find it all that compelling.

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