This is my contribution to The Mary Astor Blogathon. Since I write about classic films in real life, I am thrilled to be able to share a review with my dear ASPL readers. Thanks to Ruth of Silver Screenings and Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted for creating and hosting this delightful event.
Don’t let the melodramatic plot fool you. At its heart, and despite its classification, Red Dust (1932) is a sexy, scandalous, brilliant comedy. The dialogue is superb, fast-paced, irreverent, and witty. It’s punchy, and it flows with that rat-a-tat-tat quality so indicative of 1930s American cinema and our collective national psyche as aggressive, plucky go-getters. In many ways, it is a drawing-room comedy without the drawing-room, one transferred to an unlikely setting with its essence preserved: the comedy of manners element is very much in play as characters of different backgrounds, classes, and mores run verbal roughshod over each another. The slight plot of the film, resting comfortably on a triangle, and nicely augmented by the twin pillars of the Madonna-Whore argument and the fish-out-of-water gambit, gets the job done without going out of its way to be innovative. The real thrill is in the writing, the chemistry and playing of the cast, and the speed and leanness of the production. Nothing in the running time of 83 minutes is wasted, including your attention.
A rubber plantation during monsoon season is a dreadful place. When it is not raining, the red earth spreads viciously like a plague of locusts. There are beasts, tigers, quite literally outside the gates, where they roar from the shadows into the long hours of the night. Hungry eyes pierce the darkness. Watching. Socialization is limited, the work is hard, the crops are unpredictable, and women are scarce. Pleasures are few, and are taken as they come: without questions or expectations. Prayers are useless, and so is remorse.
When you are the boss, and there is much to lose, it is like living at the jagged edge of the abyss. Is it any wonder, then, that Dennis Carson, played by a lean, clean-shaven Clark Gable, is surly and impatient? He enters the action guns blazing, pissed off, annoyed. Five minutes into the film, and it is apparent that there is nothing that Dennis can’t and won’t do. He is a macho, sweaty, sexy jack of all trades. He is a rubber plantation owner, but staggering competence is his true calling. No one is up to his standards, except himself. If ever anyone needed to meet his match, it’s Dennis.
Imagine, then, walking into your compound and finding Vantine reclining on a bed. The plot point that brings her to this remote, masculine-centered place is not important. She rises from the sheets like a platinum-haired, Depression-era Venus. She’s earthy, quick-witted, and scantily clad. Fireworks erupt in the form of insults. Only Gable and Harlow can turn a conversation about cheese into a sexy set-to. As bizarrely entertaining as it is, it solidifies their compatibility in beautifully cinematic shorthand. We know they should be together, and so does Vantine. Fortunately for Dennis, her competence equals his and is matched by an admirable level-headedness. Here, the whore as bad girl that cinema has espoused from its inception is already starting to crumble. It is immediately obvious that Vantine has more than a heart of gold: she has brains, wit, and courage. Harlow is given some of the film’s best lines, and it is no wonder: she could hurl barbs with the best of them. Her Vantine is wittier than Gable’s Dennis, and less temperamental.
One gets the impression that this couple likes it a bit rough-and-tumble, in more ways than one, and that they could go for years happily living in this stifling and primitive place as long as they have each other to trade quips with. Alas, in traditional film fashion, all good things, including sex, have to be interrupted in order to further the story. Before we know it, Vantine is reluctantly catching the slow boat to Saigon.
This is where we meet Gary, Dennis’ new employee, and his wife Barbara (Mary Astor). Since triangles only have three sides, Gene Raymond, playing the naïve, well-intentioned and conventionally romantic husband, gets short shrift in the action department. His character exists to further the plot, but that is just part of the Hollywood game: someone has to, and in this film it is Gene’s turn. There’s seldom any glory in being a cuckold, but he does a nice job in his few scenes. He is also taxed with a character designed to be everything that Gable’s is not: weak, sick, incompetent, out-of-his depth. Gary and Barbara are our fish-out-of-water designees. One eventually has to ask, “What in the hell were they thinking?” They do not belong here. For starters, Barbara is shocked that their new home, which is on a rubber plantation, is not genteel or modern enough. We don’t know what Gary thinks, as he is too busy trying not to die of a fever contracted before even stepping off the boat. Naturally, Dennis uses some of his well-developed competence to save the young man’s life. Barbara obviously loves her husband, and her terror, and subsequent relief, over his condition is beautifully conveyed by Astor’s subtly expressive eyes. This is a good place to point out that, even though Barbara obviously loves her husband just as much as she did a sentence ago when she thought he was dying, she is living in close quarters with a man who looks suspiciously like Clark Gable. The inevitable feelings-that-are-mutual happen.
Mother Nature obviously has a fine sense of humor. She chooses this moment to turn the river into a mud pit, making it unnavigable. Just as Dennis thanks his lucky stars that the two ladies won’t have to meet, in walks Vantine. As she says later, “What a pleasant little house party this is going to be.” Indeed.
When 3 attractive people are thrown together in an exotic, steamy locale with the express purpose that they form a triangle of the amorous variety, sparks are going to fly. The shenanigans are so fast and sexy that a viewer can get whiplash following the action. There’s no room for poor sap Gary, so Dennis quickly dispatches him to a survey site in the boonies. Barbara’s wifely protestations are short-lived, however, and her desire to go with him practically dies on her lips before the words are even spoken. Who can blame her? Gable sweats out more sex appeal in an hour than her husband could muster in a lifetime.
Vantine is miffed that so much happened in her brief absence. Perhaps plantation life has a way of compressing time and heightening emotions, but she was only away for 24-hours, tops, so one feels for her. For a “bad girl”, she sure wears her heart on her sleeve, although it is suitably disguised under a fat layer of sarcasm. This is another key point: Vantine may earn her living selling sex, but what she had with Dennis was real, at least for her. She is comfortable with who she is, and so are we as viewers: she is a deeply appealing human being, and one of Harlow’s best characterizations. Her warmth, ability, and casual sexiness are hypnotic. I dare you to watch the famous shower/bath scene and tell me otherwise.
Mary Astor blooms in her role, too. Barbara is not witty, but she is essentially good-natured; beneath her patrician exterior is a warm, sensual woman caught in an environment she finds at once hostile and freeing. Astor is at home in the role, and brings an extraordinary range of understated emotion to every scene. She is lovely, commanding, and entirely unafraid to express an elegant yet ripe sensuality that is riveting. Whether clad in lingerie or a crisp white hat and dress that make her look like a cover model for The Saturday Evening Post, her Barbara is full of surprises. Her rainy love scene with Gable is a sight to behold.
The Whore-Madonna argument has been blown to bits by now, with the pieces re-assembled in such a way as to allow the leading ladies full experience as human beings. They are good, they are bad, they are both, they are neither: they are real.
Cinematic triangles tend to end as quickly as they start. Red Dust‘s is no exception. The last fifteen minutes of the movie race towards the closing credits in an exhilarating, adventurous, funny flash. We haven’t seen much of Gene Raymond up until this point, but his best scenes come at the end. Dennis decides to man up and ride out to the survey site, which is hours away, just so that he can tell Gary that he has fallen in love with his wife and that they will be starting a new life together. Never mind, apparently, that Gary just started his new life with her a few months before. Dennis’ plan is thwarted as soon as he arrives and finds there is a bigger beast to face: a tiger that has been scaring the workers. Although Gary expresses a wistful desire to kill the animal so he can present the pelt to Barbara, when the time comes demigod Dennis is the one who prevails. It is no surprise that the resident cuckold misses the shot, as he spends the entire scene chattering away about his romantic plans for his post-colonial life with the Mrs.
Dennis conveniently grows a conscience, and hastily rides back to the plantation with a new resolve to end things with Barbara. Gary is befuddled, until an obliging co-worker spills the beans. This is where Raymond finally gets to act. He does a swell job as he shows Gary’s transition from disbelief to shock to anger. It only lasts a few seconds, but it is his best contribution to the film. As he decides to follow Dennis into the night, the chase is on and the film is about to reach its feverish peak.
Back at ye old wanton homestead, Dennis announces to Vantine that he has become noble. This is his way of saying that he has decided not to ruin the Willis’ marriage, and that he would also, pretty please, like to hook up with her again. Good boy, but not soon enough. Their next battle royale is off and rocketing when Barbara walks in and catches them fooling around. Realizing that Dennis has thrown her over for Vantine, Barbara pretty ostentatiously loses her wits: she pulls out a gun that was hidden somewhere in her lingerie and shoots her wayward lover. If she had only been able to hold her sanity together for another 30 seconds, all would have been (relatively) well: the ever-ineffective Gary arrives just after the bullet pierces flesh. Dennis, being all freshly gallant, takes the blame by insisting that he made an unwanted pass at Barbara. The ever-loyal Vantine backs up her man. Although Gary loses his innocence, his marriage and his wife’s future are saved.
Sounds dramatic, no? The action, no matter how sordid, is punched up with hilarious badinage. Though volatile and fast-paced, it is fresh and funny and endlessly watchable. It ends exactly as a lifetime of movie watching tells you it will, only better: with risqué repartee, logical action, terrific acting, and, of course, jokes. It is, after all, a comedy. Trust me.
The ensemble cast of Red Dust is marvelous, turning in some of their best performances. The dialogue is top-notch. There are a couple of actors not mentioned in the body of the review who deserves a few words here. Donald Crisp, as Guidon, is terrific. He actually has some of the film’s best lines; unfortunately, his character disappears for most of the second half of the film. He also does not further the plot in any way. Willie Fung’s Hoy, the house boy, is pretty well demented. I do not know how else to explain it, than to say he seems like he is off his meds. It is almost disturbing.
CAST: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond, Mary Astor, Donald Crisp, Tully Marshall, Forrester Harvey, Willie Fung.
CREW: Director/Victor Fleming; Screenplay/John Lee Mahin (based on the play by Wilson Collison).
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
TRIVIA: Red Dust was added to the National Film Registry in 2006. It was re-imaged in 1953 as Mogambo, and starred Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and Donald Sinden. It lacks the humour of the original.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: (Barbara Willis, on a kiss with Dennis Carson): It’s just one of those moments. (Vantine): Well, watch out for the next moment. It’s longer than the first.