Saturday, June 17, 2017

Stubs - Red Dust

Red Dust (1932) Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond, Mary Astor. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by John Mahin.  Based on the play Red Dust by Wilson Collison (New York, 2 Jan 1928). Producer: Hunt Stromberg Run Time: 83 min. USA. Romance, Drama, Pre-Code

Jean Harlow was as close as one can get to being an overnight sensation. She was married at 15 to Charles "Chuck" Fremont McGrew, four years her elder. Afterwards the couple moved to Beverly Hills and, there to win a bet with aspiring actress Rosalie Roy, Harlow went on an audition. She finally received a job in a film, Honor Bound (1928), as an uncredited extra. She would appear in bit roles in several films before signing a five-year deal with Hal Roach in December 1928. There, she appeared with Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee (1929), Liberty (1929) and Bacon Grabbers (1929). But her film career put a strain on her marriage and Roach let her out of her contract in March 1929. But in June of that year, Harlow separated from McGrew.

Her big break came later that year when she was spotted by James Hall, an actor working on Howard Hughes’ World War One epic Hell’s Angels (1930). Hughes was having to reshoot much of the film as part of Hollywood’s overall transition from silent to sound. The original leading lady, Greta Nissen, a Norwegian-born actress, had an accent that unfortunately didn’t translate well to sound. After an audition, Harlow was hired and the film went on to be the highest-grossing film of the year, making Harlow an international star, even if the critics didn’t love her as much. She was all of 19.

During the shooting, Harlow met Paul Bern, an MGM executive, a man who would play a big part in her life both professionally and personally. Hughes lent her out to other studios for such films as The Secret Six (1931) at MGM, The Public Enemy (1931) at Warner Bros and Platinum Blonde (1931) at Columbia. Soon, Bern was romantically linked to Harlow and tried to get his boss, Louis B. Mayer, to buy out her contract with Hughes, but Mayer didn’t see her as being up to MGM’s elegant standards for their leading ladies and found her screen persona abhorrent. Undeterred, Bern turned to Irving Thalberg, the head of production and Bern’s close friend.

Reluctantly, Thalberg agreed and on her 21st birthday, purchased her contract from Hughes for $30,000. Her first film after signing her MGM contract was Red Headed Woman (1932) and her second, Red Dust.

Clark Gable was already a star at MGM, having appeared in such films as Dance Fools Dance (1931) opposite Joan Crawford; A Free Soul (1931) opposite Norma Shearer; Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) with Greta Garbo; and Possessed (1931) with Crawford again. But it would be Red Dust that would make him MGM’s most important male star.

The movie was based on the play Red Dust by Wilson Collison, which debuted at Daly's 63rd Street Theatre, on January 2, 1928, and played all of eight performances. The three-act play starred Jerome Collamore as Andre Chauvenet; Curtis Cooksey as Lucien Fourville; Leo Curley as McHorg; Lenore Meyrick-Sorsby as Maurice Chauvenet; Leonard Mudie as Jacques Guidon; Sydney Shields as VanTene; and Reo Suga as Hoi. While both the film and the play take place on a rubber plantation in French Indo-China, there were some changes made. To begin with, Lucien Fourville’s character named was changed to a more American sounding Dennis Carson and Andre and Maurice Chauvenet were changed to Gary and Barbara Willis.

The film went into production in late August 1932 and completed a month later. It was during the Labor Day weekend hiatus from the film's production that Harlow's second husband, Paul Bern, committed suicide, just two months after they were married. Although Harlow was absent from filming for ten days, scenes were shot around her and the picture's production was not interrupted.

Red Dust opens on a rubber plantation run by Dennis Carson (Clark Gable). Rubber is the family business and Dennis inherited the plantation from his father. Dennis is out surveying production with "Mac" McQuarg (Tully Marshall) one of the foremen. We get the sense that Carson is getting sick of the work, the heat, the dust one week and the mud – just to make rubber for products “to keep old ladies warm”. When a dust storm arises, the two men head back to the main house to wash up.

When they get there, they find the other foreman, Guidon (Donald Crisp), drunk and asleep on the table. The two men pick him up and carry him into his room, but when they dump his body on his bed, they discover Vantine (Jean Harlow) already there.

Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) and Mac (Tully Marshall) discover Vantine
 (Jean Harlow) already in Guidon's (Donald Crisp) bed

A prostitute by profession, Vantine has hitched a ride on the boat that has come up the river from Saigon. She’s hoping to hide out from the authorities for a while and only took the room when Hoy (Willie Fung) said she could stay there.

Dennis and Vantine bond over cheese of all things.

Dennis is not happy at first to have a woman on the plantation, but Vantine has an easy manner and she’s easy on the eyes. She wears down his resistance, finally breaking the ice with a discussion of cheese preference.
The next boat won’t be for four weeks, so they make the best of the situation and become involved, how much depends on whom you ask. While they take to calling each other “Fred” and “Lily” as a lark, Vantine is more in love with Dennis than he is with her. When the boat arrives from Saigon, with his new engineer on board, Dennis mistakes Vantine’s stammering to say good-bye as her asking for money. He insults her by giving her money.

Dennis pays Vantine for her time when she's leaving.

Getting off the boat as Vantine gets on is Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), the new surveyor Dennis has hired. But he is surprised to see Gary’s wife, Barbara (Mary Astor), also get off the boat. The couple is dressed all in white and stand out almost immediately as outsiders. Dennis is not shy about his contempt for Barbara, even though it turns out he’s very attracted to her. Barbara is not happy with the living conditions, especially that the bath is out in the open. Not the sort of thing for a lady.

Gary (Gene Raymond) and Barbara (Mary Astor) Willis look
out of place as soon as they step off the boat.

Unexpectedly, Vantine returns to the plantation due to trouble with the boat. The confrontation Dennis had hoped to avoid happens over breakfast the next day. Vantine spins a yarn to explain her presence, but it is clear to even her that Barbara doesn’t believe it.

Vantine tells Barbara a story to explain her presence, but Barbara doesn't believe her.

Gary quickly becomes ill, an attack of malaria, and Dennis almost reluctantly helps Barbara take care of him. Dennis refuses to get the doctor or to stay and nurse Gary, and Barbara gets mad and slaps him. But he does end up staying with Gary, nursing him back to health. When Gary is well, Barbara apologizes for her earlier behavior, and it's obvious that Carson has feelings for her. He even brushes Vantine off when he finds her in his room that night.

Barbara needs Dennis to help her take care of Gary, who has become ill with Malaria.

When Gary is able to go back to work, Dennis stays back at the house. Vantine takes the opportunity to flirt with Dennis, taking a bath out in the open in a rain barrel. He worries about Barbara seeing her and he even pushes her down into the water.

Dennis doesn't want Vantine to act improperly in front of a lady.

Barbara does appear and he takes her on an extended tour of the plantation including the "factory" where the rubber "milk" is transformed into rubber. She learns, as we do too, that this is accomplished by adding acidic acid. The rubber is then put through rollers to make it a sheet. Barbara seems impressed.

Barbara gets to see rubber being made.

Barbara is told by Dennis that none of the workers are allowed to bring their wives, as the camp is "no place for a woman." The native women would cause trouble and the white women couldn't "stand the gaff". Dennis admits that he was born to it, and doesn't mind the loneliness, but admits that Vantine is part of the life here, "if a man is interested."

Dennis ends up carrying Barbara back to the main house during a monsoon storm.

Barbara tells him that she aims to be happy and find her place, and thinks she could be happy on the plantation. Dennis asks her if he can make it his job to make her happy. Before she can answer, a sudden storm makes them run for home, and he ends up carrying Barbara, who's dressed in high heels. Vantine sees him carrying Barbara up the stairs into her room, where alone they share a kiss.

"Did the Duchess sprain her ankle?" Vantine asks Dennis when he appears. She knows something is going on between them - the lipstick on his face is a giveaway. Dennis leaves and Barbara, scared of the storm, asks Vantine if she can stay with her. The girls have a chat, both bemoaning the fact that neither of them could resist Dennis’ charms.

That night, everyone sits down to dinner. Gary and Dennis complain openly about the coolies (the indigenous people who work the plantation) and how you can't trust them when your back is turned. Barbara, feeling guilty, excuses herself from the table.

Dennis arranges for Gary and the other men to go on a surveying and construction trip that will take a few weeks and would be too harsh for the women. But Barbara is worried and wants to go with Gary. Vantine threatens Dennis with telling Gary what is going on with his wife. She doesn't though, and while Gary is off, Dennis and Barbara fall in love.

The lovers talk about their future and their plans to get out of "this rotten country." Wanting to get on with their new lives, Dennis says he will tell him the next day when he goes out to visit the men. Barbara is worried because Gary is "so helpless” but she doesn’t stop Dennis from riding out to the work camp.

Out in the jungle, the camp is being threatened by a tiger and the men break up into groups to try and kill it. Gary and Dennis are paired together and they chat while they wait. Gary talks nearly nonstop about how much he loves Barbara and the plans they have for an idyllic life back in the States.

While they wait for a tiger to show, Gary tells Dennis about his plans with Barbara back in the states.

Dennis kills the tiger, but also realizes that he is not right for Barbara. Even though it is night time and it is raining, Dennis insists on riding back to the main house, a six hour trip in the dark. When Gary asks out loud what would make Dennis ride back in a storm, Guidon insinuates in no uncertain words that it’s Gary’s wife. Gary decides to ride after him.

But Dennis has decided to break it off with Barbara and tells Vantine so over a bottle. Dennis tells Vantine that she is more his type and better suited for the life they’re living.

Dennis: It’s a dirty, rotten country.
Vantine: And we're dirty, rotten people, I suppose, eh?
Dennis: Sure.

The two go back to calling each other Fred and Lily, embrace and even playfully wrestle. It’s at that moment that Barbara enters the room and is none too pleased to see what is going on. In an effort to be cruel to be kind, Dennis tells Barbara that he is not a one woman man, but she is welcome to take her turn.

Barbara walks in on Dennis and Vantine getting reacquainted.

Barbara feels wronged and lets Dennis know by shooting him, hitting him in the arm. The timing couldn’t be better as Gary walks in. To explain things and to protect Dennis, Vantine tells him that Dennis, who has had a thing foo Barbara, had gotten drunk and tried to break into her room, but Barbara defended herself. She warns Gary to take his wife away from there. Dennis adds, “You two pack your tennis racquets and go back where you belong."

Gary is proud of how his wife handled Dennis.

Gary is proud of his wife and retorts, "If she hadn't plugged you I would have."

Vantine pushes the bullet out of the wound.

Vantine helps Dennis patch up his wound, even pushing the bullet out the wound on the other end. Later, we see her sitting on Dennis’ bed reading to him from the newspaper, including a bed-time story. The only thing she hasn’t read him, which she finally does, is the notice that Willises are sailing to San Francisco.

While Dennis recuperates, Vantine reads to him from the newspaper.

Finally, Dennis makes his move on Vantine and we’re left assuming they live as happily ever after as two people can in the jungles of Indochina.

Red Dust rolled into theaters on October 22, 1932, and earned $1,223,000 worldwide on a budget of $408,000.

According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection in the AMPAS Library, some territories objected to parts of the film; however, most censor boards approved it for exhibition. Berlin was an exception, having been as Variety termed it "deemed too hot for Nazified Germany.” In a letter from Hays Office representative Col. Jason Joy to MGM executive William Orr, dated 12 Oct 1932, Joy stated: "The sex element has, on the whole, we believe, been handled extremely well."

There are many things that make Red Dust an interesting film. The story about work on a rubber plantation is not something you see very often on screen. Nor would the depiction of an extramarital affair and nudity, though very tame by modern standards, be seen on film for more than three decades. Even at that, the affair is more hinted at through a few kisses and a lot of looks. Jean Harlow was about as naked as you can be on film at that time, but there was no reason to show more than her shoulders above the water.

This film provided outlets for two sets of fans; those attracted to Gable’s good looks and manliness and those attracted to Harlow’s sultry lips and wisecracking mouth. While Gable may be the male lead, it is Harlow who makes the film interesting to watch. She has great comedic timing and delivers the lines as if they were right out of her head. She is fun to watch and listen to throughout the film. It is truly sad that her career would end so suddenly when she died of kidney disease at the age of 26.

Mary Astor, who plays the other woman, should not be overlooked. Astor was all of 26 when she played Barbara but had been in films since having a bit part in Buster Keaton’s short, The Scarecrow (1920). Most of her early films are sadly considered lost and if Hollywood had its way, Astor may never have been a star. When the studios switched over to sound, despite her good looks and talent, Astor was out, her voice deemed too masculine for films and Fox released her from her contract.

She was out of films for a total of eight months, returning in Paramount’s Ladies Love Brutes (1930) starring George Bancroft and Fredric March. She would work steadily until her retirement in 1964 after finishing Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Perhaps best known for her role as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Astor was a good choice to play Barbara in Red Dust.

Gene Raymond had the unenviable task of acting in the shadow of Clark Gable. His role in Red Dust is rather small, though not insignificant, but he is somewhat forgotten in the shadows of Gable, Harlow, and Astor.

Raymond, who would marry Gable’s San Francisco co-star Jeanette MacDonald in 1937, was a homosexual and would be arrested three times for having sex with a man. He would continue to act, however, also co-starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1940) opposite Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.

Willie Fung plays Hoy, not a flattering depiction of the indigenous population.

As good as the film is, Red Dust is still a product of its time. Those looking for political correctness will need to look elsewhere. The Coolies are often held up to ridicule and their image is not helped by the depiction of Hoy by Willie Fung. He is presented as a somewhat idiotic, lazy trouble-maker. Not the best image to put forward. While Fung’s acting is somewhat off-putting, he would have a fairly long career in Hollywood. Born in China, Fung would appear in 125 films in a career that lasted from 1923 to 1945, though usually in uncredited roles.

What makes the film work best besides Harlow's comedic senses, is her interplay with Gable. The two have a very good screen chemistry, which MGM took notice of as well, pairing them in several films. In their first, The Secret Six (1931), neither were stars, though Harlow, not Gable, did receive credit on the movie's poster. While Red Dust would be the first time they co-starred in a film together, it was certainly not the last. The next year, they would appear in Hold Your Man, followed by China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Myrna Loy, and Saratoga (1937), which would sadly be her last film. 

I would recommend Red Dust to anyone who likes Pre-Code films or is fans of Gable, Harlow or Astor. You will not be disappointed.

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