Saturday, June 24, 2017

Stubs - San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936) Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt, Ted Healy Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Screenplay by Anita Loos. Produced by John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman. Black and White. Run Time: 115 minutes. U.S.A. Drama, Musical, Disaster

When we think of disaster films, we tend to think of the 1970’s and Irwin Allen, called the “Master of Disaster.” His productions included such films as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). These films helped to define the disaster genre, with their over-the-top situations and its stable of star cameo appearances. But while Allen may have been the Master, he was far from the first to make a disaster film.

The genre dates back to the beginnings of film, with Fire! (1901) made by James Williamson of England. Throughout silent films, disaster films were being made. The Titanic, which sank in 1912, was the subject of a pair of films, In Nacht und Eis (1912) and Atlantis (1913). The Bible was used as the basis for Noah’s Ark (1928). The trend continued when films added sound. Tidal waves destroy New York City in Deluge (1933) not to mention New York being ravaged by a giant ape in King Kong (1933). Add to the list, The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), a film about the real volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. So, it should be no surprise that the destruction of San Francisco only 30 years prior should be fodder for Hollywood.

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 AM, a 7.8 earthquake struck San Francisco and Northern California. Not only were at least 3000 people killed, but most of the city was razed as a result. When gas lines ruptured, fires spread. Without water, they were forced to blow up buildings with the hope of creating fire breaks. Damage and death were felt as far away as Santa Rosa and San Jose. The earthquake was so strong that the course of the Salinas River in Monterey County was permanently diverted 6 miles south.

The aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake that struck San Francisco.

So, I know what you’re asking, “If San Francisco is a disaster film why is the genre musical?” You can’t have Jeanette MacDonald in a movie and not have singing. She made several early sound films with Maurice Chevalier at Paramount, but is perhaps best known for her work with Nelson Eddy at M-G-M. Her popularity was near its height during 1936, in which she starred with Eddy in one of the highest-grossing films, Rose-Marie, and with Clark Gable in San Francisco.

The first draft of the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz based on a story by Robert Hopton on January 18, 1935, but was rewritten by Anita Loos. While most screenwriters were male, Loos was arguably the first-ever staff scriptwriter, thanks to D.W. Griffith, who put her on the payroll at Triangle Film Corporation. By then she had already written hundreds of scripts. Between 1912 and 1915, she wrote 105, all but four of which were produced. After leaving Triangle, Roos went to work for Douglas Fairbanks, writing the films that would make him a star.

Loos is also known for the racy comic novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), which was adapted into a Broadway musical and twice made into a movie. While the film from 1928 is now lost, the 1953 musical version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is the best-known adaptation.

After several rewrites, Loos had the screenplay that would be made into San Francisco. Even though Loos had written the script with Clark Gable in mind, actor Bruce Cabot was tested for the lead. Several other actors were supposed to appear in the film, including Mickey Rooney.

The film went into production on February 14, 1936, and didn’t conclude until May 14th , which is a long schedule for back then when studios were releasing about one film a week.

When the film opens, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) and Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) are in their shorts boxing. Tim manages to knock Blackie down before they call the exercise off. Blackie gets dressed in his suit while Tim puts on his collar. Blackie, as it turns out, is a saloonkeeper and gambler, while Tim is a Roman Catholic priest.

Club-owner Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) boxing with
his best friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy).

On New Year’s Day 1906, there are fires along the Barbary Coast which interrupt the revelries of Blackie Norton, the owner of the Paradise Club. At first, he’s worried that it is his club that’s on fire, but when he sees that it’s not, he rushes to the blaze to help in the rescue of two children trapped inside.

Afterward, he returns to the Paradise, where Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) has come looking for work. A recent arrival from Benson, Colorado, Mary is the daughter of a country preacher and out-of-work. Even though she has no experience other than singing in the church choir, Blackie likes her and offers her a two-year contract to sing at his club. He lets her stay at his place, to sleep on the couch, but as a precaution, she locks his door to keep him in his room.

Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) sings for Blackie while Mat (Ted Healy) watches.

The next morning, she’s gone, but Blackie can’t worry about her, because a citizen’s group, upset by the New Year’s Eve fires, come to urge Blackie to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on the promise of reforming the outdated fire code, as well as protect the interests of the Barbary Coast's merchants and club owners.

Blackie is encouraged by Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), his childhood friend, and accepts the challenge. His candidacy prompts Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a Nob Hill resident and the owner of tenements along the Barbary Coast, to come to Blackie and advise him against running.

Burley also owns the Tivoli Opera House and comes accompanied by the Tivoli’s maestro, Signor Baldini (William Ricciardi), who hears Mary’s singing and they immediately offer her an audition. But even though Mary has aspirations to become an opera singer, Blackie refuses to let her out of her contract with him.

Another reason to have Mary sing; Blackie sends her to Father Mullin's church.

One night, between her shows at the Paradise, Blackie sends Mary to sing at Father Mullin’s church to be one of the singers at the unveiling of their new pipe organ. It gives the two of them a chance to talk. Tim tells Mary about his boyhood friendship with Blackie and expresses the hope that Blackie will one day act as a force for good.

Father Mullin and Mary talk about Blackie.

Later, Burley offers to buyout Blackie’s contract with Mary, but Blackie leaves the decision up to her. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mary decides to stay at the Paradise. Blackie tells her then that he’s crazy about her and sets out to throw a party to celebrate their new relationship. But quickly, Mary starts to feel like just another conquest for Blackie and flees to the Tivoli.

On her opening night at the opera house, Burley proposes to her, but she does not accept. Later, Blackie shows up accompanied by a process server, bent on enforcing his contract with Mary and stopping the show. But when he hears her singing, Blackie is so moved that he physically stops the process server from fulfilling his duty.

Blackie and Jack Burley (Jack Holt) are rivals for Mary's affections.

After the show, Blackie goes backstage to Mary’s dressing room. She knows that she loves him and proposes marriage to him. Burley learns from Blackie about their plans and appeals to Mary, but Blackie presents her with an ultimatum by asking if she wants to marry him or stay at the Tivoli.

Backstage before her first performance back at the Paradise, Mary asks Blackie if they can set a date for the wedding. He tells her that he wants to wait until after the election. Tim comes to the Club.

Mary's "revealing" outfit is too much for Father Tim and he
tries to prevent her from performing at Blackie's club.

When he sees the revealing costume that Blackie has her dressed in he denounces Blackie for exploiting her. Tim tries to prevent her from going onstage. In the scuffle, Blackie punches Tim. When Mary sees that, she quits and leaves with the Father.

Burley’s mother (Jessie Ralph) convinces Mary to accept her son’s proposal after telling her that Blackie is not a good man for her. She relates her own story, starting as a washerwoman in Portsmouth Square. She had a man like Blackie in her life but chose instead to marry a solid man like the Elder Burley. Hearing that story convinces Mary to make her choice.

Burley celebrates his winning of Mary by arranging to have the Paradise’s liquor license revoked. Police raid the Paradise the night of the Chickens Ball, a competition that Blackie’s performers have won every year. They close down the club and jail his performers. Blackie really needs the prize money to help finance his campaign, but with his entertainers jailed he has no hope. He receives yet another blow when his friend Mat (Ted Healy) informs Blackie that the citizen’s group is withdrawing their support for his candidacy because the campaign has become too personal.

Mary and Burley attend the Chickens Ball and are confronted by Della Bailey (Margaret Irving), an old and loyal friend of Blackie’s, who tells them what she really thinks of Burley for closing down the Paradise.

Della Bailey (Margaret Irving) a "friend" of Blackie's brings him to
the Chickens Ball to hear Mary sing on behalf of his club.

With the competition almost over, Mary announces that she’ll be performing on behalf of the Paradise. Della sends for Blackie, while Mary gets on stage, where she sings a crowd-pleasing rendition of “San Francisco,” a song written especially for the movie by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. But just as she is about to be declared the winner, Blackie arrives and refuses to take the award from her. Feeling humiliated, Mary prepares to leave with Burley when the earth starts to shake and the building begins to crumble. Even though Mary and Blackie call out for each other, they are separated in the chaos.

The quake strikes and destroys San Francisco.

Within a few minutes, San Francisco is destroyed and Blackie is buried when a wall collapses on top of him. After the earthquake subsides, Blackie pulls himself out of the rubble and goes searching for Mary. There are fires breaking out all over the city, but without water, the firemen are resorting to dynamiting buildings with the hope of stopping the fires.

Blackie walks the streets looking for Mary.

Blackie finds Burley’s dead body and then walks to the family’s Nob Hill mansion. Mrs. Burley is being evacuated so that her home can be dynamited. She already seems resigned to the death of her son and tells Blackie that they both need “God’s help.”

Blackie goes to Nob Hill to tell Mrs. Burley (Jessie Ralph)
about her son's death. They watch as San Francisco burns.

After wandering around the city, Blackie finds Tim, who is doing his part in comforting the injured. Blackie asks him if he’s seen Mary. Realizing Blackie’s contrition, Tim takes him to a refugee camp where Mary is leading the dispossessed in a hymn. Mary sees Blackie as he kneels down in prayer to thank God for sparing Mary. She goes to his side and they’re reunited just as word comes that the fires are finally out.

Mary is, what else, leading the survivors in a hymn.

Blackie and Mary join the others as they march back to the city singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” The film ends at a vantage point looking down at the city in ruins and then morphs into a then modern view of the city following reconstruction.

The film proved to be quite popular. Made on a budget of $1.3 million, according to MGM records the film earned $5,273,000 ($2,868,000 domestically and $2,405,000 overseas) and made a profit of $2,237,000. The film would also be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Outstanding Production; Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke); Best Actor (Spencer Tracy); Best Writing (Original Story) for Robert Hopkins; Best Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and winning for Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer).

For an early disaster film, the effects were considered state of the art, though nowadays they seem almost quaint with its use of models. This is definitely in the days before CGI and before special effects were considered worthy of awards. But there is more to the film than some shaking, collapses and fires. This is supposed to be a romance set against the tragedy, something James Cameron would do as well in Titanic (1997).

The star of the film, Clark Gable, plays his usual macho man with a soft heart that he would play in many of his films. He is what was considered a man’s man back in the day with heavy drinking, gambling and a way with the ladies. Again, this doesn’t seem to be a real stretch for him. Despite that, he was somewhat nervous about appearing in a musical opposite Jeanette MacDonald without being able to sing himself.

And while MacDonald can sing, she is not my cup of tea. Her voice may be a great delight to some, but for me, every time she opens her mouth to sing, it is like so many fingernails on a chalkboard. I have never been a fan and this is not the film to change that opinion. She plays wholesome well, but at 32 or 33, her age when she made the film, she is a little too old for the just starting out role.

Spencer Tracy doesn’t seem to have a big enough role to have been nominated for Best Actor. While an important character, his is clearly in a supporting role in this film. Tracy, like many film actors, had a stage background, and was once called “the best-goddamned actor I've ever seen" by none other than George M. Cohan. There doesn’t seem to be a part that he couldn’t play and excel at, however, this is not really a showcase for his talents, nor does the role seem to challenge him much.

Ted Healy, who has the role of Mat, may not have been a big star or even a name you might recognize, but he is responsible for one of the most famous comedic trios to ever grace the silver screen. Healy started out in Vaudeville, working in an act that included his childhood friend, Moses Horowitz. The two would eventually go their separate ways and Healy would have a very successful career, becoming one of its highest paid actors on the circuit, making $9000 a week. He added acts to his stage show, even including acrobats.

It was when Healy’s acrobats quit in 1922 that Moses would re-enter the picture. Moses, also known as Moe Howard, became a part of the act, eventually adding his brother Shemp in 1923 and Larry Fine in 1925 and the Three Stooges were born, even though they were sometimes known as “Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen,” "The Three Lost Souls" and “Howard, Fine and Howard.” The group would eventually part ways with Healy in 1930 over a movie contract.

Director W.S. Van Dyke had once worked with famed and infamous silent film director D.W. Griffith, now an outcast in Hollywood. But Van Dyke put his old boss to work, having him direct some of the mob scenes in the film. Another silent director, Erich von Stroheim, who by now was acting and not directing in films, also helped with the screenplay, but without receiving credit.

Overall, San Francisco is more of a time capsule than a really great movie. While I wouldn’t discourage you to watch it, there are other films from this time period that I would recommend more. If you’re a fan of Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, then you will enjoy seeing these two actors together. If you’re a fan of Jeanette MacDonald, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Be sure to check out our Academy Awards Review Hub for more films which were nominated and won Hollywood's most prestiguous award. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight

Following the release and success of Age of Extinction, an effort has been made to turn the Transformers Live-Action Film Series into a Cinematic Universe as a way to cash-in on the recent trend to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This includes releasing a new Transformers film every year, or at least for the next three years, starting with the fifth installment, subtitled The Last Knight. In my anticipation to see this movie after enjoying the previous installment, I was able to view an early screening at AMC in 3D IMAX, in what was called the Optimus Prime Time event, in which attendees to the screening also received a free T-shirt and lanyard commemorating the event. While the movie certainly has flaws, I still enjoyed the movie, which I see as a good sign for the new direction of the Transformers Live-Action Film Series going forward.

In medieval England, the Knights of the Round Table are struggling in an epic battle, prompting the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci) to summon the aid of the Knights of Iacon, whose existence he had previously kept secret. In the present day, the world has fallen into chaos in the wake of Optimus Prime’s departure at the end of Age of Extinction, with Transformers being hunted down by a new group called the TRF. Meanwhile, on Cybertron, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has met his maker, Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who subsequently brainwashes him, now under the name Nemesis Prime, into carrying out her plan to restore Cybertron at the cost of Earth.

The plot of the movie is generally easy to follow, although I will admit that the plethora of new characters introduced may muddy things for some people, as it now gives them more things to keep track of. That said, the movie seems to have embraced going in a sillier direction where it does not take itself so seriously, which I think will help the new Cinematic Universe in the long run. Though there is plenty of humor and well-spaced action scenes, a lot of the humor comes from an increase in cursing and rude gestures, however these things are not new to this continuity. On the subject of continuity, there are plenty of call-backs not only to previous installments in the Live-Action Film Series, but also to a number of things previously established in the Transformers mythos.

The visual effects are spectacular as always, especially in 3D, with each robot designed in a way to help them stand out, such as bright colors and more streamlined designs. There are, however, still a good amount of moving mechanical parts to provide some solid eye candy for those looking for it. The acting is also good, with some voice actors providing multiple roles in a way that still sound unique from each other. A couple stand-outs include Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (as always) and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmond Burton, the latter of which provides a good source of humor and helps tie the story to its medieval theme.

Transformers: The Last Knight is an excellent installment in the Transformers Live-Action Film Series and a great celebration of the series' 10th anniversary. The story manages to make great use of its medieval theme, though, while not a complicated plot, there’s evidently at least a couple of retcons to try and make it work and the huge number of new characters can make some viewers not follow the fight scenes as easily. Still, this movie proves to be a step in the right direction for the new Cinematic Universe and is easily a must-see for both Transformers fans and fans of the Live-Action Film Series in particular.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Job Simulator

Originally released for the HTC Vive, Job Simulator is an early VR title with the rather interesting premise of an interactive simulator recreating menial jobs based on how a robot understands them in the future. After hearing about this title and seeing gameplay footage, I became curious as to how I would feel while playing it, and picked up a physical copy that had been released for the PlayStation VR. The game itself turned out to be quite entertaining, as well as proving to be what I think is a good introduction to VR.

The plot is fairly simple: You are a human in 2050 after robots have taken over jobs, and the robot Jobbot walks you through simulations exploring what (they think) having a human job was like. There are 4 jobs to pick from (Office Worker, Gourmet Chef, Store Clerk, Auto Mechanic), though the entertainment value comes from how the robots seem to not completely understand how various human activities work, such as burning CDs and baking a cake. Various bits of dialogue from Jobbot and posters featured in the 2050 archives help to flesh out what exactly happened prior to the events of the game, however you are only given enough information to leave the rest to your imagination. The visuals are fairly simple, however they work for the setting and are rendered well enough to immerse the player in its world.

Now you, too, can experience the life of an office worker in the comfort of VR.

The controls are very simple, in that you use the Move controllers to perform various tasks as given on a board. The game levels are designed well, making it so that everything you need to do is within arm’s length while still featuring a lot of things to discover within your surroundings. While you are told what to do in order to advance a stage, the game will at points give you some freedom to accomplish these tasks as you please, including a chance at the end of each stage to do as you please until you decide to leave the chosen job. There is also some replay value in the ability to add mods to the jobs once you’ve completed all of them (among them having lower gravity), though whether they really add to the experience is up to the player. As a side note, each level also features references to pop culture, though not such that they are in your face, and the type of reference made seems to differ between levels.

Job Simulator is a great example of an early VR title, though it’s original $30 price tag is not exactly worth it, since the entire game can be beaten within a couple of hours (I got it at a discount of $20, which seemed more worth it to me). Still, it has a great sense of humor and is a good way to get one acquainted with the realm of VR. The experience may not last long, though it’s still well worth giving it a shot.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review Hub - Batman

Since his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman has become one of, if not the, best known characters in comic book history, with arguably the best known rogues gallery in existence (most famously The Joker). His various incarnations across different media should serve as a testament to his popularity, as should Detective Comics holding the record for the longest continuously-running American comic book (as of this posting, it will also be the one of the first American comic books to achieve a legitimate #1000, alongside Action Comics).

Below is a list of links to every Batman review on this blog, sorted by series and in a general order. (Links to related reviews are listed in parenthesis.)

Update (12/16/2017): Added Justice League
Update (6/23/2018): Added Batman Ninja
Update (5/4/2019): Added Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders
Update (5/11/2019): Added Batman (1989)
Update (5/18/2019): Added Batman & Robin
Update (5/25/2019): Added Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, The LEGO Movie 2
Update (6/14/2019): Added Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Batman (1966)

Burton/Schumacher Series


Batman: The Animated Series/Batman Beyond

The Dark Knight Trilogy


DC Extended Universe


For a list of additional links, visit our Review Hub for the DC Extended Universe.





Batman: Arkham Knight [Review blurb in the link]

Arkham (Comics)


Injustice: Gods Among Us

DC Universe Animated Original Movies


Batman: Arkham VR

One of the earliest titles available for the PlayStation VR was Batman: Arkham VR, developed by Rocksteady as part of the Batman: Arkham universe. The idea behind the game is to use the relatively new VR technology to make you feel like the Dark Knight himself. For the most part, it works really well, but it still falls a little short as an experimental title.

Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is informed by his butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Hugh Fraser), that Robin (Tom Austen) and Nightwing haven’t reported in for an unusual length of time. As this is cause for concern, Batman must go out and investigate their whereabouts, finding that both of them are in unusual locations. When he sees that Nightwing is dead, the investigation turns into finding out the identity of the killer as well the location of Robin.

The story is fairly easy to follow and, in true Arkhamverse fashion, grows darker and creepier as the game continues. This all leads to a very tense and frightening finale, which takes full advantage of the VR environment and shows a lot of potential for the technology. Unfortunately, while the story is well-written and engaging, and ties in well with Batman: Arkham Knight, it only lasts about thirty minutes to an hour and that’s if you’re not looking for secrets. At that point, it doesn’t completely feel worth the MSRP of $20.

What also doesn’t help is the general lack of replay value. After completing the main story, you gain the option to search most of the levels again for the obligatory Riddler trophies. Finding these trophies unlocks additional character models and bios you can view in the Batcave, as well as additional vehicles, the latter of which has no real effect on gameplay. These vehicles are drawn from Batman’s television and film history, including as recent as the Batmobile from 2016’s Batman v Superman and as old as the Batmobile from the 1966 Adam West series. Apart from Riddler trophies, there are also a number of destructible objects and optional easter eggs related to Batman lore, as well as some foreshadowing to Arkham VR’s ending and Batman’s mental state in Batman: Arkham Knight. Unfortunately, even if you did take the time to check every nook and cranny to find or destroy every single object, the entire game is still only about three to four hours long at the most.

One of the puzzles is recreating the crime scene for Nightwing's death.

That said, the gameplay is rather impressive for an experimental VR title. Arkham VR does an excellent job of making you feel like Batman, especially since you go through a phase at the beginning where you have to put on the Batsuit. Over the course of the game, you have access to three gadgets on Batman’s utility belt: the throwable Batarang, the Grapnel Gun and the Forensic Scanner. Using these gadgets at the right moments will allow you to solve puzzles during each of the game’s nine chapters and get Batman one step closer to finding Nightwing’s killer. It feels really cool to be able to throw a Batarang with your own motions and to control each object in the game with 1:1 movement.

However, there are some limitations to the gameplay, likely due to its experimental nature and the relative infancy of the VR market. You are not allowed to move around freely throughout each environment, as movement is restricted to teleporting to predetermined locations in your line of sight. Despite this, you are still able to use your own physical movements to move a couple steps around you, as well as look around objects or lean in for a closer look (Tip: looking around digital objects with physical movement is required to access a couple of Riddler trophies). Additionally, there isn’t much to speak of in the way of action. Instead, you spend much of your time using Batman’s gadgets to solve puzzles in a 360° space. While this does emphasize Batman’s role as a detective, it may leave fans of his action side wanting more. Also, while the game does generally do a good job of telling you what you can and can’t do, it doesn’t explain that you can zoom in on the environment by holding the Move controller to your head and pressing the Trigger button.

On a technical note, the graphics are very impressive, fully capturing the look and feel of the Batman: Arkham universe down to the color palette and level of detail. The environmental sounds also help to sell that you’re within the world of Gotham and the voice acting is top notch, seeing as you get to hear more Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill among others.

While by no means perfect, Batman: Arkham VR is a very solid experimental title. The game does an excellent job of pulling the player into the world of Gotham and making them feel like the Caped Crusader. In exchange, the player has to contend with restricted movement, a lack of combat and a heightened emphasis on detective work and puzzle solving. Even with the game’s shortcomings, it’s worth playing for the ability to feel like Batman and become a true part of Gotham’s dark atmosphere. However, its short length, about three to four hours at the most, and lack of long-term replay value barely justifies the $20 price point. If you can get it at a good price, it’s one VR title worth picking up.

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.