Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust.
Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made six movies together, of which Red Dust was their second. With his man's man persona and her sexy, brassy personality they made a great onscreen couple. Their scenes together are the best parts of an already good movie.
Gable plays Denny, a Rubber Tree Plantation owner in a remote area of Indochina (now known as Vietnam, and amusingly the cast make several references to Saigon, but pronounce it "Say Gone"). Harlow is Vantine, a prostitute who ends up on the plantation just one step ahead of the law. Her and Gable are soon shacked up together and thanks to this being a pre-Hays Code film, it's blatantly obvious that they are having sex. Although to Denny their relationship is just sex, Vantine is soon in love with him, although she doesn't tell him.
When a new engineer shows up on the plantation, Denny finds himself smitten by the engineer's wife, Barbara (Astor). Barbara is everything Vantine isn't. She's refined, delicate and a real lady. Denny finds every excuse he can to send her husband away so he can seduce her and he quickly succeeds. Again, because this is pre-code, Denny and Barbara are actually allowed to have an extra-marital affair.
Despite being thrown over for another woman, Vantine stays hanging around the plantation in the hopes that Denny will change his mind. By the end of the movie he will have to chose between them of course, but whom will he chose?
My biggest problem with this movie is that Barbara is so boring that it's difficult to see why Denny would be attracted to her. I suppose he hasn't seen a real lady in a while, but then he's not exactly a gentleman. Maybe it's just the challenge to see if he can get her to sleep with him, but the script tries to make it seem as if he's actually in love with her rather than just lust.
It is with Vantine, whom he refers to as Lily and she him as Fred, that Denny shares the real chemistry with. They're funny together and she challenges him in a way that Barbara never will. She is also much more suited to the rough plantation life. She also appears to be much less uptight, spending most of the movie lounging around in and nearly falling out of a loosely tied kimono.
One of the movie's most memorable scenes involves Harlow taking a bath in a rain barrel. The scene is referenced in another Harlow film, Bombshell, where the set from this movie is replicated. According to legend, during the filming of the scene, a topless Harlow stood up in the barrel and proclaimed, "Here's one for the boys in the lab!"
This movie was remade as Mogambo in 1953 with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly both vying for the hand of Gable, who reprised his part 21 years after he first played it here. No matter how good that version might be, I can't imagine it's as good as the original without Harlow there to spice things up.
Jean Harlow and Mary Astor both pining for Clark Gable.
Scott, you’re right that Mogambo is not as good as this version, even with the advantages of being shot on location and in color. The setting is changed to Africa and the hair color of the women is reversed, with blonde Grace Kelly playing the Mary Astor part and brunette Ava Gardner stepping in for Jean Harlow. The main reason for Mogambo’s inferiority (besides not having Jean Harlow) is that it is less explicit in the area of the sexual relationships between Gable and the women. 21 years later the Hays Code remained in full effect.
I agree that Harlow steals the movie. She was sassy, sexy and funny as hell. Her bath in the rain barrel scene is indeed a classic, and I cracked up when she started talking about cheese and demonstrating how they slap the cow’s udder around to make it.
The script is full of memorable lines. Even the supporting cast gets several. Tully Marshall as Gable’s old sidekick gets this zinger that he says to Harlow upon first meeting her. “If it was the summer of eighteen hundred and ninety-four, I’d play games with you sister.”
As a huge Mary Astor fan I can’t agree with Scott’s statement about her however. I understand exactly what Gable sees in her. She reminds him of his mother and she is probably the first lady of her stature he has ever met, considering that he was raised on this rubber plantation far from civilization. Her part is certainly not as juicy as Harlow’s but Astor makes the most of it and brings a touch of class to the movie. She is much better in the part than the bland Grace Kelly in the remake.
Gable (pre-mustache) and Harlow at the height of her appeal make a formidable combination in this adventure/romance/comedy.
Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust
Scott, Harlow explains that Gable wants Astor because she is a lady and has class, while Harlow is at first just an easy lay. At the beginning, when she goes to leave she tells Gable, "Good bye." Gable, with his back turned to her nonchalantly says, "Good bye. It's been nice having you." He was a perfect cinematic match for Harlow.
Gable spends the first third of the film telling Harlow to shut up. "Get upstairs and be quiet." He snaps at one point, and in another scene he answers her with, "If you can keep your mouth shut and keep out of the way." At one point Harlow says to Gable, "I know when to keep my mouth shut." He responds, "I hope so." The best one is during the cheese conversation Patrick mentioned. Gable, tired of Harlow's yammering says, "Put the rest of that cheese in your mouth where it will do the most good."
Gable spends the next third of the film wishing and hoping Harlow keeps her mouth shut. She knows of Gable's affair with Astor. A meal becomes very tense as the four principle players sit around a table. Astor, racked with guilt, is barely able to control herself. Gable, of course, plays it smooth while Harlow smirks, waiting for it all to blow up, hopefully sending Gable back into her arms.
In the last third of the film, Gable is grateful that Harlow does not keep quiet. When the affair comes out, Harlow stands up and tells the lie that saves everyone. Gable does the noble thing and gets out of the way of love.
As Scott noted, this is pre-code and we know what is going on behind closed doors. After telling an excited Harlow that he has to break it off with Astor, she smiles and says, "You can check the wings and halo at the desk." He smiles back and says, "I'll be right up."
Photos © Copyright MGM (1932)