Red Dust (1932) is something of an anomaly in that it’s everything you don’t expect from that most conservative of studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is rough, brief, to the point and gleefully trashy. The funny thing about MGM is that on the occasions when they went off the rails of “good taste,” they went off the rails with a vengeance — and presumably when Louis B. Mayer wasn’t looking. That’s certainly the case here with this very pre-code melodrama — with much comedy content — of sex and lust set on a rubber plantation in Indochina. The premise finds plantation foreman Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) at first sliding into a carefree sexual relationship with a lady of what they used to call easy virtue, Vantine (Jean Harlow), who’s come up the river from Saigon. For Dennis, it’s a pleasant distraction. For Vantine, it’s something more, but she accepts her lot and heads back down the river — at least until her boat runs aground. In the meantime, a new surveyor Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives with an unexpected and attractive wife, Barbara (Mary Astor). Willis also has a good case of fever and it falls to Dennis to pull him through — in the process of which he and Barbara become attracted to each other, a situation not helped by the lovestruck and unapologetically vulgar Vantine.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess how this is going to go — or, for that matter, to spot that Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) owes a signficant debt to this movie. What matters, however, is how much entertainment value is to be had from the film’s barbed dialogue and unabashedly steamy sexuality. This was the first film that really presented Gable as the Gable we know and much the same can be said of Harlow (though she was even more happily amoral in Red-Headed Woman made just before it). There’s an earthy, unbridled sexuality to to the pair of them (it’s easy to see why Mary Astor’s ready to toss out her boring husband for Gable) that’s still appealing 80 years on. They feel uncommonly real and their comedic by-play works at every turn. And Harlow’s down-to-earth vulgarity is always a delight — whether she’s asking the parrot whose cage she’s cleaning, “Whaddya been eatin’? Cement?” or marveling over a children’s story, “A rabbit and a chipmunk! I wonder how this is gonna turn out.” Gable remade the film in 1953 for John Ford as Mogambo. Among other things, it’s just not as sexy or as much fun as Victor Fleming’s original.
Victor Fleming (and despite what the IMDb says, he isn’t “uncredited,” just because they are unable to grasp that “A Victor Fleming Production” is the 1932 equivalent of “A Victor Fleming Film”) is an odd figure in movie history. It would seem that the guy whose name appears as the director of those two much-prized 1939 showpieces, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz would be one of our more lionized filmmakers. Yet he’s almost unknown today outside of pretty hardcore movie geek circles. That’s probably because his two most famous films are so obviously committee made corporate works without distinctive directorial styles. (GWTW bears designer William Cameron Menzies’ signature more than anyone’s.) In a way that’s too bad because Fleming — never a major stylist — at his best and unconstrained by too much studio in the way of dictates produced some entertaining and brisk pictures, as this one attests. Next week the AFS is running his follow-up film, Bombshell — a movie supposedly based on his experiences dating a dizzy actress. In the film, the character is played by Jean Harlow, and the film directly addresses the making of Red Dust.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Red Dust Tuesday, March 5 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.