Red Dust (1932) Directed by Victor Fleming. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor (83 min.)

Somerset Maugham's Rain started a cycle of "tramps in the tropics" films. In Red Dust, a Saigon hooker on the lam hides out on an Indochinese rubber plantation run by sweaty roughneck Clark Gable. Gable was a new kind of romantic hero. He became a big star after playing a racketeer who shoved around the queen of MGM in A Free Soul. He got thousands of fan letters addressed only to "the guy who slapped Norma Shearer." Jean Harlow's platinum hair blazed like a comet across the screen in the early 1930s, until her death at 26. Her tough-talking sarcasm and startling appearance created that rarest of creations, a sexpot who could make an audience laugh.

Before there was a movie ratings system, there was the Production Code. Censorship had existed in one form or another since cinema's beginnings. But, after the financial double-whammy of the talkies and the Depression, Hollywood excitedly turned to tried and true formulas; blood and guts and hot-cha-cha. As Thomas Doherty writes in Pre-Code Hollywood: "They look like Hollywood cinema, but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe." These films, made between 1930-34, in image and language, implicitly and explicitly, point to the road not taken. Prior to 1934, there was lots of racy sex, and crime did pay. Thanks to the Legion of Decency, after 1934, there was Shirley Temple.

Red Dust is a hot-blooded example of a lot of things that would soon be banned from the movies until the 1960s. Jean Harlow is a slut, Mary Astor an adultress, Clark Gable a two-timing cad. No one suffers for the sins of the flesh, and nothing happens that is the least bit subtle or ambiguous. You are invited to create your own carnal images with each suggestive fade-out.

Fashions for 1932. These gorgeous gowns were created for Jean Harlow, the United Artists star, by Mr. Edward Stevenson, Creator of Fashions for Blakely House, Los Angeles, California. Jean is striking in this fascinating black and white angel skin satin evening gown. It is distinguished by its crossing diagonal bands in black satin, which widen into circular panels at the side, with a dolman sleeved jacket banded at the cuff with silver fox.


The Motion Picture Production Code was written in 1930 by an industry watchdog group, much like that which assigns movie ratings today. But, for a variety of reasons, it was not enforced until the Legion of Decency applied pressure in 1934, threatening government interference unless the movies were "cleaned up." Just a few of the Code principles that you are about to see violated: No plot should present sin or evil alluringly. The triangle, that is the love of a 3rd party for one already married, needs careful handling, if marriage, the sanctity of the home and sex morality are not to be imperiled. Adultery is not a fit subject for comedy, and should not be made to appear either delightful or daring. Seduction, when essential to the plot, must not be more than suggested. Scenes of passion and lustful and prolonged kissing should not be presented in such as way as to arouse or excite the passions of the ordinary spectator. Exposure of the body for the sake of exposure and scenes of undressing are to be avoided, and so on.

The entire film was shot on an MGM sound stage, a fabricated Indochinese landscape complete with working river. Live moths were released before every take, and the indoor rain storms created a rather foul smelling jungle. The hot lights vaporized the water creating waves of steam on clothes and skin, and the prop man had to heat water in a teakettle to pour on the actors before each take.

 

Civilization vs. the Jungle: Gene Raymond, Clark Gable, Mary Astor

 

Jean Harlow was a pampered only child from a well-to-do Kansas family. She never knew the poverty and desperation that fueled so many show business careers. She became friends with Gable, with whom she had much in common. He was also a Midwestern only child, they'd both married young, and showed a preference for much older partners. They were both embarrassed by being marketed as sex symbols, and like so many such film icons, their sexual magnetism was reserved for the screen, not their private lives.

 

Clark Gable has just completed "Strange Interlude" opposite Norma Shearer--of course you know it's the famous play by Eugene O'Neill which made such a sensation a season or so ago. Its release will be one of the cinema events of the year. Off-screen, Clark often wears a white turtle necked sweater and drives a twelve cylinder black sports coupe. He admits his ears are too large. He saves money. Doesn't like parties, but gets loads of invitations--obviously. He is still a novice at polo. His special buddy is Wallace Beery.

During the filming, Jean Harlow's husband, MGM executive Paul Bern, either committed suicide, or was murdered by his common law wife, who committed suicide shortly afterwards. He may or may not have left a famous note which said in part, "last night was only a comedy..." The studio was called before the police, and evidence was probably removed and replaced. Protecting a valuable star property was vital and scandals, and even murders, had been covered up in Hollywood before. Harlow was never under suspicion. Shortly after the funeral she went back to work, and Red Dust became one of 1932's biggest moneymakers.. Audiences may have come to search her face for traces of tragedy, but the picture was too good to be only a source of morbid curiosity. For the first time, a star survived a scandal.

"Jim" Jean Harlow's hairdresser, "One day she went to Jim's and had him turn her red hair platinum--and that was a red letter day for Jean's life--for from then on she was fortune's favorite child." From "Secrets of the Beauty Parlor, in the February, 1933 New Movie Magazine.

Political incorrectness alert: the Asian servant, Hoy, is a relic from a less enlightened era. Who would have anticipated the terrible familiarity we'd have 30 years later with the citizens of Viet Nam?

In Red Dust the slobs are smarter than the swells. Harlow's Vantine is either a good girl with a streak of badness or a bad girl with a streak of goodness. Either way, her uniquely effortless vulgarity, humor and slovenliness create the rarest of Hollywood goddesses, the beautiful clown.

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(Harlow photo from December, 1932, Silver Screen Magazine. Gable photo from Hilda Price's 1932 Movie Star Scrapbook. Production still from Films in Review)

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