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

Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” and the play, silent and talkie film versions titled Rain started a cycle of “tramps in the tropics” stories. In these films, tragic, bedraggled prostitutes have fallen so low that they work in damp colonial outposts, with only the dregs of society as their clientele.   In Red Dust, it’s different.  Jean Harlow’s Vantine may wilt in the heat, but she is tough, cheerful, and refuses to be the focus of anyone’s pity.

She plays a Saigon hooker on the lam, hiding 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.  At just 21 years old, she is the vibrant character you really care about in Red Dust.

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 prostitute, Mary Astor an adultress, Clark Gable a two-timing cad. No one suffers for the sins of the flesh, and even by modern standards, it’s a very sexy film. Gable is not a “great lover” kind of leading man, not suave and romantic but brusque and passionate.  He loves both women, and they both love him.  One reason the relationships feel so real so many years later is the frankness of everyone’s desire, and the film’s lack of interest in punishing any of the characters for wanting to have sex.

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 a 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.

Donald Crisp, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Mary Astor refer to the script.

Red Dust was based on a 1927 play by Wilson Collison which ran for a scant week on Broadway.  MGM thought it might be good for Greta Garbo, but that didn’t work out, and when Jean Harlow was cast, silent film star John Gilbert was proposed to play opposite her, the studio hoped it would shore up his fading career.  But script writer John Mahin had just seen Clark Gable in Night Nurse, and said, “There’s this guy, my God, he’s got the eyes of a woman and the build of a bull.  He is really going to be something” (Sragow 181) Gable had already had some good roles at Warner Brothers and MGM, but this one was a breakthrough for him.  Director Victor Fleming, with the unsung advice of Howard Hawks, made the characters tougher, funnier, “—any angels here are fallen, any devils have real sting.  The push towards complexity pays off in adult entertainment value” (Sragow 183).  Gable and Harlow were experienced in front of the camera, but they needed parts that would zing their star power into the stratosphere.

Harlow kicks Donald Crisp out of bed, as Gable and Tully Marshall look on.

The entire film was shot on an MGM sound stage, on left over sets from Tarzan the Ape Man and cost on $408,000.   A fabricated Indochinese landscape complete with working river is the centerpiece. Live moths were released before every take, and the indoor rainstorms 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 rain-drenched scene.  Mary Astor recounted in great detail how unsexy the monsoon kiss was in an article for Reader’s Digest “What it’s like to kiss Clark Gable.”

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. Her mother was controlling, and moved the family to Hollywood, hoping to become a movie star, herself, and Jean’s new stepfather was a gangster-ish hanger-on.   Jean married a wealthy young man as a teen, whom she met at a fancy boarding school.  She seemed uninterested in a screen career, but she auditioned on a dare, and started working as an extra.  Howard Hughes cast her to replace his leading lady when the silent aviation drama Hell’s Angels was reshot with sound, and his silent era leading lady’s English was lacking.  Harlow’s career took off after Hughes put her under personal contract. Her hard-boiled delivery was just what the talkies wanted, and her comic gifts, paired with her sultry sexuality, made her a big star.

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.

“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.

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.

During the filming, Jean Harlow’s second 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, doing retakes on the rain barrel scene (an incident inexplicably echoed in Fleming’s Bombshell, starring Harlow) 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.

One of my favorite movie star scrapbooks is the one kept by Pauline Pinney of Witchita, Kansas. Here’s an entry for Jean Harlow in 1932…

Although Harlow was the victim of much salacious gossip during her career for her uninhibited sexuality, she was regarded with fondness by her co-workers.  She worked hard, making 21 films in the seven years since her talkie debut in Hell’s Angels.  She collapsed on the set of Saratoga, ill with kidney disease.  Although her mother did practice Christian Science, and did not call a doctor, in the days before antibiotics, infections were often fatal.  Only twenty six years old, her funeral was a circus, and after her death, scandal mongering biographies and films shredded her reputation.

…and she was still keeping her scrapbook in 1937, when Harlow died.

One studio insider said of Harlow’s own family, “I felt sorry for the Baby.  All she did was work while her family took her money, just like the girl in the movie (referring to Bombshell).  She would come in at 6:00 am each morning, for makeup and hair and wardrobe and rehearsal, then shoot ‘til dinner or later—and in they’d stroll in the middle of the day, dressed to the nines and riding high.  They were parasites” (Scragow 204).

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.

William Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio, his father was a failed oil prospector, his mother died a few months after he was born.  His closest family relationship was with his stepmother. When he was 17, he saw a road show of Bird of Paradise in Akron OH, an exotic melodrama in which a native island woman, spurned by her white lover, jumps into a raging volcano.  He was hooked.  He worked a dizzying series of manual labor jobs, alternating with back stage and bit parts all over the country.  Eventually, he was taken under the wing of Josephine Dillion, 14 years his senior, who smoothed away his rough edges and began to promote his stage career.  They were married when his next motherly mentor, Ria Langham, took his theatrical aspirations to a higher level before they, in turn, married.

His smash hit role as “Killer” Mears in a prison drama, The Last Mile, brought him to Hollywood.  His big ears and beefy build nearly quashed his film career, but he realized theater was struggling after the crash, and the movies made for a steadier paycheck.  He had a few roles, but then Irving Thalberg at MGM decided Gable would be the next big star, and should be cast opposite all their female powerhouses.  “He was willing to be molded.  He wanted to be a star.  He wanted to be a success” said MGM’s head of publicity (Harris 70).  When he smacked Norma Shearer around in A Free Soul, his career was made. Screenland called him, “a lumberjack in evening clothes, the answer to ten million maidens’ prayers” (LaSalle 80).

Jean Harlow and Mary Astor

Mary Astor was born Lucile Langhanke to a domineering father and his passive wife.  At 14 she sent in her photo to a movie magazine beauty contest and was a finalist, which convinced her father she could be a movie star.  After several years of bit parts, she caught the eye of John Barrymore, who chose her as his love interest in Beau Brummel.  Under the guise of giving her acting guidance (which he surely did) he also became her lover; she was 18, he was 40.  Finally, after losing Barrymore (who her daughter said was the great love of her life) she finally broke away from the control of her parents, even though they continued living on her income, doling out a small allowance. Her private life became notorious during a divorce trial in the 1930s, when her estranged husband, seeking full custody of their daughter, published her diary, a steamy tome which rated her many lovers on their sexual performance.  Her preference was for unassuming looking playwright George S. Kaufman.  Astor was a regular in the gossip columns for her stormy romances.  As Andrew Sarris, who adored her on screen lamented, “Mary Astor, alas, did not have to wait for posterity to label her as a slut.” Her appearance as a prim society bride undone by heat and desire in this film challenges the usual “blond hair good, brunette hair bad” equation of many films.  But, she’s not less sympathetic than Vantine, in spite of her prim exterior.  She’s entitled to her passions, as well.

There’s a wonderful interview here, with her daughter (subject of the notorious custody suit) Marilyn Roh: (Sadly, this link is broken).

Here is Mary Astor in happier times with Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, the husband who published her diary.

I almost didn’t schedule this film because of both the Asian servant, Hoy, a comedy relic from a less enlightened era, and the dehumanizing way Gable treats his workers.  Today, unlike when the film was made, you cannot help but wonder about the lives and families of the rubber plantation crew who submit to such humiliation for their wages.  At the time, the area was referred to as Cochin China, and would later be renamed Viet Nam.   Who could have anticipated the terrible familiarity we’d have 30 years later with the citizens of Viet Nam, and the cruel treatment here anticipates disdain with which some treated the Viet-Namese during the long American war?

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. She dominates the film, and effortless performance create the rarest of Hollywood goddesses, the beautiful clown.


Harlow photo from December, 1932, Silver Screen Magazine. Gable photo from Hilda Price’s 1932 Movie Star Scrapbook. Production still from Films in Review. Pre-Code Hollywood by Thomas Doherty, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood by Mark Viera, Forbidden Hollywood by Mark Viera, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow, (This link works for me, but I keep getting notices that it is broken. ??) Clark Gable by Warren G. Harris. Here is a review of Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edgar Sorel, by Woody Allen: (This link is broken, but worth trying, because the story was so good!).

c. Moviediva2000Revised May2019