Thanks to director Victor Fleming and three exceptional performances from Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Mary Astor, 1932’s under-appreciated “Red Dust” sizzles even more than its more-famous 1953 big-budget color remake “Mogambo,” which was directed by John Ford and cast Gable in the same role he played in the original. Never before available on home video, “Red Dust” is now thanks to the national treasure that is the Warner Archive.
What really puts “Red Dust” over the top is extraordinary production design. Set on a spartan rubber plantation in Indochina during the monsoon season, the claustrophobic jungle heat and rain grab hold of you as much as the story itself — and the story is simply outstanding.
Gable plays the plantation’s owner/manager, Dennis Carson. Carson is everything you expect in a Gable character: a hard-working, hard drinking man’s man with no time for sentiment or romance. But of course, much of that is bluff; a shield against his own dissatisfaction and insecurities.
Carson has never known a life other than this one filled with brutally hard work, bugs, humidity, and liquor — this life killed his mother and as each season winds down, Caron performs a ritual of bitterly complaining to his male cronies that someday he’d like to escape his primitive surroundings and give it a go in the modern world. Deep down inside, though, Carson knows that world holds no place for men like him. Still, as he takes stock of it all, he longs from something cleaner and more refined.
Those qualities don’t seem to arrive in the person of Vantine (a breathtaking Jean Harlow) — a hooker who works the plantations along the river. For reasons never made clear, she’s on the lam from the Saigon police and the supply boat drops her off for a night, a night she ends up spending with Carson. The feelings that develop are one-sided, though, and for the first time in her life, Vantine is made to feel cheap after being handed a few bucks and sent on her way with a dismissive smack on her perfectly formed backside.
With Vantine’s departure comes the arrival of what Carson thinks might fill that hole in his life, Barbara Willis (Astor), the wife of his new engineer, Gary (Gene Raymond). So unprepared is this “civilized” couple for plantation life that they brought with them tennis rackets and a raging case of malaria.
Unlike Carson, Gary is weak and unassuming. Unlike Vantine (and every other woman Carson has known), Barbara is refined, elegant, and educated. While her husband is in the throes of fever, Carson wastes no time in pursuit of the helpless man’s wife, and after the seduction is complete and Gary well enough to do his work, Carson sends him deep into the jungle for a three week project.
By this time, thanks to a wrecked supply boat, Vantine’s returned and immediately catches on to what’s happening between Carson and Barbara. In fact, everyone knows what’s going on except poor, innocent Gary.
Some left-wing film historians love to dump on Production Code-era films as puritanical when it came to certain adult topics, but that’s a revisionist lie. Hollywood might have been less heavy-handed (and therefore more artistic) than today’s filmmakers in exploring adult themes, but plenty of Golden Era films dealt with issues such as adultery and prostitution.
Because “Red Dust” was produced a couple of years prior to the 1934 institution of the Production Code, it’s racier than what you’ve come to expect from this era, but only in the areas of near-nudity and suggestive dialogue. But as some might have you believe, “Red Dust” does not explore themes and subjects that vanished after Hollywood choose to censor itself. The best example of that is the Production Code/Eisenhower-era remake, “Mogambo,” which, if anything, explores the issue of adultery with more sympathy.
And this is another reason “Red Dust” is the better of the two. Thanks to that production design I mentioned earlier, Fleming’s story is much more intimate in the way a stage play can be, which means you’re more emotionally involved in this sickly, suffocating sexual environment of adultery.
The relationship between Carson and Barbara is never presented as sympathetic or romantic because you’re never allowed to forget that a man completely devoted to his wife is the victim of this unconscionable betrayal. Rather than hoping the illicit couple can find a way to be together, instead you’re repelled by their behavior and hope only that they snap out of it.
If all of that doesn’t whet your appetite enough to seek out this near-classic, the vivacious Jean Harlow should close the deal. Harlow truly was a one-of-a-kind beauty and talent with more personality and charisma than you can even begin to comprehend. Many have heard of Harlow without ever having seen one of her pictures, so if you’re wondering what all the hoopla’s about and what a terrible loss her untimely death at age 26 in 1937 was, “Red Dust” is the perfect gateway drug.
“Red Dust” is available for purchase at the Warner Archive.”
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