Monday, August 31, 2015

Jean Takes a Bath

Red Dust (1932) is the second pairing of that remarkable screen duo of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.  Not surprisingly, they make the screen sizzle from the minute their characters, Dennis Carson and Vantine Jefferson, meet.  Carson is the manager of a rubber plantation, somewhere in the jungles outside Saigon.  The work is dirty and unpleasant, and Carson finds it difficult to manage the native population of workers.  When Vantine arrives unbidden on his doorstep (she's avoiding the authorities in Saigon), their initial verbal battle turns to bedplay, and finally to love (on her part).  But when the time for her to leave arrives, Denny slips her some money, and scoots her onto the awaiting boat, just as surveyor Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his bride Barbara (Mary Astor) alight.  Denny thinks his only problem will be getting Willis accustomed to life in this backwater, but he is mistake, because Vantine returns (her boat broke down) and Barbara is proving even more irresistible to Denny than he ever could have imagined.

Clark Gable is wonderful as Dennis Carson; he makes the character appealing, as well as somewhat disreputable.  Dennis was raised on the plantation; his only absences were trips to Saigon for some R&R. It's not surprising that this man, who would probably have had very little acquaintance with any women but the native population (and whores in Saigon), would be so immediately captivated by Barbara.  She, to him, is exotic.  Whereas, Vantine, who is far better suited to the life he has selected, is just another hooker like those he periodically visits.  Gable is able to make us ignore his rather dastardly behavior - towards Vantine, towards Barbara, and towards Gary - but never allows us to forget it.
And then there is Harlow - wise, smart, strong, resourceful.  Her Vantine is capable of love, but smart enough to not let it ruin her life.  She tries to protect both Barbara and Gary, and she understands Dennis better than he understands himself.  Harlow's quick reaction to the payment Dennis offers her says so much about her character.  And Harlow is a smart enough actress to play the reaction down.  It's there - you see it, but she won't let Vantine - or the audience - dwell on it.  It is enough that we all know he has wounded her deeply.

The interlopers to the lives of Dennis and Vantine, the Willis', initially come off rather badly.  Barbara is officious and whiny; Gary seems like a wimp.  But, we eventually discover from Vantine that Gary is a rather nice guy; and is, in fact, the only person who treats her with kindness and courtesy.  Gene Raymond does a good job with the character - he is often cast as a weakling, but he does make Gary someone that you feel for.  You may be rooting for Gable's Dennis, but you want Dennis to realize that Gary cannot be hurt by his actions.
Astor's Barbara, never loses the officiousness.  She's constantly nasty to Vantine, as much from jealousy as anything else.  But one wonders if she resents Vantine's freedom?  Whatever happens, Barbara will never be anything but a "wife".  She has created herself in the image of her husband.  It is only at the very end of the film that Barbara finally gets a backbone, and does something neither man would do. You can't help but admire it (as Vantine does).  One scene that rather sums up Barbara is the couple's arrival at their new digs, and her horror on seeing the bathing area.  Contrast that to Vantine's freewheeling attitude towards her toilette - it nicely sums up both characters.

This TCM article mentions that the film did NOT run into any censorship issues - a surprise when you see the scene we are highlighting this week.  When Red Dust ran on The Essentials, host Robert Osborne commented on the friendship between Gable and director Victor Fleming that arose from their work on the film.  This relationship would culminate  in Fleming being selected to replace George Cukor as the director of Gone With the Wind - he was Gable's choice for director of what is perhaps Gable's most famous role.  Critic Mordaunt Hall, in the  NewYork Times was not particularly thrilled with the film, but fellow blogger at Pre-Code.com gave it his stamp of approval. We concur.
Red Dust is unusual in that it was remade over 20 years later with the same lead actor.  We'll take a look at Mogambo next week.  In the meantime, we'll leave you, as promised, with Vantine's bath.  Enjoy: