Filmsite Movie Review
Red Dust (1932)
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Red Dust (1932) - the steamy classic romantic drama showcased the hot-blooded chemistry between the two main stars, and became one of the more steamy and controversial melodramas produced in the early 1930s by MGM. The tale set in a hot, rainy and sweaty French Indo-China (during a period of colonialism) told of a volatile love-triangle between a wise-cracking Saigon prostitute on the run, a brutish, virile and lustful rubber plantation owner, and the lovely dignified upper-class newly-wed wife of an engineer-surveyor.

The Pre-Code romance drama was the second of six films starring both Clark Gable and platinum-blonde sexpot Jean Harlow. Their other films were: The Secret 6 (1931), Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937). The film's director Victor Fleming would go on to make more well-known pictures, such as Gone With the Wind (1939) (as co-director) and The Wizard of Oz (1939).

One of the film's slogans proclaimed the rough love affair between the two stars:

"He treated 'em rough - and they loved it!"

The story was based on the unsuccessful 1928 play Red Dust by Wilson Collison. It was convincingly filmed almost entirely on the studio's backlot (on sets used in MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)), although not obvious while viewing the drama. Present-day reviewers have reviled the film for its stereotypical and demeaning portrayal of the plantation's cook Hoy (Willie Fung), to provide unnecessary 'comic relief.'

Other 'tramps-in-the-tropics' films in the same era included Sadie Thompson (1928) and Rain (1932) with Joan Crawford. [Note: Some have wrongly claimed that the similar film Congo Maisie (1940) starring Ann Sothern, based on Wilson Collison's 1934 novel Congo Landing, was a remake.]

The film was remade over two decades later by director John Ford as Mogambo (1953), again with a grizzled Clark Gable as African animal trapper and safari leader Victor Marswell -- now opposite Best Actress-nominated Ava Gardner as stranded, provocative wisecracking good-time-girl Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly, and Best Supporting Actress-nominated Grace Kelly as Linda Nordley - a cool and prim but lustful wife of a British anthropologist Donald (Donald Sinden).

Plot Synopsis

The Indo-Chinese Plantation - Introduction of Characters:

In the opening scene, unshaven, coarse Indochinese (nowadays Vietnam) rubber plantation manager Dennis 'Denny' Carson (Clark Gable) was introduced taking charge of his business - known as the North Co-China Rubber Company. He was inspecting his plantation with his overseer "Mac" McQuarg (Tully Marshall) during a dry monsoon season with frequent dust storms (the reasoning behind the film's title, 'red dust').

The local ferry arrived carrying sexy, earthy, wise-cracking prostitute-on-the-run Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow), who had been invited back to Denny's plantation for shelter by Denny's incompetent and drunken overseer Guidon (Donald Crisp). She asked:

"Well, for the love of mud! Where am I sleeping, on a race track?"

She explained who she was - a fallen woman: "I'm Pollyanna, the glad girl" - she was forced to remain until the next steamship ferry returned in four weeks. The platinum blonde hooker was fleeing from Indo-Chinese authorities in Saigon ("I got mixed up in a little trouble and I thought I'd stay away out of town until the gendarmes forgot about it").

[Note: Saigon was pronounced "Say-Gone".]

She promised Denny - who was taken aback by her appearance and brazen nature: "Don't worry, big boy, I'll stay out from under foot."

Denny expressed some frustration with his occupation and groused to Mac: "Do you think I'll spend my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?...Kicking a herd of crawling coolies around, fighting fever, swallowing dust one month, wading in mud the next, just so some old woman can take her hot water bottle to bed with her?"

Flirtations Between Denny and Vantine:

Mac encouraged Denny to take advantage of Vantine's presence, rather than making his usual journey to Saigon for an occasional fling:

Mac: "Now, listen, Dennis, you've got your yearly case of nerves. Now why don't you go down to Saigon and - to blow the lid off? Get a laugh out of your liquor?"
Denny: "With this outfit running away as it is, how am I going to get to Saigon?"
Mac: "Well, as a matter of fact, what came up from Saigon isn't so bad-lookin'."
Denny (sneering): "I've been looking at her kind ever since my voice changed."

Explaining why she was restless (partly from the tiger outside - "that alley cat yodelling out there"), Vantine entered the room and told Mac and Denny:

"Don't mind me, boys. I'm just restless....Guess I'm not used to sleeping nights anyway."

When Denny scolded her for her random comments: "You just tend to minding your own business," Vantine was sarcastic about his indifference toward her and cool reception: "This place certainly reeks of hospitality and good cheer." Without use their real names, Denny adopted the nickname 'Lily' for her, and she called him 'Fred.' Mac mentioned how if he was younger, he would be interested in Vantine: "If it was the summer of 1894, I'd play games with you, sister. But life is much simpler now." Vantine surmised: "I bet you painted your hometown red!"

At the start of their relationship, although he was irritated by her chattering gab (and kept telling her to shut up), there was tremendous sexual chemistry brewing between Vantine and Denny. They got to know each other while discussing each other's cheese preferences (gorgonzola or roquefort), and when he impulsively pulled her into his lap and told her - with tremendous machismo:

"You talk too much, but you're a cute little trick at that. Why haven't you been around before?"

The camera tracked away as he kissed her.

Arrival of Two New Characters:

After four weeks, she was ready to return to Saigon when the ferry returned to the port. Denny was there to greet his new inexperienced surveyor-engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond). He also was there to say goodbye to Vantine - and handed her a wad of cash for "expenses" that she wasn't expecting. She was hurt by his gesture and told him to keep the money because he hadn't been like her other clients: "Aw, Denny, no...Please, don't. This wasn't like that," but he insisted: "Here you are, kid. It isn't half enough. But when I get down to Saigon, there'll be more. Keep your chin up." She sadly accepted the money when he stuffed it down the front of her dress.

After Denny boarded the ferry, he noticed his engineer's luggage, including a pair of tennis rackets, to his disgust. Gary immediately showed signs that he was suffering from a case of malarial fever. Willis was unexpectedly accompanied by his upper-class, pampered, refined, well-bred wife Barbara "Babs" Willis (Mary Astor) - Denny bluntly told her: "I didn't expect you at all." The well-dressed couple was shocked by the primitive and dirty conditions of Denny's 'main house' at the plantation, noted as being "rustic and pioneering."

Without doctors anywhere nearby, "Babs" was shocked that Denny took it upon himself to be protective of them, but was also coldly indifferent toward suffering and illness. He had opted to treat Gary and nurse him back to health (with a prescription of quinine and bromide and the command: "You'll pull through if you follow orders"), but then curtly went on with his business of the day:

Babs: "I won't stand for this! Do you think you can treat Gary like, like one of your coolies?"
Denny: "Why not? He's just another worker on the place. Only he's coming down with the fever and therefore isn't quite as valuable."
Babs: "I won't have you talk like that! I never - "
Denny: "I know you won't. The only excuse you have for being here is to help take care of him. Now get in there and give him that quinine and take a little yourself while you're at it. Give him all the water he wants and more. The china boy will give you whatever else you need."
Babs: "You're not going to leave him? You're not going out?"
Denny: "Yes. I work here. You don't expect me to sit around and hold his hand, do you?" (She slapped him across the face!) All right. If that makes you feel any better."

The sound of a tiger in the compound distracted Babs' attention toward her own well-being. Denny assured her: "He won't come within a hundred yards of the compound. Now don't give him another thought."

After Babs retired for the night, Vantine suddenly returned - she was forced to remain for many more weeks when the motor shaft of the ferry boat she was on (returning to Saigon) snapped after it ran aground and became stuck in the mud. When she first met Mrs. Willis, Vantine mockingly described - with an affected Southern accent - her own fictional blue-blood upbringing and background, and her visit with her brother on the next plantation:

"Do you think I'd live in a menagerie like this? I've been visiting my brother. He has the next plantation below here, and it's a lovely place. You know he copied it from our old family plantation in Bluefield, West Virginia. Have you ever been to Bluefield?...Well, we're the Jeffersons there. I'm Vantine Jefferson. You know, I was supposed to be happy about staying home and marrying the son of another FFB. But I'm just the restless, adventurous type I guess. I had to come out to stay with my brother and see the world."

But then she admitted that most of her account was fictitious:

"You didn't believe a word of it, did you?...But there was a guy on the next plantation, even though he wasn't my brother and that story about the boat's all true, see? I haven't any connection here at all, whether you believe it or not."

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