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The Films of Jean Harlow: Red Dust (1932)

This is reposted as part of the Summer Under the Stars blogathon

I’m not a fan of Clark Gable (I know…gasp!) but damn was he awesome in this movie.  The film itself is incredibly racist as it takes place in Indochina (apparently this is fate’s way of reminding me I have a midterm on Vietnam this week) so the Asian stereotypes run rampant, but the movie itself is a sexually charged love triangle that boasts the first team-up between Harlow and Gable!

Dennis Carson (Gable) is the manager of a rubber plantation Cochinchina (the current Vietnam).  When prostitute Vantine (Harlow) arrives, the two immediately strike up a relationship.  Things change though when inexperienced engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his wife Barbara (Mary Astor) arrive.  Dennis immediately tries to convince Barbara to leave her husband while Vantine seethes from the sidelines.

This Victor Fleming film is far better than I expected.  This is the second “serious” Harlow film I’ve seen and the first of said genre of films where she plays a lead.  Her Vantine is a head-strong, dominant woman and sure she becomes the doting girlfriend by the end, but that’s because her and Gable are totally meant for each other.  It’s not explicitly stated that Vantine is a prostitute but she mentions that she likes the plantation because “I’m not used to sleeping night anyway” (SCANDALOUS!).  

She holds her own alongside Dennis and the two have so much sexual chemistry you’re waiting for them to jump on each other (and at one point that actually happens).  They have great banter together with a constant refrain of calling themselves “Fred” and “Lily.”  They also get off on continually annoying the piss out of each other.  She hums while reading a magazine and he refuses to eat a certain type of cheese because she likes it!  I mean these two have amazing chemistry and comedic timing so it’s not surprise they’d make another four movies together!

Considering this is 1932 this is the era of films made before the Hays Code was implemented (pre-Code).  The film isn’t “bad,” it’s just more frank in its discussions of sex than other films that would be made after.  For instance, Vantine is a prostitute and it’s well-known throughout the camp what she is.  When Dennis and her have their witty banter, mind you they’ve known each other for about 30 minutes max, Dennis grabs her and the camera moves to a squawking bird….total code for sex!  I mean these two meet and get right down to business like adults in such crappy circumstances would.

 Even better, the next day Dennis totally treats her like a prostitute by saying “Been nice having you around” (his use of the word “having” has a double meaning), puts money down the front of her dress and grabs her ass!  I say all this with sarcasm because the guy is a total douche!  Vantine genuinely likes him but because he’s had his way with her she’s garbage.  Thus why he mentions he likes Barbara because she’s “good.”

That’s why I loved Vantine so much.  You don’t see her cry, whine, or mope.  Even when Dennis is saying she better shut her mouth and not bother Barbara, Vantine just seethes behind her smile.  That’s all the fine acting of Harlow who is just riveting in this film.  When she sees Dennis come back to the plantation with Barbara in his arms she refuses to close the doors, taking in the sight of the betrayal in front of her.  Sure, I don’t understand why she loves him at the end but it’s a romance so we gotta work with it (at least Dennis gets his ass shot at a certain point…thank you Victor Fleming!).  Returning to the pre-Code sexy-time, even the ending has Dennis trying to grope Vantine…the man was a horn-dog!

Sure, there are racist stereotypes perpetuated like the goofy Asian manservant with his fortune cookie wisdom, and everyone takes about going to “Say-gon” (it’s Sai-gon!).  And for the rest of the film I thought Mary Astor was annoying but thus was her character.  All in all, I really enjoyed Red Dust.  It’s a solid romance film with some awesome pre-Code sexiness added in!

Grade: B+

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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