Steam Heat: Red Dust (1932)

In honor of Valentine's Day, this month we’re examining notoriously sexy films from various decades. Adam and Rodney discuss a phenomenon of the 30s: Red Dust.

ADAM: The play Red Dust got a lackluster review in 1928. It begins, “Another of those plays of the tropics, or anyway the near tropics, where passions are primitive and men wear their shirts open in the front…” Try as I might, I don’t think I could sum up this film more succinctly. In fact, this genre—the steamy melodrama— is so intuitively understood that it requires just those three elements: a humid locale (the more exotic the better, although a Florida swamp would do in a pinch), a torrid love affair, and, most importantly, a bear-chested man. Red Dust takes place on a rubber plantation in French Indochina where Dennis Carson (Clark Gable at his most virile) is torn between peroxide blond Vantine (Jean Harlow) and brunette Barbara (Mary Astor). Jealousy might be the ultimate threat but dust storms, monsoons, malaria carrying mosquitos, vengeful native laborers, and tigers are all lurking.


RODNEY: It’s interesting to take stock of this film in the context of an entire genre that seemed to run rampant with all studios. I don’t think any studio was exempt from it, and if any studio WERE to be exempt from it, it would almost definitely be MGM, but here we are. I suspect that it wasn’t the subject matter that attracted the lion’s lot to this script, as much as it was that it was based on a play and was saucy enough to suit their new leads.


Clark Gable Red Dust pith helmet rubber plantation pre-code
Clark Gable in pith helmet and sheen of sweat.

A: If there is any fault to the movie, it’s the writing. The play adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain was a success, so I guess Wilson Collison thought he could write a drier counterpart with his Red Dust. Briefly looking at the career of playwright/novelist Collison—an Ohio-native by the way—shows a writer with a flair for comedy (his plays Up in Mabel’s Room, The Girl in the Limousine, and Getting Gertie’s Garter were all adapted for the screen.) That Red Dust review I mentioned earlier speculates that this was his attempt to rise above frivolity with an important work, a “strong drama” as the critic puts it. The story of Red Dust lumbers along a predictable path with awkward dialogue that only distinguishes itself from a men’s magazine story by its weirdness. Gable’s line, “Out here we all slap each other sooner or later,” gave me a chuckle. I’ve heard references to Harlow’s Roquefort cheese speech before. Heard in context, I have to agree—it is memorable!


Mary Astor Gene Raymond Red Dust
Mary Astor and Gene Raymond in immaculate white.

R: It’s memorable, but much of this film is also straight melodrama. It’s not surprising that the film wasn’t reviewed well in contemporary publications. The legend seems to have grown throughout the years as we’ve grown fascinated with the torrid spectacle that inhabits so many pre-Code films. This one is not without its charms, including your aforementioned dialogue, but those parts, for me, seem to pale in the greater whole of the film.


A: Though the script is odd and oddly funny, the real reason Red Dust has achieved legendary status is the domineering physicality of Gable and Harlow. Contrasted against the passivity of the WASPs in crisp linen Mary Astor and Gene Raymond (who makes the most of a painfully limp role), the headliners seem like feral beasts. Gable, who grew up working in the rubber industry in Akron’s Goodyear plant, is perpetually sweaty. His soiled riding breeches signify both his lower class and his sadism. He tends to a wound and looks through a microscope as confidently as he carries a damsel—or yanks a women’s hair. He embraces Astor hard enough to leave bruises. It’s a brutal performance and it’s played with the assurance of an actor on his 500th run-through. Harlow is the Appalachian wild child. She refers to herself as “restless” twice and, indeed, she performs every task with manic energy. One look at her and it’s evident that she’s trouble. The interesting kind of trouble.


Jean Harlow Red Dust suds naked
Jean Harlow in suds and...that's it.

R: I agree that Gable and Harlow are the real draws here, and ultimately, I’d argue, the only reason that the film is known at all among all but the most fervent of film fans. Their charisma and antics carry the film above antics that were considered cliché even to 1932 audiences. Lest I seem too negative, I should point out that I don’t think this is a BAD movie, not at all. However, for me, it did not live up to its scandalous reputation.


Jean Harlow Clark Gable whisky Red Dust
Harlow, Gable, and a bottle of whisky.

A: It’s stagey and derivative, but the lead performances and solid direction save the picture. It’s well beyond any critical reasoning why I enjoyed this so much. By the final act, when Harlow and Gable, illuminated by an oil lamp while the rain cascades outside, are slumped over glasses of whisky trading barbs, I was simply in love with this movie. I’m glad I finally caught up with it. Four stars.


R: You’re being more generous than I am, and I understand why. I kind of feel like this would hold up better for me under a repeated viewing, and I plan on undertaking that at some point in the near future. As it stands, I agree with the lead performances and direction are definitely highlights. Often, those two things are enough for me, but for some reason it didn’t shake out for me this time. I’m going to go with a generous three stars and hope that I understand the reputation next time around.

Clark Gable Red Dust Jean Harlow Akron Rubber City
Gable returns to the Rubber City.

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