(director: Victor Fleming; screenwriters: from the play by Wilson Collison/John Lee Mahin; cinematographer: Harold Hal Rosson; editor: Blanche Sewell; cast: Clark Gable (Dennis Carson), Jean Harlow (Vantine), Gene Raymond (Gary Willis), Mary Astor (Barbara Willis), Donald Crisp (Guidon), Tully Marshall (McQuarg), Forrester Harvey (Limey), Willie Fung (Hoy); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Victor Fleming/Hunt Stromberg; MGM; 1932)

“Great performances from the stars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Victor Fleming (“Treasure Island”/”The Wizard of Oz”/”Gone With The Wind”) directs Gable and Harlow in this steamy melodrama set on an Indo-China rubber plantation in the middle of the jungle during the rainy season, but actually filmed on the sound stage of MGM. It’s adapted by screenwriter John Mahin from an unsuccessful Broadway play by Wilson Collison. The film pleased a Depression audience so much, that it broke box-office records. Gable and Harlow play like-minded toughies with soft hearts, who like to party, booze it up, and engage in risqué talk and behavior. Red Dust was remade as Congo Maisie (1940), and was remade again as Mogambo (1953)–starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly.

Gable’s Dennis Carson is the hard-working macho but boorish overseer of an Indo-China rubber plantation, who provides room and board for the stranded Vantine (Jean Harlow)–a platinum blonde prostitute escaping the Saigon police by hiding out in his house. When the boat comes for Vantine a week later to return to Saigon, Dennis pays for her favors–not realizing this one was on the house in the name of love.

On the same boat Vantine takes back, Dennis’s new engineer, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), arrives with his new bride, Barbara (Mary Astor). The upper-class couple don’t fit into the jungle but the swells need the money to buy their dream house just outside of NYC. Willis immediately comes down with malaria, and is given quinine by Dennis and nursed by both Dennis and Barbara for the next few days. That first night of the couple’s arrival, Vantine’s boat is wrecked and she returns to the plantation to wait for it to be repaired.

While the engineer is out of it, Dennis begins an affair with the prim Barbara after giving her a tour of the plantation in the rain. In a great line, Vantine exclaims in a girl-to-girl talk with Barbara “I saw him kick the door shut. He came out with rouge all over his mouth. I suppose he asked to borrow your lipstick.” Vantine can’t get over that her man chooses the drab Barbara over her.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

When the engineer recovers, Dennis sends him out to the swamps for three weeks to build a drainage system with Guidon and McQuarg. During that time Dennis swears his love to Barbara, but gets a change of heart when he goes out to the field and sees how losing his wife would crush nice-guy Gary. It ends with the vulgarian Dennis turning angelic after being not critically shot by the jealous Barbara, who finds her lover on top of Vantine after returning from the swamp visit with Gary. Dennis suddenly realizes that he feels more at home with the passionate and glib Vantine than he does with the ladylike Barbara, and has no regrets he did the couple a good turn by taking the blame for the shooting. Dennis tells Gary, who followed him back from the swamp when Guidon told him the boss was having an affair with his wife, that he can’t blame his wife for shooting him because he made a pass at her, while Vantine chirps in exclaiming Barbara acted like a perfect lady.

Great performances from the stars make you forget that Gable played a sexist and that the melodrama bordered on being camp.

Red Dust Poster