Sunday, March 26, 2023

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust is a steamy tropical 1932 pre-code adventure/romance from MGM. Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were at this time two of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood and this movie enhanced their star status quite a bit.

Dennis Carson (Gable) is a rubber planter in Cochin-China, the southern part of what is now Vietnam. He’s a bit of a rough diamond. It’s a hard life and it attracts hard men. But it’s the life he’s used to. His life is totally disrupted by the arrival of two women. One woman would have been disturbing enough. Dennis does not approve of women on the plantation.

The first arrival is Vantine (Jean Harlow). She has more or less invited herself. She needs to lie low for a while after a misunderstanding with the police. Vantine is a sweet cheerful high-spirited whore. She makes herself at home.

The second arrival is Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). Her husband Gary (Gene Raymond) has taken up a position as some kind of assistant to Dennis. Dennis had no idea Gary was going to be fool enough to bring his wife with him. A rubber plantation is no place for a woman. Dennis would normally be anxious to get rid of her, except that he finds her very attractive. Of course she’s a married woman but it doesn’t occur to Dennis that that might be a problem.

Dennis had hoped he’d seen the last of Vantine when he shipped her off on the river steamer but the boat ran aground and now Vantine is likely to be staying around for several weeks. Vantine thinks Dennis is rather cute. She’s just a little bit in love with him. Well, maybe more than a little bit. They’ve already slept together.

Barbara is totally out of place in a jungle plantation. She should be shopping for clothes in Manhattan or taking tea in civilised surroundings. She’s never had any contact with rough uncivilised people. She’s certainly never met a man like Dennis Carson before. He’s so….manly. She starts to feel things she’s never felt before. It excites her.

Dennis would be better off with Vantine. She’s a whore but she’s a good-natured whore. She could handle life on the plantation. And she could handle a man like Dennis.

Dennis however wants Barbara. She’s a lady, and he’s never had a lady before.

Things get pretty tense. Vantine is consumed by jealousy. Dennis plots to get Gary out of the way for a few weeks. Then he decides he’ll have to have it out with Gary. He figures Gary will be a bit upset for a while about having his wife stolen from him but he’ll get over it.

You know how it’s all going to end, or at least you think you do. But this is pre-code Hollywood. The rules of narrative were quite different. Writers not only had more freedom in dealing with sexual subject matter, they had a lot more freedom when it came to plot development and endings. This movie would have ended very very differently once the Production Code came into force.

This movie is not a comedy but it’s not a straight melodrama either. Genre conventions were also different in the pre-code era. Red Dust combines comedy, melodrama and adventure.

Gable and Harlow are unbelievably sexy, and they’re funny. Harlow is dazzling. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Mary Astor but she’s terrific here as a woman who has always been ladylike and totally under control but suddenly finds herself swept away by lust. She’s like a cat on heat.

Being a pre-code movie Red Dust is delightfully open about sex. If the movie hadn’t already made it blindingly obvious that Vantine is a prostitute the point is hammered home when Dennis pays her for her services. We’re also left in no doubt whatever that Dennis and Barbara have not only slept together, they’ve been sleeping together regularly for weeks.

There’s plenty of pre-code risqué dialogue and of course there’s Harlow taking a bath in the drinking water barrel.

This movie was remade in the 50s as Mogambo. Mogambo isn't terrible but compared to Red Dust it's bland and dull and sexless.

Red Dust is overheated and dripping with sweaty eroticism. It’s also funny and charming. One of the great pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.

Red Dust is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series and it looks very very good.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Dee, good write-up of RED DUST(1932). I first recall viewing this movie on Memphis, Tennessee's WREC Channel 3 EARLY MOVIE in 1972. Looks like Jack Michael, program director at Channel 3, didn't think the movie was risque enough to keep kids from watching at 3:30 in the afternoon. Although, it was cut for commercials it still got the steamy message across.

    To me RED DUST is a time capsule to use for looking back at the rubber plantation era in Indochina. The set designers did a really good job of making us feel like we on a rubber plantation. I suppose we have Cedric Gibbons and his crew to thank for their work on the set.

    Mary Astor later wrote about her life in the movies in articles and her book LIFE ON FILM(1971). I really enjoyed this blog write-up taken from her book, "Anatomy of a Scorcher: Mary Astor on Filming the Steamy Kiss in Red Dust."

    RED DUST is a Classic Movie that I think is well worth viewing.

    1. Walter, I agree about the time capsule thing. That's why I love old movies in tropical settings. They give us a glimpse of a vanished world.