Thursday, 24 December 2015

Red Dust (1932)

Sometimes there's something about watching a film projected that makes you change your mind about it (or maybe is just watching it again with different expectations). First time I saw it, "Red Dust" left me a bit cold; seeing it projected I realised how steamy and how much fun it was.
Set in a plantation in what was then French Indochina, it stars Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor in a love and lust triangle (or square, if we count Gene Raymond). Harlow plays a prostitute going upstream from Saigon and ending in Gable's plantation. For a while they live in a blissful Eden, until Mary Astor's prim and proper lady arrives as the wife of the plantation's new engineer (Gene Raymond). Of course, as any film with such settings, there is a huge amount of casual racism thrown about. There are several uncomfortable moments regarding Gable's treatment of the plantation workers and the Chinese cook is a series of horrifying cliches with more than a passing hint of homophobia here and there.

Despite this, the film has the power to grasp your attention. It's a key title in both of its two stars' careers, helping confirm Gable and Harlow's super star and sex symbol statutes. In fact, Sex pervades through the film. In fact, it's impossible not to speak of the film without speaking of sex. It's treated casually, and Harlow brings a lightness and energy to it. Her profession is never hidden and she is clearly into Gable. Then there's that bath scene in the barrel. She really had a gift for just bringing out the most fun, lighter side of sexiness on screen. Gable also exudes sex. He has shirtless scene that he would echo later in "It Happened One Night" and for sure didn't harm the box office. Interestingly, that scene proved too much for the censors - Gable's navel couldn't be shown. In the end, one way of seeing the film is as a battle between a more repressed and a freer sexual attitude represented by Astor and Harlow; a very twisted version of the Old World vs New World view of the period. And of course, in the end the winner is clear - a very pre-Code win for Sex.
While the two leads shine, the supporting cast is mostly unremarkable. Donald Crisp is very underused, but still very good is two bigger scenes. Mary Astor is ok, but far from her best parts, and
Gene Raymond is as bland as the part required and probably more. Even is school kid crush on Gable seems devoid of any interest.