Judge Daryl Loomis prefers Roquefort to gorgonzola.
He treated 'em rough…and they liked it!
Pre-code cinema has a general reputation of bawdiness and violence that, most often, isn't true at all, and after being burned with dull potboilers so many times, I tend to come at them with reservations today. That said, sometimes they do deliver. Good or bad, you'll see things that you wouldn't be exposed to just a few years later. MGM's 1932 production of Red Dust is just such a film; not a great piece of work, but with plenty of interest. A big director and high profile cast take Red Dust well above the level of the story.
Facts of the Case
Dennis Carson (Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind) runs a ramshackle rubber plantation in Indonesia, alone with his workers and happy about it. All of a sudden, up comes a boat and out pops Vantine (Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman), a platinum blonde with a nasty attitude and a mouth to match. He wants her to go, but she can't leave until the next boat comes through, so he's stuck with her. Soon, though, her charm starts to work its magic and he involves himself with her. Just then, another boat arrives, this time with Gary Willis (Gene Raymond, Flying Down to Rio), his new engineer, and his wife Babs (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon). They're a country club couple, to be sure, and have no business being there. Babs sure is cute though, and nicer than Vantine, so he sends Gary out on his first mission in the wild so Dennis can put the make on his wife.
Orientalism was big during the early days of cinema and it's in full force with Red Dust. While not the style we often find in the silents, with great Chinese palaces, dancing girls, and giant ornamental absurdity. No, this is the kind that fetishizes the powerful white man controlling the mysterious Asian workers. The effect winds up the same, even if the trappings were different. The setting is all jungle and shacks, with Indonesian servants dutifully waiting on the Americans and lazy workers who need berating to actually work. It's all the same; unacceptable today, but common then and something I've gotten used to over the years. If you're familiar with the style, though, you know what's in store.
If your tolerance for such things is strong, then there's plenty to like about Red Dust. Traditionally, I'm not the biggest fan of either Clark Gable, whom I find wooden, or Jean Harlow, whom I find terribly shrill, but their chemistry here is pretty fun. Rarely has there been an actress as flouncy as Harlow and, though her actual performance serves little but to take advantage of her good looks and loose dresses, she works well with the lovable cad that made Gable a star. Then there's Mary Astor, one of my favorite early actresses. A beauty by the standards of her time or any other, she is absolutely radiant here in an important, but supporting role. The character itself is a little shallow, and there's no doubt that, when the rain comes while Dennis and Babs are walking in the jungle, they will get soaked and kiss so their affair can begin, but she always makes it work, bringing her often lackluster male leads above their usual talents. Gene Raymond is pretty worthless as her husband, but he's a sap anyhow and doesn't have much to do aside from standing their while his young wife is trying in vain to stay faithful.
The story mostly brings the goods, though much of it is obvious and not terribly exciting. It's all fodder for some snappy banter and a few love scenes, all of which is put together just fine by director Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous). It's far from his strongest effort, but it's consistent in tone and serviceable in its delivery, though there are plenty of rough patches in the smaller roles and, especially, in the servant who works the house. It moves along at a fair pace and the banter is all pretty funny, but the story really isn't substantial enough to stand up to anything these people had done in the past or would do in the future.
Warner Archives delivers their usual on-demand package for Red Dust. The full frame image looks surprisingly good, with little damage to note. With strong contrast, bright whites, and solid black levels, this is one of the label's better transfers. The mono sound is completely average, but that's okay; the dialog is perfectly clear. The only extra is a trailer, but it's of interest because it's the Spanish trailer, cut to highlight the sexy stuff and even featuring a few seconds of footage that isn't on the presented cut.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is enjoyable, no doubt, but the racism of Red Dust is alarming. It doesn't matter whether the white people are rich or poor, an owner or a worker, they throw around a derogatory term for the Indonesians that I certainly won't say hear, but you'll figure it out soon enough; it's likely the most common word in the script. Not only that, the cartoonish depiction of the natives is disgraceful, like the rare old Warner Brothers cartoons where Bugs interacts with a Chinese person. I don't like to force my modern morality onto old art, but there's so much and it's so blatant that it can't help but take away from the overall picture.
The disturbingly casual racism aside, Red Dust is a pretty fun movie. If you want some good ol' fashioned pre-code banter and a ridiculous story, you'll find them in spades here. There are plenty of better movies from the era out there, but fans of these actors, especially, will want to give it a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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