' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Dust (1932)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Dust (1932)

Per TCM, "Red Dust" was banned from showing in Berlin, "deemed too hot for Nazified Germany." Well, you can certainly see what must have left Hitler in such a dither. This was 1932, two years into the Hays Code, but two years before the Hays Code was genuinely enforced, and the sexuality of "Red Dust" is so overt that had the MPAA been around (imagine the MPAA and Will Hays uniting! Egads!) this whole glorious cinematic kerfuffle would have been hit with an NC-17 broadside.


Set in a rubber plantation on Indochina, the film offers an early shot of a tiger, lurking in the jungle, striding right into the camera, told to be preying on the plantation's workers, but mostly just hanging out on the periphery of the film to function as a growling symbol of the animalistic nature of sex and love (or is it just sex and not the other?). But that tiger, in spite of being an actual tiger, feels less palpable than the "Life of Pi"-esque CGI carnivore manifestation. This is specifically because the real tiger in "Red Dust" is Jean Harlow, ribald and grinning and having the time of her life.

The famous scene - re-created in her pre-eminent "Bombshell" - features Harlow in a rain barrel. According to legend, Harlow was naked for realsies and demonstrated this fact by briefly flaunting her unadorned chest region for the pleasure of the hard-working crew. Director Victor Fleming quickly evaced this no doubt striking footage for understandable reasons, yet more or less serves the same shot earlier when Harlow bends down and allows her cleavage to roll around in full view for whole the viewing audience. My apologies to all if that sounds crass, but the shot is the shot. Fact.

The first time we meet Harlow as the woman of the night Vantine, she more or less emerges from the indoor equivalent of the mist - her voice heard off screen, her figure shrouded in darkness, and a light going on to reveal her perched in bed in a kind of nightgown that seems more appropriate for a suite at the Plaza then at a plantation in Indochina. Which is where she is. Why she's there escapes me. It was mentioned, I merely fail to recall. Of course, the "why" is not as crucial to the story as the why, which is that she needs to provide counterbalance and temptation to the plantation owner.

He is Dennis Carson, a character whom I really feel like could have used a more baroque name, played by Clark Gable without the mustache and, in one scene, without an undershirt, which was the 1932 equivalent of Kevin Bacon momentarily going sans towel in "Wild Things." He is immediately at odds with Vantine, perhaps because her take-no-shit attitude is too reminiscent of his own. He wants her gone, but the boat meant to carry her downriver to Singapore is in need of repairs. (And you can't tell me Vantine didn't employ her feminine wiles to ensure the boat needed repairs.)

The plot thickens when Dennis's new surveyor, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives with his bride Barbara (Mary Astor), not cut out for the monsoon lifestyle. Quite quickly the differences between the effete and societal Barbara and the uncouth and sassy Vantine become apparent, and an obligatory sexual push/pull emerges. Barbara finds herself swept up into the arms of Dennis when a storm materializes out of nowhere, and with it goes any sense of her decorum. He unlocks something within her. Thus, she throws herself at him, and he sends her husband off to do work deep in the jungle to provide a clear runway to a classic case of plantation adultery. And Vantine watches from the sideline.

 
It might be fashionable to say that Vantine is the devil on Dennis’s right shoulder and Barbara is the angel on Dennis’s left shoulder, but that is not quite right. Rather Vantine is the devil on Dennis’s shoulder and Dennis is the devil on Barbara’s shoulder and Barbara is the angel wracked with insecurity. In real life, Harlow was wracked by insecurity, and from the numerous films of hers I watched this past year, that insecurity is often on display. And while in “Red Dust” her character looks at Barbara with both envious and jealous eyes, Barbara is truly the one suffering from a crisis of identity, repressed until now.

Why else would she fall into an affair at a clap of thunder? Raymond does not present much competition to Gable – Barbara actually calls him “helpless” – but then this is not so much about a love triangle about competition as it is about self-recognition (or the opposite). Barbara is made to realize that she truly has no sense of her self, and while her spouse sort of mans up at the end, it's really more of a faux-manning up, perpetrated by Dennis and Vantine as much as himself. No, it's difficult not to see Barbara slinking off to an everlasting marriage of misery. But hey, at least now she won't be denying it.

Dennis, meanwhile, is made to recognize he is where he belongs, a grimy plantation owner keeping time with the lowest common demoninator. Vantine is the only one who seems able to recognize her life's position from the get-go, even if she thinks of herself as no good. You get what you think you deserve.

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