Filmsite Movie Review
Red Dust (1932)
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Red Dust (1932) is the earliest of the Clark Gable/Jean Harlow films. One of the film's slogans proclaimed:

"He treated 'em rough - and they loved it!"

The film was remade over two decades later by director John Ford as Mogambo (1953), again with a grizzled Clark Gable as African animal trapper and safari leader Victor Marswell -- now opposite Best Actress-nominated Ava Gardner as stranded, provocative wisecracking good-time-girl Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly, and Best Supporting Actress-nominated Grace Kelly as Linda Nordley - a cool and prim but lustful wife of a British anthropologist Donald (Donald Sinden).

The Story

In the opening scene, unshaven, coarse Indochinese rubber plantation manager Dennis 'Denny' Carson (Clark Gable) was introduced taking charge of his business - known as the North Co-China Rubber Company. He was inspecting his plantation with his overseer "Mac" McQuarg (Tully Marshall) during a dry monsoon season with frequent dust storms.

The local ferry arrived carrying sexy, earthy, wise-cracking prostitute-on-the-run Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow), who had been invited back to Denny's plantation for shelter by Denny's incompetent and drunken overseer Guidon (Donald Crisp). She asked:

"Well, for the love of mud! Where am I sleeping, on a race track?"

She explained who she was - a fallen woman: "I'm Pollyanna, the glad girl" - she was forced to remain until the next steamship ferry returned in four weeks. The platinum blonde hooker was fleeing from Indo-Chinese authorities in Saigon ("I got mixed up in a little trouble and I thought I'd stay away out of town until the gendarmes forgot about it"). [Note: Saigon was pronounced "Say-Gone".] She promised Denny: "Don't worry, big boy, I'll stay out from under foot."

Denny expressed some frustration with his occupation and groused to Mac: "Do you think I'll spend my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?...Kicking a herd of crawling coolies around, fighting fever, swallowing dust one month, wading in mud the next, just so some old woman can take her hot water bottle to bed with her?"

Mac encouraged Denny to take advantage of Vantine's presence:

Mac: "Now, listen, Dennis, you've got your yearly case of nerves. Now why don't you go down to Saigon and - to blow the lid off? Get a laugh out of your liquor?"
Denny: "With this outfit running away as it is, how am I going to get to Saigon?"
Mac: "Well, as a matter of fact, what came up from Saigon isn't so bad-lookin'."
Denny (sneering): "I've been looking at her kind ever since my voice changed."

Explaining why she was restless (partly from the tiger outside - "that alley cat yodelling out there"), Vantine entered the room and told Mac and Denny:

"Don't mind me, boys. I'm just restless....Guess I'm not used to sleeping nights anyway."

When Denny scolded her for her random comments: "You just tend to minding your own business," Vantine was sarcastic about her cool reception: "This place certainly reeks of hospitality and good cheer." Denny adopted the nickname 'Lily' for her, and she called him 'Fred.' Mac mentioned how if he was younger, he would be interested in Vantine: "If it was the summer of 1894, I'd play games with you, sister. But life is much simpler now." Vantine surmised: "I bet you painted your hometown red!"

At the start of their relationship, there was tremendous sexual chemistry between Vantine and Denny. They got to know each other while discussing each other's cheese preferences (gorgonzola or roquefort), and when he impulsively pulled her into his lap and told her - with tremendous machismo:

"You talk too much, but you're a cute little trick at that. Why haven't you been around before?"

The camera tracked away as he kissed her.

After four weeks, she was ready to return to Saigon when the ferry returned to the port. Denny was there to greet his new inexperienced surveyor-engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond). He also was there to say goodbye to Vantine - and handed her a wad of cash for "expenses" that she wasn't expecting. She told him to keep the money because he hadn't been like her other clients: "Aw, Denny, no...Please, don't. This wasn't like that," but he insisted: "Here you are, kid. It isn't half enough. But when I get down to Saigon, there'll be more. Keep your chin up." She sadly accepted the money when he stuffed it down the front of her dress.

After Denny boarded the ferry, he noticed his engineer's luggage, including a pair of tennis rackets, to his disgust. Gary immediately showed signs that he was suffering from a case of malarial fever. Willis was unexpectedly accompanied by his upper-class, pampered, refined, well-bred wife Barbara "Babs" Willis (Mary Astor) - Denny bluntly told her: "I didn't expect you at all." The couple were shocked by the primitive conditions of Denny's 'main house' at the plantation, noted as being "rustic and pioneering."

Without doctors anywhere nearby, "Babs" was shocked that Denny took it upon himself to treat Gary and nurse him back to health (with a prescription of quinine and bromide and the command: "You'll pull through if you follow orders"), and then went on with his business of the day:

Babs: "I won't stand for this! Do you think you can treat Gary like, like one of your coolies?"
Denny: "Why not? He's just another worker on the place. Only he's coming down with the fever and therefore isn't quite as valuable."
Babs: "I won't have you talk like that! I never - "
Denny: "I know you won't. The only excuse you have for being here is to help take care of him. Now get in there and give him that quinine and take a little yourself while you're at it. Give him all the water he wants and more. The china boy will give you whatever else you need."
Babs: "You're not going to leave him? You're not going out?"
Denny: "Yes. I work here. You don't expect me to sit around and hold his hand, do you?" (She slapped him across the face!) All right. If that makes you feel any better."

The sound of a tiger in the compound distracted Babs' attention toward her own well-being. Denny assured her: "He won't come within a hundred yards of the compound. Now don't give him another thought."

After Babs retired for the night, Vantine suddenly returned - she was forced to remain for many more weeks when the motor shaft of the ferry boat she was on (returning to Saigon) snapped after it ran aground and became stuck in the mud. When she first met Mrs. Willis, Vantine mockingly described her own fictional blue-blood upbringing and background:

"Do you think I'd live in a menagerie like this? I've been visiting my brother. He has the next plantation below here, and it's a lovely place. You know he copied it from our old family plantation in Bluefield, West Virginia. Have you ever been to Bluefield?...Well, we're the Jeffersons there. I'm Vantine Jefferson. You know, I was supposed to be happy about staying home and marrying the son of another FFB. But I'm just the restless, adventurous type I guess. I had to come out to stay with my brother and see the world."

But then she admitted that most of her account was made-up: "You didn't believe a word of it, did you?...But there was a guy on the next plantation, even though he wasn't my brother and that story about the boat's all true, see? I haven't any connection here at all, whether you believe it or not."

Vantine's appearance set up a love triangle between Denny and the two women when Denny was immediately smitten by "Babs." [Note: It was a competition and contrast between the two women involving class, manners, reputation, education, and sex.] When Vantine first arrived, she had immediately sized up the situation: "What a pleasant little house party this is gonna be!"

Denny, who had unexpectedly shaved, "dressed up fancy" and smelled good, warned Vantine about misbehaving around the delicate "lady":

"Now listen, this woman's decent. You watch your language and stop running around here half-naked."

He even threatened to give Vantine to the coolies - to help her get back to Saigon one way or the other:

Denny: "You'll go back to Saigon....Slung in a hammock through the bush."
Vantine: "Oh, I see. Two weeks in the swamp playing tag with your trusted coolies at night. I guess that would be good enough for me."
Denny: "
You can keep your mouth shut and keep out of the way."

After Mr. Willis' recovery, 'Babs' was indebted to Denny for saving her husband's life and faithfully remaining in the plantation by his bedside: ("It's been almost three days, you stayed with him practically every minute, pulling Gary through this terrible...I just want you to know that I owe you a great deal"). Denny accepted her apology (for the impulsive slap) and her thanks by responding: "I'll take your IOU."

Later that night, Vantine attempted to seduce Denny, asking: "Denny, have you got a headache?...Would you like me to rub your forehead?...Well, could I get you a drink of something, uh?" Rejected by him, she replied: "Well, let's forget about the drink. I'll just rub your forehead with sandpaper."

The most memorable scene was Vantine's infamous, naked rain barrel bath scene, while Denny stood by and watched her. Bathing in the house's water cistern, she refused Denny's request to lower the curtain around her for privacy: "What's the matter? Afraid I'll shock the Duchess? Don't you suppose she's ever seen a French postcard?" When he came closer, she complained that he ignored her wishes: "Gee, can't a girl take a bath in privacy?" but then provocatively requested: "Hey Denny, scrub my back!" He dunked her and then lowered the curtain.

Sexual rivalry emerged within the love triangle when Denny fell completely in love with Babs. Denny was able to establish a relationship with 'Babs' while her husband was briefly sent away on a surveying mission. As Denny toured "Babs" around the plantation, he first demonstrated how liquid rubber was made into a flexible solid. She asked about his remote life: "Don't you ever miss the people and the comforts of the outside world? Don't you ever get tired of this?", but then she expressed interest in living with him:

"Don't you really think I could fit in out here? Don't you think that I could be happy?"

When a torrential wind, lightning and rainstorm came upon them in the jungle as they returned to the house, Denny took 'Babs' in his arms and rescued her from the rain-drenching storm. Vantine watched jealously as Denny carried her into the bedroom. He gave the adulterous, virginal married woman a forbidden kiss once they reached shelter. Afterwards, she had slight regret: "We shouldn't have done that" - while he responded: "But we did."

Vantine wittily confronted Denny about taking advantage of 'Babs' distress:

"Did the Duchess sprain her ankle? It must be wonderful to be big and strong....Be careful the rain doesn't wash the rouge off your mouth!"

She also offered 'Babs' a drink to calm her nerves during the storm - and they discussed her promiscuous indiscretion: "It'll make you forget a lot of things...This storm isn't the only thing that has you worried around here, is it? I saw him kick the door shut. He came out with rouge all over his mouth. Why, I suppose he asked to use your lipstick!" 'Babs' rationalized her behavior as innocent naivete, and explained away the kiss as "one of those excitement-of-the-moment things." Vantine wisely admonished: "Well, watch out for the next moment, honey. It's longer than the first."

Denny planned to send Gary away again on a lengthier surveying expedition for 3-4 weeks so that he could take advantage of 'Babs' during the absence. Vantine realized what the scheming Denny was setting up and was "just a little nauseated" by it. Vantine also demonstrated her bawdy humor as she cleaned the bottom of the parrot's cage, asking about the bird's droppings: "What you been eatin'? Cement?"

During Gary's absence, Denny continued to show affection for 'Babs' who returned his kisses willingly. He confessed to her that he wanted to sweep her off her feet:

"I never thought this could happen....I'm afraid I'm pretty crazy about you....We'll get out of this rotten country. I've always known that some day, we'll have a swell time, Babs."

Their plan was to have him inform her husband of their relationship: (Babs: "Are you going to tell him so soon?" Denny: "Sure. Might as well get it over with") and she agreed, although she was unsure how Gary would take it ("He's so helpless"). During Denny's visit to Gary working in the swamp, Denny changed his mind about announcing their plan after hearing how deeply Gary loved his wife, and listening as Gary told him about their future plans:

"I'd fold up without Babs. Just being away from her this long has proven that....Babs and I were going to have children right away, and this job came up...I guess we'll wait until we get back home. Before we left, we bought a piece of property outside New York up on the Hudson. We're going to build and settle down there....Babs will be right there with all the people she's known and grown up with. All our closest friends have settled there too. And it'll be a swell place for the children."

Denny abruptly returned to the plantation. Meanwhile, Gary's suspicions about Denny's intentions toward Babs were aroused when he heard gossip from Guidon about their adulterous affair: ("It was an open book on both their faces there was something up. He's been making a play for your wife ever since"). Worried about the future of his marriage, Gary also saddled up to return early to the plantation to confront Denny.

After Denny arrived back at the plantation, he confided in Vantine that he had decided to turn noble by not breaking up the Willis' marriage. She welcomed him home with a kiss: ("Welcome home, stranger"), sat in his lap, and kissed him. He affirmed that they were more suited to each other:

"You're not a bad kid, Lily. You know about us? We belong here. They don't, those two. Ah, it's a dirty rotten country. And we're dirty rotten people."

When Babs entered the room with a gun, he was playfully wrestling with Vantine. Denny pretended he was a deceitful cad who had never loved Babs, in order to end their relationship:

"I didn't say anything to your husband down there and I'm glad I didn't. I've just been kidding you all the time, and everybody knew about it...And if you want to cheat on your husband, that's okay with me. And I'm the boy you're looking for....And let me tell you this: I'm not a one-woman man, I never have been and I never will be."

In a jilted rage, she reacted by shooting him in the side. When Gary burst in, he was easily convinced that his wife had honorably rejected Denny's advances: (Denny: "Because I made a pass at her") and was merely taking out her anger against him, and that the rumors about them were a lie (Vantine: "Guidon's a liar!"). Vantine persuasively stated that Babs' actions were just:

"You oughta be proud of her. This bozo's been after her every minute. And tonight he comes in drunk and tries to break into her room and she shoots him. The way any virtuous woman, with a beast like that. If I were you, Mr. Willis, I'd take her away from here, and the quicker the better."

Vantine performed a surgical operation on Denny to clean up his bullet wound.

In the final scene, Vantine also helped Denny recuperate from a gunshot wound - she sat by his bedside to read a bedtime story about a chipmunk and a rabbit. She asked herself a sexually-disguised question:

"A chipmunk and a rabbit. Hey, I wonder how this comes out?"

She also read a short excerpt from the newspaper about the Willis' return to the US by sailing to San Francisco. She then continued reading (with exaggerated baby talk) about the "hippity-hop, hippity-hop" Molly Cottontail rabbit, while he made little walking, "hippity-hoppity-ing" motions with his fingers up her thigh as he moved his hand up her leg.