6 July 2002 | radkins
Pre-code period piece melodrama with intelligent writing.
Context is an important element in viewing any work of art or commerce and movies are both. "Red Dust" at it's core is about human weakness and strength, in degree and in full force. Mary Astor, a star since appearing opposite John Barrymore in "Don Juan", plays a repressed wife who doesn't believe in the strength of her husband (Gene Raymond) nor her own weakness when it comes to resisting the animal magnetism of rubber plantation owner Dennis (Clark Gable). Conversely, Gable doesn't realize his weakness in letting himself get involved with the ladylike Astor and underestimates the strength of prostitute Vantine (Jean Harlow) who, when Astor shoots Gable, gives witness to Raymond that his wife is innocent and that Gable deserved shooting. For it's time, 1932, "Red Dust" is sexually progressive, showing the freely running passions of Gable and the two women, while in retrospect, it's depiction of Asians is as poor stereotypes. Willie Fung, who plays Gable's houseboy, is also derided as gay in the script by the line delivered by Jean Harlow. Harlow notices Fung giggling at her underwear, to which she replies "Gee...you even find them in the jungle."
"Red Dust" has a tremendous "back story" as well. John Gilbert was to play the part of Dennis originally as an attempt to bolster his masculine image which had been damaged by the higher-than-anticipated timbre of his voice as recorded by early sound equipment. With the sensation caused by Gable when he returned Norma Shearer's slap in the face in "A Free Soul" Gable's star rose mercurily. No "hero" ever countered the indignation of the leading lady before, and certainly not the divas at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gable was a whole new breed of leading man. Jean Harlow's star had been on the ascendant after scoring a huge hit in "Red Headed Woman" a scandalous story of a secretary who sleeps her way to the top. The realism of these two performers in those films made them a natural for the raw jungle tale of passion and betrayal. In the middle of the making of the film, Jean Harlow's producer-husband, Paul Bern, was found dead. The scandal that followed frightened the studio who thought that Harlow's career was over. Scandal had ruined the careers of Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow, causing their studio (Paramount) to loose millions on their films. M.G.M. was surprised when Harlow's fame and popularity increased. For her part, Harlow returned to the studio and never spoke an unkind word about her late husband. Bern, it turned out, had a common law wife who had emerged from years-long institutionalization and confronted him about his new wife.
Racism is not a key element in the plot of "Red Dust". For that, you would have to see "The Mask of Fu Manchu" where the Asians are neither lazy nor stupid, but sexual predators, instead. Or you could watch any number of other World War Two American movies with Asians in them. But for accurate Pre-censorship Hollywood adult dialogue and plot, "Red Dust" will do nicely, thank you.