A Pre-Code film that launched two Hollywood superstars
“Red Dust” is a fabulous Pre-Code melodrama, filled with sizzling dialogue and scenes considered scandalous in its day. Although it may seem a bit tame today, it pushed the boundaries of sex on screen, and catapulted its two stars to superstar status. It was one of the highest grossing movies of 1932.
Directed by the great Victor Fleming, a top Hollywood director who directed some of the most prestigious films of all time, including “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”, both of which you will see on here soon. He worked up until his death in 1949.
“Red Dust” paired Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for the first time in starring roles. It was the second of six films they would make together. Their chemistry was electric onscreen, and like nothing seen in talking pictures before. They became life-long friends, until her untimely death.
Clark Gable, who plays “Dennis Carson”, was known as “The King” of Hollywood. He was one of the biggest stars and screen personalities of all-time, and a leading man for over 3 decades. He appeared opposite many of the most popular actors and actresses in classic cinema. He was the epitome of masculinity in his time, and looked great in an undershirt or in a tuxedo. He was just over 6’ tall, was a cleanliness freak, had big ears, and (unbeknownst to the public) fake teeth. His screen image was macho, tough and no-nonsense, but with a boyish “regular guy” charm, a devilishness, and a carefree attitude. Like all major stars he was very aware of his screen persona, and maintained it for the rest of his career. He wore a trademark mustache from the late 1930’s onward, shaving it only while enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He spent two years in World War II as a bomber gunner in Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. Evidently Adolf Hitler was a fan and offered a reward for his capture. Clark Gable won one “Best Actor” Academy Award for the classic 1934 film “It Happened One Night”, and was nominated two additional times. He was voted number 7 of the men on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”.
Clark Gable started out in supporting roles, including appearing in several gangster films (including "The Secret 6" with Jean Harlow). With “Red Dust” he became MGM Studio’s most important leading man, as well as a superstar. In the 1938 film, "Broadway Melody of 1938”, a young Judy Garland sang the hit song, “You Made Me Love You”, to a photograph of Gable, and the song included the opening line, “Dear Mr. Gable, I am writing this to you…” It was a sensation. Gable was a ladies man, having affairs with many of his leading ladies, and was known for his infidelity (and had an illegitimate child with actress Loretta Young). He was married five times, most famously to his third wife, actress Carole Lombard, from 1939 until her untimely death in 1942. It has been said that his marriage to Lombard was the happiest time in his life, and that he was never the same after her death. We’ll see the extremely talented Carole Lombard in upcoming films. His fifth wife was pregnant with his only legitimate child when he died. Clark Gable appeared in over 80 films, many of which are classics including "Mutiny on the Bounty", "San Francisco", “It Happened One Night", and his most iconic role as Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind". He worked up until his death from a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 59. You will definitely see more of his films.
Jean Harlow (who plays “Vantine Jefferson”), nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell” and the “Platinum Blonde”, was the talkies’ first sex symbol. She was curvaceous, often braless, with penciled in eyebrows (the look of the glamour queens of that era), and her trademark platinum blonde hair. Her skin evidently photographed like no one else, except Marilyn Monroe. Jean Harlow was an original, and there is no one quite like her, even today. She was voted number 22 of the women on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. Her screen persona was a mix of fun-loving, wisecracking, bawdy, gutsy, sexual, yet vulnerable. She was so convincing in her persona, that audiences believed she was as brazen in real life as her onscreen image. When I mentioned to my grandmother once how much I loved Jean Harlow, she exclaimed, “But she was a harlot!”. In real life, Jean was actually the opposite, coming from a wealthy, upperclass family.
Jean Harlow went into movies either on a dare or out of boredom (depending on which bios you read), and started as an extra and in featured bit parts. Her most notable appearance at that time was in a 1929 Hal Roach, Laurel and Hardy short, “Double Whoopee“. Early on she appeared mostly in gangster films as the moll. In 1929 Howard Hughes was looking to replace the female lead for his Pre-Code, 1930 film, “Hell’s Angeles”. Originally shot as a silent film, he reshot it in sound due to the success of talkies and needed to replace the lead actress, who had a thick Norwegian accent. He gave the role (and a contract) to then unknown Harlow. Her scandalous character in the film originated the famous line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”, and “Hell’s Angels” made her an international star at 19 years old. Her acting was not great or respected at the beginning of her career, yet whenever she gave personal appearances at movie theaters, they would sell out. MGM took notice, and bought her contract from Hughes, and soon made her into a respected actress and superstar. Beginning with “Red Dust”, MGM gave Harlow’s screen persona a heart of gold, and her fantastic comic timing and naturalness were allowed to shine. She quickly became a comedic sexpot, and was Marilyn Monroe’s favorite actress. Harlow's racy early films and persona were in part responsible for the enforcement of the “Motion Picture Code” or “Hayes Code”, which I mentioned briefly in the “Notorious” entry HERE, and will explain a bit more below. After enforcement of the code in 1934, MGM darkened Harlow’s hair, had her play the good girl not the bad girl, and kept her heart of gold, which only cemented her already superstar status. It was the first time a major star was able to successfully completely change their image. She appeared in just over 40 films in her short career (about half as an extra or in short films), including several classics such as "Dinner at Eight", "Libeled Lady", and what is said to be the first Screwball Comedy, "Bombshell". Reportedly, she was loved by everyone who knew or worked with her. Jean Harlow tragically died of kidney failure at the height of her career in 1937, at the age of 26. She was so important and beloved that MGM closed on the day of her funeral. She is one of my all-time favorites.
Mary Astor, who plays “Barbara Willis” was another big star, and wonderful actress. She started her long career in silent films at the age of 14, and she became quite successful. She transitioned to sound films, and soon became a big star, sometimes the lead, more often the second lead. Astor appeared in well over 100 films including the classics "Meet Me in St. Louis", "The Palm Beach Story" and her best remembered role in "The Maltese Falcon". She was an MGM contract player for most of the 1940s and did extensive television work toward the end of her life. She won one “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award for the 1941 film, "The Great Lie", which starred Bette Davis. Astor's personal life was very public, as it was filled with scandal and tragedy including divorces, losing her first husband in a plane crash, alcoholism and a reported suicide attempt. In 1936, after an ugly divorce and custody battle over her daughter, her ex-husband leaked her private diary to the press. In it she wrote of having a secret, extramarital affair with playwright George S. Kaufman. The scandal surprisingly did not destroy her career, and in the end the publicity may have even enhanced it. She was a very talented actress, full of depth, always interesting to watch, and her screen persona was always one of class. She wrote five novels, including her bestselling autobiography. You will definitely see a few of her films recommended on here again.
Donald Crisp, who plays “Guidon”, is a fantastic English character actor whom I love. You will undoubtedly see him again, as he was very prolific, appearing in over 150 films, many of which have become classics, including "Wuthering Heights", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Sea Hawk", "National Velvet", and "How Green Was My Valley" for which he won a “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” Academy Award. He started acting in silent films starting in 1908 and continued appearing in films up until 1963. He was also an accomplished film director, directing over 70 films (mostly silents), including the last film he directed, 1930’s “Runaway Bride”, starring Mary Astor. He died in 1974 at the age of 91.
Also of note in the cast is Gene Raymond, who plays “Gary Willis”. He is an actor that worked extensively in film and later in TV, and you will eventually see him in another film or two from this blog. Film highlights of his include "Red Dust", "Flying Down to Rio" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith". He was married to the huge Movie Musical star, Jeanette MacDonald, from 1937 until her death in 1965. He died in 1998 at the age of 89.
As with a lot of Hollywood films you will watch, there is definitely racism and sexism in “Red Dust”, unfortunately, a product of the times.
“Red Dust” was remade with some changes in 1953 as “Mogambo”, directed by John Ford, with Clark Gable reprising his role, Ava Gardner playing the Harlow role, and Grace Kelly taking the Mary Astor part.
So sit back and enjoy the fun and racy, “Red Dust”!
BRIEF INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCTION CODE:
Some silent films and early sounds films were considered quite racy, containing themes of sex, adultery, murder, various stages of nudity, as well as other “scandalous” and lewd situations. Since 1927 there was a voluntary Code applied to motion pictures headed by the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays. By 1933 there was outrage and pushback from certain religious groups, in particular, The National Legion of Decency (also known as The Catholic Legion of Decency), who demanded some sort of censorship. As a result, rather than be subject to outside censorship, the film industry created their own set of guidelines to self censor films, called “The Motion Picture Production Code” (sometimes referred to as “The Hays Code”), written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic publisher. Hays hired Joseph Breen to oversee the Code, and it became fully enforced in mid-1934. It was mandatory for filmmakers to abide by the Code if they wanted their films to be shown in the United States. The Code started losing its power in the 1950s due to the impact of television, foreign films, directors pushing boundaries, intervention from the courts, and it eventually ended with the arrival of the MPAA film rating system in 1968. In many ways the Code shaped Hollywood films more than anything or anyone else.
If you ever wondered why, for instance, there were always separate beds for couples (even married), no gay characters, no interracial relationships, or no scenes of sex in most older Hollywood films, the Code is the reason. The Motion Picture Code had pages of rules, way too many to list, but to give you an idea of what they were like, here are a few:
Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown
Abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures
No suggestive dancing
Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful
No superfluous use of liquor
Crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light
If someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen
Women, in love scenes, at all times must have at least one foot on the floor
People cannot be in a horizontal position if they were kissing
Nudity and overt portrayals and references to sexual behavior (even between consenting adults) could not be shown
Religion could never be depicted in a mocking manner
The sanctity of marriage had to be upheld
Topics considered "perverse" could not be discussed or depicted in any way (including homosexuality, interracial relationships, bestiality, venereal diseases, and more)
There was also a long list of words not permitted to be spoken onscreen.
Even with the Code in place, writers and directors often found creative ways around it, as Alfred Hitchcock did in “Notorious” with the famous kiss. Inevitably, there will be much more written about the code in upcoming posts.
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM ON AMAZON:
OTHER PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM: Ebay Deep Discount
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As you can see, “Red Dust” is full of sex, adultery, and even has a prostitute as a main character, making it a good example of a Pre-Code film. The famous rain barrel scene with Harlow nude and Gable standing over her and pulling her hair was very scandalous at the time.
During the making of “Red Dust”, Jean Harlow lost her second husband, Paul Bern (they were married only 2 months). He was found dead at their home, and it was officially ruled a suicide, though some evidence suggests he may have been murdered by a former lover. To this day it remains a mystery. Harlow returned to filming 10 days after his death. It shows how good an actress she was, in that you would never know she was in pain and grieving from watching her performance.