I have wanted to see Red Dust for a long time. It is one of the quintessential pre-code films, and I had a very definite idea what the movie would be about before I saw it. It was going to be all about the wise-cracking chemistry between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable (with one steamy kiss between Gable and Mary Astor) and about the difference between Harlow’s Vantine – the hooker with a heart of gold – and Astor’s Barbara – the lady who acts more like a prostitute than the prostitute. And there was going to be a definite class element to the story, the difference between the purposelessness of Astor’s and her husband’s New York life and the vibrancy of the Indochina rubber plantation that Gable runs.
So I was a little taken aback when I finished the movie with a different impression. It struck me as a retelling of David and Bathsheba and a story about four remarkably immature and emotionally stunted people, trying to play at love and ruining each other’s lives in the charged and closed atmosphere of the steamy, hot, and rainy rubber plantation. And at the center of the story was Clark Gable’s Dennis Carson, a modern King David.
Clark Gable is Denny, a manager (or owner; not sure which) of a rubber plantation. He says he hates it, but his overseer, Mac (Tully Marshall) says it’s in his blood. His father did it and he’ll always do it. Soon the prostitute, Vantine (Jean Harlow), arrives on the boat and although his men nudge him and wink, Denny says that he’s known her type of woman before. However, she soon cajoles him and kids him into a better humor and the two of them enjoy her stay very much. She resumes her journey, however, and when he tries to pay her, she is hurt and says she had hoped it wasn’t like that.
Soon, an engineer, Gary Willis, (Gene Raymond) and his wife, Barbara (Mary Astor), arrive at the plantation and Denny is instantly struck by the wife (literally; she slaps him), who he regards as a lady. When Gary falls ill, he helps nurse him through and Barbara is almost uncontrollably attracted to him as well. Meanwhile, the boat Vantine was suppose to take has broken down, so now she is back at the plantation and watching with jealous eyes as Denny arranges so that the husband is away on difficult work so he can seduce Barbara.
It’s all a very entertaining, wise-crack exchanging, super-charged, compact, gritty, steamy little film. However, as I mentioned, I wound up with an unexpected impression. In fact, despite how the movie was advertised as being about Gable and Harlow (understandable, since she and he were the stars at MGM), I was a little surprised at how little Harlow’s character really further’s the central plot. The center is Gable, and the triangle between Astor and Raymond. Without that, there is no story.
What I am curious about is what the writers of the screenplay intended. Did they mean to draw parallels to King David or was that merely coincidental? In the remake of Red Dust, Mogambo, it is clear from the start that Clark Gable and the Jean Harlow character (played by Ava Gardiner), are meant to be together. The romance between him and the society lady is poignant, but you know it’s never going to work. Red Dust is intriguingly ambiguous. No character particularly seems to belong with anyone.
Denny’s character is an interesting one, which has shades of King David. He is the king of his manor. He treats his Asian workers (the ‘coolies’) little better than slaves, he treats his white workers only a step or two up. He even treats Vantine like just somebody for him to use. He’s never had a normal relationship of equals in his whole life and there appears to be nobody he respects or who he can have empathy for. When he’s with Vantine, all they do is wisecrack and wrestle like kids. Then Barbara and Gary arrive.
At first, he treats her and her husband brusquely, believing they are just society people who will not be tough enough to take the life. However, when a frustrated and overwhelmed Barbara slaps him, that is when he really looks at her and begins his pursuit. I was a little puzzled by this, but I think it makes sense. Denny clearly has a thing about women who are supposedly ladies. He mentions it several times, dismissing women like Vantine. He makes sure everyone treats Barbara like a lady, and he treats her like one by trying to make sure she is comfortable. At one point, he tells Barbara that his mother died on the plantation, which is why he doesn’t usually allow women on the plantation (Vantine doesn’t seem to count in his mind). One wonders if his mother was also a lady, not tough like his father, and that this idea of being a lady came from her. The reason the slap got his attention is because, whether she meant to or not, Barbara was signaling that she expected to be treated differently than his coolies, workers and prostitutes. He is turned on by that, but also respects her for it.
And interestingly enough, it is only to Barbara that he actually talks as if she were an equal and not somebody below him, mentioning personal things like the death of his mother. And like King David, he sends her husband off on an awful and nearly impossible work site so that he can be alone with her, although Vantine is still around and has to watch what is going on.
But because he’s so emotionally stunted, he doesn’t realize the consequences. He sees Barbara, he wants Barbara and even believes that he’s fallen in love. And it is only when he spends a little time with Gary and realizes that he’s a decent young man, eager to work hard and never complaining about the working conditions (it’s pouring rain most of the time), who loves his wife, it’s only then that Denny really considers that his actions affect others.
And this is where the tragedy comes in, because it’s really too late to fix anything, but he doesn’t realize that, either. He decides that he cannot run away with Barbara and that she will be better off with her husband. So he does his best to make her hate him by telling her he never loved her and implying that she’s just a tramp. She responds by becoming hysterical and, happening to have a gun in her hand that he had given her earlier for protection, she shoots him in the side. Gary comes in and Denny and Vantine tell him that Denny had tried to assault Barbara and she had fired in self-defense. Gary and Barbara leave and Denny is left with Vantine, who nurses him back to health. And the movie ends.
But the damage has already been done. He may think he’s fixed it simply by taking himself out of the running, but the marriage is broken now. It’s hard to imagine that Barbara – who struggled with guilt about Gary, who she regards as a trusting child – won’t confess what happened when she is no longer hysterical or if she doesn’t, there will always be that barrier between them and Gary may never be sure what happened. It is also hard to imagine that she will simply get over what she felt for Denny or how he tossed her aside (he’s trying to be noble, but no woman wants to be told they were used like a tramp; they would rather hear that their love mattered, even if the affair must end). Near the end of the movie, when Vantine and Denny are both playing their parts to convince Gary and Barbara that everything was Denny’s fault, they have the slightly pleased expressions of children who think they have put a toy back together and don’t realize just how broken it is.
Barbara’s character actually reminded me a lot of the character Anna Karenina. Like Anna, Barbara is in an unequal marriage, only her husband seems much younger than her rather than older. And like Anna, she flings herself headlong into the affair – knowing it’s wrong, feeling guilty, but not stopping to really think about it. I still can’t figure out how she and Gary were married in the first place. My theory is that they knew each other all their lives and married because it was expected of them by their parents (I imagine them as having mothers who are also bridge partners).
Gary speaks wistfully to Denny of his dream to go to South America, which he gave up when he got married. He’s also like a kid, enjoying playing at shooting tigers, completely oblivious to what is going on between his wife and Denny, and it is Barbara, not Gary, who makes the decisions and who mothers him when he doesn’t feel well. Gary speaks about wanting a home in New York and a family, but neither Barbara or Gary act as if they do. It is not clear what Barbara wants, but she seems to want to travel, since she came with Gary on the trip in the first place, and because she is willing to run away with Denny and see the world.There is no evidence that she wants that home and children that Gary talks about. It sounds more like parroting an idea somebody put in his head about what he and Barbara really feel, even if they don’t. Denny seems to be Barbara’s first real passion and she abandons herself to it completely.Denny thinks he’s found his ideal of a lady, not realizing the emotional vulnerability beneath the red hot passion.
Vantine is another interesting character who, unlike Barbara, does not expect to be treated well, since she probably never has been before. She doesn’t really mind that Denny doesn’t love her, if she even knows it, because she too is emotionally stunted. All she really knows or cares about is that she has him. She is delighted when Denny decides to be “noble” and never even thinks about whether or not his heart was really engaged (or Barbara’s). In some respects, it is like her character is in the movie to provide titilation for the audience…like her notorious bath in the water barrel scene.
But I do not believe that Denny loves Vantine. If she had really left the first time, I don’t think he would even have missed her. The only time he pays attention to her is when he is upset by something. At the beginning of the movie, he is upset generally about working on the plantation, later he kisses her when he is trying to get drunk and is sulking about how he is now not going to run away with Barbara, and at the end they kiss when he is upset after having been reminded of Barbara and Gary, who have sailed back to New York. When Vantine reads him the article, he has a brief expression of regret on his face, then he kisses her. It’s actually kind of sad, because, however fun the scene is with Vantine reading him a children’s bedtime story (because she’s read everything else in the paper multiple times) and their grins and playfulness, it is the playfulness of children (underscored by the children’s story she is reading) and not of adults engaging in an adult relationship and he seems to be trying to console himself, using her rather than really seeing her as a person or respecting her.
I have to say, the movie is far more entertaining that I just made it sound, but Red Dust somehow managed to inspire my interest. It’s a very taut film and there’s no moral to the story, nor is the ending really the end of the story for these characters. Perhaps that’s why I liked it; there was so much room to imagine these people’s past lives, their motivations, and their future.