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Red Dust (1932) – Like David and Basthsheba in the Jungle

thI 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.

Harlow and Gable

Harlow and Gable

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.

Mary-Astor-and-Clark-Gable-in-Red-Dust1932

Astor and Gable

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 DustMogambo, 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.

tumblr_me616dcsa11rxeqpao1_500And 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.

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

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).

Astor and Raymond

Astor and Raymond

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.

MV5BNzE2ODQ0Mzk4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDkzNTI2__V1_SY317_CR13,0,214,317_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.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2014 in Drama

 

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Watching Silent Films

800px-Chaplin_the_gold_rush_boot

Chaplin, eating his shoe

I have recently become interested in silent movies, though it took some doing. It is the unintentional and un-directed work of a lifetime. I used to watch quite a few as a small child, mostly Charlie Chaplin shorts that my Dad would bring home from the library. I was so young, I couldn’t even read and I would have to nudge my brother and sister every time there was an intertitle to remind them to read it to me. Fortunately, it is not necessary to read to be able to appreciate Charlie Chaplin. My one, enduring memory is of Chaplin trying to eat his shoe. I was also very taken with his walk and would imitate it every chance I had.

The other silent film I saw as a child was The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film so racist that even I, an unaware child, could pick it up. It was my first introduction to how movies reflect their time and it was also the first movie that taught me that just because something is so in a movie, does not mean it is right or true or just.

Through the years, I have tried fitfully to reacquaint myself with silent movies. There was Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 Robin Hood, which felt long and had very 1920s’ costumes with a slight medieval flavor; there was Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), which put me to sleep with its uninspiring organ accompaniment (and I’ve never fallen asleep during a movie before, so it must have been the organ music). There were a few Chaplin films: The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), silents he made after the silent era had ended that were funny, but had a point behind them and didn’t quite do anything for me.

Two movies…well, three…actually, four, finally hooked me and made me a silent film fan.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): I read about Buster Keaton and the kind of physical comedy he did and about the wall that falls on him with the open window that falls over his head. I read about how he did all his own stunts and that a wall really did fall and how they measured it exactly so that his head would go through the window frame. There was something rather exciting about watching him do all his own stunts – no CGI – with his trademark deadpan face. I’d never heard of him before, but I enjoyed what I saw and have since become a big fan.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Then I saw Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Directed by F.W. Murnau, a German director known for his expressionist films, he came to American and made this movie in 1928, at the very end of silent movie making. I was awestruck by how beautiful and dynamic it was. The camera was mobile (unlike early talkies), the lighting and shots were exquisite, the acting was supreme, it actually had its own score instead of organ accompaniment (they figured out how to add scores to films in 1926) and it was very moving.

But although I saw these two silent films and liked them, I wasn’t quite sure how to go further into silent films. I didn’t know much about silent movie actors or genres. What proved truly helpful was to take stars I liked from the 1930s and go backwards and see them when they started, in the silent era. I am a big Mary Astor fan and I had just seen the movie Midnight (1939), which was also my first John Barrymore. I read that Astor and Barrymore made several silent movies together. One was Beau Brummel, a film that I absolutely loved and also served to introduce Barrymore to me when he was in his acting prime. The other movie was with Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), which is considered one of the first horror films and one I found quite riveting to watch as Barrymore played each role.

One of the things that really helps make a silent movie come alive is the music, which unfortunately can be a bit hit or miss. It can be a contemporary score, piano, organ, or even the original score.  Sometimes, the music is just slapped on and doesn’t fit the action. I once tried watching an inferior version of the 1925 Lost World and the perky, tacked on classical music that had no reference to what was actually occurring onscreen drove me nuts. When the music is good, however, it really makes a movie stand out. Beau Brummel had a beautiful score. It is a contemporary score and achingly lovely. There apparently have been many composers who have stepped up to provide compositions for these silent films and I wonder if it offers them more interest than composing for a talky film; silent movie scores can be more like a tone poem, more in the forefront rather than in the background.

I think one of the real keys to enjoying silent films is finding the actors and genres that you like, as opposed to feeling obligated to watch the best ones. After all, we don’t do that when movies come out in theaters. We watch what we want, not what the critics say are the finest, most artistic films. It’s supposed to be fun to watch a silent film, not educational.

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

But silent films are not like talkies. They convey emotions differently, visually, through their face and body language, through the music and cinematography. I’ve definitely seen hammy and melodramatic acting (but then, I’ve seen that in today’s films, so that doesn’t count), but there is a heightened emotion and expression that is almost poetic in silent films, that is beautiful and exciting to see…or funny.

Fritzi Kramer, on her site, Movies Silently, argues that silent movies are somewhere in between books and talkies and that many people who like silent movies are also readers. I have seen nothing to contradict it, though I would argue that there is a silent movie for everyone’s taste, if they could find it: horror, romance, kitsch, melodrama, jazz age, crime, gangsters, adventure, mystery, fantasy, historical, comedy, westerns…anything.

For more information on the silent era, I would definitely check out Movies Silently (here). There are movie reviews, fun GIFs, articles about the silent era, videos debunking silent era myths, book reviews, mini bios of actors. It’s a wonderful and well written resource. And for fun, check out her video called “Dear Movies Silently, Why do so many silent movies have women tied to railroad tracks?” where she debunks this particularly persistent silent movie myth.

Or for an introduction to silent movies, try her article called “About Silent Movies #1: Silent Movies? You Like Silent Movies?”

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Silent Films

 

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The Maltese Falcon (1929) – Dashiell Hammett, book review and comparison with the 1941 movie

Maltese_Falcon_film_prop_created_by_Fred_Sexton_for_John_HustonThis book was made to be a movie. It’s so close it’s like watching the movie in slow motion in my head. There are occasional flashes of something new, a new scene, a new twist or interpretation, but for the most part it reads like a screenplay. Sam Spade does this, he says that, his eyes burn yellow (they do that a lot), he grinds his teeth, some description about a room, what Brigid O’Shaughnessy is wearing, how Joel Cairo walks, the tone of Gutman’s voice – stage direction.

The book opens with Miss Wonderly (really Brigid O’Shaughnessy) coming into the office of Spade and Archer, two detectives in business together. She spins them a story about needing to find her sister and hires them to tail a man named Floyd Thursby. Miles Archer tails him, is murdered, and the story is off. Like the movie, it begins right off the bat with no other preamble other than a paragraph describing what Spade looks like. He sets out to uncover what is going on and meets the memorable Joel Cairo, Caspar Gutman and Gutman’s gunman, young Wilmer.

The book is noted for its colorful cast of characters even more than its story, and deservedly so. It’s the same with the movie. And they did such a fantastic job casting – or else I’ve seen the movie way too many times – that when I read I literally hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice saying the lines that I’m reading. I can see Mary Astor move her hands as described, or pause exactly where the pause is written in the book, I can hear Sydney Greenstreet laugh, see Peter Lorre walk and hold his hat with both hands, in front of his stomach. It’s very distracting, at times.

The opening description of Sam Spade, I absolutely could not see. He is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan,” but all I could see was Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t until the second half of the book began to have more scenes and dialogue that I didn’t recognize that my imagination was able to kick in and Hammett’s description of Spade began to compete with the insistent image of Bogart.

Sam Spade in the book is actually a bit different from Spade in the movie. He is far less appealing than Bogart makes him. In the movie, Bogart is the moral center, which is not to be confused with being a moral person, but he does have a certain code he lives by, unlike any of the other people in the story. In the book, his moral code is far murkier.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

And he’s a bit like a spoiled child – always “beefing” about the police’s treatment of him, grinding his teeth when frustrated, needling Wilmer, treating his secretary like a bit of a plaything, is ridiculously arrogant and self-assured and, amazingly enough, he gets away with it. Bogart presents a slightly more mature Spade. He keeps his cool better, has no tantrums and doesn’t seem quite so childishly pleased with himself.

If it comes to that, Mary Astor is also a more mature Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In the book, she is quite young – early twenties – and comes off even more helplessly than in the movie, even though she is anything but helpless. There’s lots of hand wringing and buckets of tears and large, frightened eyes. I would argue, however, that Astor’s Brigid is a slightly more complicated Brigid. She shifts character more than Brigid in the book and comes off as more intelligent. Brigid in the book is a liar, but Brigid in the movie is a mega-liar.

It’s not a particularly subtle book. People just come out and say stuff: “he’s queer” (about Joel Cairo) or “can I buy you with my body?” (Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Sam Spade). It’s stuff the movie had to skirt around to pass censorship. It makes the movie far more coy, though still explicit, about what is going on.

Like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett seems to be very interested in the process of detection. Details, even if they are not important, are described. For example, Spade is sent off on a red-herring. The house he is sent to is not important, merely being a place chosen at random, but we still get a description of his interview with the owner and of his search of the place. The important details are contained within other, non-important details. But there are no descriptions of people’s thoughts, their emotions; it’s the ultimate example of show, don’t tell. Spade speaks, his jaw clenches and we are left to infer what he is feeling.

Reading The Maltese Falcon reminded me of when I tried to read a book by Rex Stout called Over My Dead Body, about the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The book was so exactly like the TV series episode, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, that there was literally nothing new to glean from reading the book. It’s an odd occurrence, because most movies don’t even begin to do justice to the books they are based on. The Maltese Falcon isn’t quite that bad, there really are some new things to learn and it is definitely worth a read – it’s just not as many new aspects as I thought.

Dashiell Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, which was turned into the 1934 movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy. However, unlike The Maltese Falcon, the book is quite different and I couldn’t even begin to see William Powell or Myrna Loy as I was reading. It is rare for me to ever see the actors from a movie while I am reading the book, no matter how good the movie.. Even movies that I adore, that I consider to be fairly faithful to the book they are based on (1995 Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) cannot begin to capture the essence of the book I see in my mind. I still don’t see Colin Firth when I read about Mr. Darcy or hear Jennifer Ehle speak the lines…even though many are quite similar. The book is simply to much for a movie. Not so with The Maltese Falcon. It’s hard to imagine a movie doing it better. If it was any better, then the book would be obsolete…which is not something I would ever wish for a book.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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