My earliest recollection of knowing anything about Red Dust comes from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces where it’s recounted how the feckless oaf of a main character was born soon after his parents saw the picture being so caught up in the throes of Gable and Harlow’s cinematic passion. The fact we had this film in part to thank for such an annoying lout kept me away no fault of its own. But let’s forget Ignatius Jacques O’Reilly and cut to the picture.
The world we find ourselves in is a far-off land in Indo China on a rubber plantation. As such, Red Dust is a Pre-Code colonialist tale full of romantic heat, natives, tigers, and more heat. The only speaking part these natives are accorded belongs to the giggling cook who is not too bright as far as stereotypical Asian characters go. The tiger speaks a few times too. It’s noted more than once to be a dirty rotten country. It’s also true that to an untrained eye like my own the rubber industry looks a bit like a maple syrup colony but hardly as tasty.
The man running this particular one is named Dennis (Clark Gable). Why he could care for such a life is a worthy question and the one and only answer is that he was made for this country. It runs in his blood and he was born smelling the smells of rubber. But that doesn’t mean he wants other people in his life.
The film introduces two women in particular who test him in different ways. The first is (Jean Harlow) who gabs and gabs while pushing the boundaries of what is decent during the 1930s. She annoys the man mostly. There’s no question that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow light it up. In fact, they sizzle like hot coals. It’s often the case that true romantic chemistry that burns like this comes out of conflict and they have plenty of it.
He’s a strapping man’s man and he doesn’t want a worthless gal with a dubious reputation motoring her mouth off around him. He’s got work to do. She’s not about to be pushed around and she’s going to push all his buttons (You won’t grow up to be a big strong boy if you don’t eat your din-din ) and stay around as long as she pleases. The kerosene and gorgonzola is provided. Just stay around for the fireworks also free of charge.
This could be the picture right there. However, the new surveyor arrives, which is news enough, until it comes out that his wife is with him as well. It’s an added complication especially for Dennis because after her husband gets sick and they nurse him to a full recovery, he finds himself falling for a married woman. The difficulty is that the feelings are mutual.
There’s a clear evocation of David and Bathsheba when Gable sends off his new surveyor into the swamps and his wife is left behind. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know her a lot better. He knows what he is doing. She probably does too.
When the monsoon hits and Clark Gable plucks Mary Astor up and starts carrying her through the underbrush you can feel the forces of nature ripping through the country. It’s one of those precise moments when you remember why we go to the movies.
Then we also realize why Clark Gable was so popular with the ladies. He was a brash yet handsome cad. “Dreamboat” was written all over his rugged features. In the movies it spelled stardom but if this were real life it would mean disaster for true romance.
In some sense, you would think that Gable and Harlow own the picture but Astor has just as much right to it as anyone with her performance that while begging pathos is still slightly muddied by her own indiscretions. She’s not quite without fault as we find out.
But the film ends with imperfect people making certain decisions that look to preserve lives rather than utterly ruin them. Sometimes those are the most impressive feats. It’s not simply the white knights remaining untarnished but the already muddied ones willfully doing something decent. So Red Dust is a fairly landmark love story but to the credit of its cast and crew, there’s still some magic left in it even today. I won’t begrudge Red Dust anymore than I already have. It deserves that much.
Famously John Ford would remake the story as Mogambo (1953) which brought back Clark Gable 20 years later with two more ladies portrayed by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I feel like colonialism was more in vogue during the 1930s.