Red Dust (1932)

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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.

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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.

4/5 Stars

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Ironically Harlow as a Red-Head feels more representative of her projected image than Harlow as a Platinum Blonde (1931). Lil is a malevolent seductress. A homewrecker. The queen of meretricious relations. Simultaneously frisky and fun.

But she’s got one specific man (Chester Morris) on her radar and she makes it her goal to bring him down. Of course, he’s married and he has means. Everything she could want in a man. Perhaps there’s a tinge of actual romance in the air too. She kisses him enough for it to be so.

She continually ambushes him to begin with and he’s not particularly averse to her. He’s not as strong as he would like to think. First, in his office. Then, in a telephone booth and so on and so forth. As strong as he is and as much as he glares at her, there’s only so much he can take. “Red” goes back to her boarding house to regale her roommate (Una Merkel) about her daily victories. It seems she enjoys the hunt, mechanizing her feminine wiles to serve her. But she’s not above knocking back a few drinks slowly sinking into a stupor on the floor with the lively strains of “Frankie and Johnny.” That about sums up the woman we have before us.

Finally, she locks her prey in a room with her and throws away the key as it were. In the end, it works. Soon Bill’s marriage with his sensible childhood sweetheart “Rene” (Leila Hyams) is utterly trashed. Lil has got him where she wants him and he resigns himself to this new lifestyle. Divorce follows. She’s got him tied down.

Their life together isn’t perfect as “Red” wants more of a society life with parties and notoriety. And of course, little surprise, there are other men she’s openly involved with. Still, she exploits her charms fishing for compliments, flirting, throwing out typical Harlow baby talk. All the works.

Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck seems like an obvious answer to this picture’s themes. And it must be said that while there’s the inkling of an idea here, what the latter film has is a greater resonance because it’s not just a trashy romance propelled by a leading performance. But Stanwyck beyond being a siren also has a depth to her that while not fully fleshed out leads to some amount of conflict.

Here Harlow’s no good and that’s most of the novelty. There’s not a speck of true integrity in her and we are given few cues to why she’s the way she is. Maybe if we were provided more it would be easier to empathize even a little.

Baby Face makes me dismayed because Stanwyck is a tragic figure. Red-Headed Woman gets to me for a different reason. There is no remorse in Harlow’s “Red.” She’s just a sleaze and there’s little interest in anything else. It feels exploitive.

Everything is summed up perfectly by an uncomfortably comical ending. After taking a shot at her former husband and nearly killing him, she finds a life for herself in France with her chauffeur (a dashing Charles Boyer) no less.

F. Scott Fitzgerald purportedly got taken off the picture in favor of Anita Loos because he took the material too seriously. However, I’m inclined to want to see how his rendition would have panned out. For some reason, I cannot find it within myself to laugh at these characters. That’s undoubtedly a tribute to Jean Harlow but it’s still ribald entertainment any way you slice it.

3.5/5 Stars

Platinum Blonde (1931)

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“It’s like a giraffe marrying a monkey!” ~ Conroy

The nucleus of Capra regulars are all present and accounted for including a script adaptation by Jo Swerling and dialogue by Robert Riskin. The cast, on the other hand, is an interesting array of talents that simultaneously proves a major asset.

Foremost among them and most notable in this picture right off is Jean Harlow. It’s certainly true Platinum Blonde was one of those that helped build the mythology around her that still seems to linger following her death in 1936. Thanks in part to its title alone. And yet it’s a role that feels contrary to the Harlow archetype. Further still, it’s nearly a misnomer because this is somebody else’s picture entirely and it’s very likely you’ve never heard his name uttered before.

Anyways, his name is Robert Williams and he plays our main protagonist Stew Smith, a newspaperman who works the beat with not only shrewdness but an understated affability and integrity.

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Idle moments at his typewriter are spent penning a play set in Siberia and then Araby and finally Old Madrid. He’s planning to figure out the plot later. Either that or he’s killing time playing his handheld puzzle with his co-conspirator Gallagher (Loretta Young) instead of doing work like any gainful employee. He’s the thorn in the side of his editor Conroy but the man can’t fire him. He’s too good at his job.

In this respect, it’s a picture that shares the same world and figures immortalized in comedies such as The Front Page (1931), Libeled Lady (1936), and His Girl Friday (1940). In fact, it seems like the newspaperman had a certain appeal during the 30s and 40s at least in cinematic terms.

Smith’s the man who digs up a story on the well-off Schulyer clan who are currently embroiled in a breach of promise suit that involves the family playboy Michael and a chorus gal. Though a reporter from The Tribune is easily bought, Stew’s not and comes out with a major scoop. He’s got his editor’s thanks and the family’s ire. Still, they are more surprised that he’s an actual honest-to-goodness newshound and not an opportunist.

Soon enough Ann Schuyler (Harlow) has fallen for him. So this is also a class picture and there’s the expected chafing when a man of working stock falls in love with a woman with means. They can go batty for each other but that doesn’t make acclimating to a new life any easier. And someone has to give. In this particular instance, it’s Smith and he goes absolutely stir crazy.

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He and Harlow are beyond cute together having a playful marital tiff over garters. For him, he would lose all respectability in the newsroom and his own individuality if he went back to donning this archaic emblem of the old elite. For her, it would help make him into a gentleman.

But far from just glowing with Harlow, Williams can’t seem to put a step wrong. Whether it came purely out of the script or not, he translates the actions with a sincerity that feels utterly disarming. When he has the mansion all to himself, he starts hopping about and testing out the acoustics with his vocal chords. Then there’s an extended sequence with a discourse between Smith and his valet Smythe about the art of “puttering.” Don’t try and figure it out.

And he keeps the lamp burning with Gallagher too. Loretta Young at 18 years old and radiant as ever is not exactly a “one of the boys” prototype and she can’t pull it off like a Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck might. But that doesn’t downplay her usual effervescent and winsome charm, bouncing off Williams nicely. There’s no doubt about it; they’re pals. You know a girl’s one in a million when she’ll help you get out of a jam with your play. She advises him to write about something he actually knows about like his own life story with Ann.

Of course, the aforementioned play proves imperative to the final act of the film because we see the very events occurring in real time being used as perfect fodder for the fiction. The man finally stands up to his wife. He finally moves out and plans to get a divorce without “alimony” attached. He’s too proud for such an arrangement. Always has been.

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But most importantly the play’s ending gets written right in front of us too. He goes back to the girl he’s always loved without ever realizing it. He tells her what a fool he’s been. End scene. Call me a sentimental sop but I couldn’t have envisioned a better ending for the picture if I’d written it myself.

The great tragedy of this particular film is not that Harlow was gone in 5 years time but that Williams would pass away only 3 days after the picture was released. And that’s why the film history books don’t have as large a page on this man as they very well might have. There’s no question he’s a charming dope with a touch of understated comedy and certain charisma.

It’s a testament that in a movie boasting Frank Capra, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, Robert Williams is the undisputed standout, holding together all its various relationships with aplomb. He elevates the picture. It’s a shame that we lost him on the precipice of what could have been such a rewarding film career. I admit it’s a bit selfish. I would have loved to see him in more

4/5 Stars

Libeled Lady (1936)

Poster_-_Libeled_Lady_01Libeled Lady has screwball comedy written all over it and that’s perfectly alright with such a glorious cast. Myrna Loy and William Powell reunite once again (for one of their 13 pairings), but we also get Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. Amazing!

The set-up is easy and pretty self-explanatory. Warren Haggerty (Tracy) is the managing editor of the New York Evening Star, but while he is reluctantly getting ready to walk down the aisle, he gets the horrific news that the paper sent out a misinformed scoop by mistake. Now Haggerty is faced with a $5,000,000 libel suit from wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Loy), and it brings his weddings proceedings to a halt, much to the chagrin of his peeved fiancee (Harlow). This isn’t the first time that their big day has been postponed after all.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he goes to one of his former reporters, Bill Chandler (Powell), who really rubs Haggerty the wrong way, but he also happens to be a whiz when it comes to libel. He’s the only man who can get the paper out of the major jam so he leverages his position. Things go down like this. Chandler will ingratiate himself to Ms. Allenby and soon afterward Gladys Benton (Harlow) posing as his wife, will rush in on them. Presto! The suit will be dropped. Simple, right?

It’s the consequences that get even dicier. At first, Gladys absolutely despises being cooped up in a hotel with Chandler and she’s still fed up with Warren. But over time, the close quarters cause Chandler to grow on her. Meanwhile, Chandler tries to learn everything he can about angling, to charm Allenby’s father (Walter Connolly), who is a fishing aficionado.

From the start, his daughter has Chandler pinned as a fake (which of course he is), but by some act of heaven his act actually works and he wins them both over. Worse, Connie is falling for him and he’s reciprocating, but Haggerty is still waiting for the plan to be executed. Gladys is waiting impatiently for her “husband” who she seems to genuinely miss. It’s all a big mess to be sure.

The finale involves the four leads together for one final climactic barrage of pandemonium and spouse swapping. As you would expect everyone ends up with the right partner, but it was sheer craziness to get there. It had been a while since I had seen a screwball, and Libeled Lady is a striking reminder why the genre is so fun. It had me laughing pretty hard whether it was the utter absurdity of the fishing sequence or any of the other madcap moments. It boasts quite the cast too. It’s crazy to think that in only a year Jean Harlow would be gone, a short but vibrant career behind her.

4/5 Stars

Dinner at Eight (1933)

220px-Dinner_at_Eight_cph.3b52734Dinner at Eight is another all-star slug fest from MGM meant to capitalize and top the success of Grand Hotel from the previous year. This time around, well to do wife, Millicent Jordan is setting up a charming dinner party for a wealthy English couple Lord and Lady Ferncliffe who are traveling to New York. The hostess is frantically trying to figure out dinner guests for the big occasion because everything must be perfect. Observant viewers will notice that the high strung lady of the house is played by Billy Burke (more widely known as the Good Witch Glenda). Her husband Louis (Lionel Barrymore) is a kindly shipping magnate, who was hit hard by the depression, and his health is also failing as a result. Their daughter has problems of her own since she does not really love her fiancee and has fallen for the much older, and washed-up alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).

Next on the list of probable invitees is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), the formerly prominent actress, who is now still in the twilight years of her career, but she still carries on a lavish lifestyle with furs and all. She is old friends with Louis, and she is always ready and willing to reminisce, fish for compliments, and offer a little sage advice on the side. She’s a character we like.

The most dynamic pair is most certainly Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. They play the gruff, crooked businessman and his equally feisty wife, Dan and Kitty Packard. They’re hardly together because he’s working and she’s buying up clothes and caught up in an affair. When the two of them finally are together in the same room, they are constantly at each other’s throats. No punches or barbs are spared. And yet on the invitation to the Jordan’s they both pull their act together. He wants to meet the highly prestigious Ferncliffes, and she wants a chance to get dressed up. They’re quite the match.

With a title like Dinner at Eight, you expect the drama to take place around the table with the guests all seated together. However, that would be rather stuffy, I suppose, and instead, the dinner only acts as the culminating event to push the plot along. We actually never see the guests at the table, only the action leading up to it. Millicent is in a tizzy, especially when she hears the Ferncliffes have a change of plans. Her husband’s health is slowly deteriorating at the same rate as his company. The arrogant actor Larry Renault bickers with his agent about his next role. Honestly, this was the most unsatisfying of the threads, and it did ultimately end in tragedy. However, I’d be interested to know how close this parody actually came to John Barrymore’s actual life, because sometimes it’s hard to know how to parse the fiction from the reality when they seem to overlap.

Once all the guests are assembled it’s a rather ragtag group, but it is a fun mix of characters, and Millicent gets her cousin Hattie to attend along with her Garbo-loving husband who is unenthusiastic about the whole affair. It’s a satisfying overall result and an enjoyable enough ensemble that George Cukor directs with relative ease.

4/5 Stars

The Public Enemy (1931)

Starring James Cagney, the story follows Tom Powers as he and his friend Matt grow up in Chicago and eventually get involved with the gangsters of the Prohibition era. Tom’s life of crime gives him money and female company. However, it causes a division with his older brother. He sticks with his life and continues acting as  an enforcer for other gangsters. Every barrel of beer he delivers has blood behind it. As always fate catches up with Matt and eventually Tom. His life reveal the problems with Public Enemies. This is Cagney’s breakthrough performance and it makes sense because he literally steals the show. With every slug, slap, grapefruit, and devilish grin he captures the screen.

4.5/5 Stars