Friday, July 6, 2012

Red Dust and Star Turns

My wife and I took in Red Dust (1932, d. Victor Fleming) last night at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, MD.  We'd seen it before but never on the big screen and goddamn, we just love Clark Gable and Jean Harlow so much we couldn't resist.

Red Dust delivers three things and delivers them all strongly even if, in an ideal world, it wouldn't deliver the third at all.  One, it delivers two star-making turns by Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, both of whom are an absolute comic delight together from beginning to end.  Two, it delivers a perfectly tawdry little pulp of a story handled with just the right touch of seediness by Victor Fleming.  And three, it delivers racial stereotyping like that shit's on a "going out of business" sale and if we don't use it all up now we might not have another chance.

First, the star turns.  Gable and Harlow are a scream together with wisecracks back and forth from the moment they catch each other's eye.  He's Dennis Carson, operator of a rubber plantation somewhere in Indochina (now Vietnam - they pronounce Saigon as "Say-Gone" about twenty times) and she's Vantine, a low-rent prostitute looking for... oh hell, I don't know.  She's there looking for something.  She ends up at Carson's plantation and she starts sparring with him immediately.  First she goes on and on about the cheese they're eating (Roquefort and Gorgonzola) and how he wouldn't eat Roquefort if he knew they made it by slapping sheep around to which he responds, "I'll slap you around if you don't shut up" and then enlightens him on how many different cheeses there are which elicits, "Do they make a brand that stops you from talking? I'll order a ton of it."   

Naturally, after about five minutes of this he grabs her, pulls her in, starts groping her, she giggles and the camera pans over to the parrot squawking like hell.  Cut to the next morning when she's leaving and wants a goodbye kiss but he thinks she's asking for payment so he gives her a wad of money.  Classy.  And seriously, that's why precode is so awesome.   No one tries to disguise the fact that he just bedded her and is now paying her because, what the hell, she's a prostitute. 

Meanwhile, Barbara Willis (Mary Astor) shows up with her husband, Gary (Gene Raymond), who's set to work for Carson.  Carson immediately falls for Babs but not before Vantine shows back up and starts giving both of them an endless round of shit.  Carson laughs it off, beds Babs and gives Gary a project assignment that will take him out of the way for a month or so.  

It's immediately apparent why everyone watching at the time thought, "Please cast these two (Gable and Harlow) in as many movies as possible."  Everyone's good in it but Gable and Harlow are simply wonderful.  

Director Victor Fleming handles the pacing of the movie like the pro he was.  He didn't spend a lot of time nailing the camera to the floor and Red Dust feels energetic and alive, with outdoor action filmed mostly via tracking shots, constantly keeping the action moving even if all the action is is Carson talking to his foreman.  And the storm sequence where Carson and Babs are strolling through the jungle when, without warning, Hurricane Camille decides to pay a visit, is filmed so perfectly (the winds kicking up, then the rain, then the actors running and stopping until Carson picks Babs up and takes off like it's the end of the world, which it kind of feels like) that you wish Fleming had done a couple of pictures centered around massive storms, like John Ford did with Hurricane

Fleming knew how to direct action and actors.  A lethal combination that found a home in many movies with Clark Gable, his ever-willing action star.  

Then, of course, there's the all-too casual racism.  It's something a modern viewer has to accept about older cinema but, honestly, for the most part, 90 to 95 percent of all old movies don't have any dialogue or action that calls attention to it.  When it does, though, either through blackface or shiftless servants or happy mammies, it jars the modern sensibility.  In Red Dust, it seems not a five minute chunk goes by without someone disparaging the locals.  They must mention the "coolies" about 30 times in the movie and always as lazy, backstabbing and criminal.  Also, they make it a point to mention how they themselves are white... a lot.  It's kind of weird.  They keep describing themselves as white when they clearly don't need to.  "He's a decent white man," Harlow says about Gene Raymond's character and you think, "Why did she just point out that he was white?' 

Then there's the houseboy, Hoy, a simple-minded Chinese man, played by Willie Fung in a performance that makes Mickey Rooney's performance as a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's feel like Takashi Shimura in Ikiru.  Fung made well over a hundred movies playing a houseboy, cook or laundryman, dying at the young age of 49 (in 1945) before having the chance to graduate into respectable portrayals of Asian characters as Hollywood eased up a bit on the racial stereotyping (Breakfast at Tiffany's notwithstanding). Unfortunately for Willie, his role here is cringe-inducing and predictable: He make funny joke about smelly meat and nice lady underwear and he speak in broken English whole time he do this.  Also, when someone punch him and give him black eye (off camera, by Donald Crisp), he laugh because he simple China man.  Jesus, is it offensive.  

It's funny, when I see these movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), it all seems easier to swallow, not being in the company of strangers and all, but in a movie theatre with anywhere from a dozen to several hundred people (in this case, a couple dozen or so) you get uncomfortable fast.  Every time the word "coolie" came up, I thought, "Oh shit, here we go.  Someone's going to mention how stupid, lazy and deceitful they are," and, sure enough, they did!  After a while, you start asking, "What the hell, are they using the racial slurs as filler for the non-essential plot elements?"  And, oh shit, yes it seems they are.  

Nonetheless, Red Dust has Gable and Harlow and when the camera's just on them, this is one hell of an entertaining movie.  It's pulp at its finest, deftly handled by Fleming and well worth a look any day of the week.  Just be ready for an object side-lesson in stereotyping, too.  It's something that thankfully fell away as the years progressed but the main thing to be thankful for is the splendid give and take between Gable and Harlow, alone worth a ticket to the show.  Red Dust was remade years later as Mogambo, also starring Gable but joined this time by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.  Directed by John Ford it has many admirers but I'm not one of them.  I say stick to the original.  It leaves the remake behind in the... well, you know.