The first movie where I saw Jean Harlow was Red Dust (1932). I’d heard of Harlow, certainly, and knew of her reputation as a platinum blonde, but I’d never seen a single performance. And what an introduction this was.
For the first five minutes of the movie, it’s all rugged male and jungle, complete with rubber plantation owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) barking orders at the poor natives, single-handedly battling dust storms, and giving a vicious beating to Guidon (Donald Crisp), a drunken member of his crew. Not a single woman in the bunch. At least not until Dennis and his right hand, Mac (Tully Marshall), toss the drunken worker into his darkened bedroom and we hear a protesting, “Hey! What’s the idea!”
Dennis is as surprised as we are to hear this voice emerging from the shadows, and he quickly grabs a flashlight, giving us all our first look at the awesomeness of Jean Harlow’s Vantine. Dennis demands to know who she is and where she came from, and Vantine isn’t a bit fazed by his snarling and scowling.
“Don’t rush me, brother,” she drawls, giving her hair a pat. “I’m Pollyanna the Glad Girl.”
It’s a perfect introduction to this sexy, saucy dame with the dazzling, white-blond mane. And Vantine doesn’t waste any time giving us another glimpse into her persona when she uses her feet to shove the passed-out Guidon out of her bed, confesses to Dennis and Mac that she got into a “little trouble” in Saigon, and when Dennis remarks on her “cast-iron nerve,” she responds matter-of-factly, “You have to in my line.” And we don’t have any problem figuring out what line that is.
But we don’t care – there’s something about Vantine that makes you fall in love with her from the very start. Harlow plays her as sassy but sweet, street smart but sensitive. She’s the type who can match a man drink for drink, doesn’t bite her tongue when she’s got something to say, and can be comfortable in anyone’s company, from the most simple-minded houseboy to the haughtiest society dame. Whenever Vantine is on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of her, and when she’s not, you’re just waiting for her to return.
The basic plot of Red Dust is this: a young engineer, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), is hired to work on the plantation, and shows up accompanied by his young bride, Barbara (Mary Astor). Practically right underneath Gary’s nose, Dennis and Barbara fall hard for each other – but not before Vantine has done a little stumbling of her own, for Dennis. In case you haven’t seen this classic, I’m not going to spoil it for you – instead, I’ll just take a shine a spotlight on three of my favorite scenes – and the reasons why this film made me a Jean Harlow fan for life.
Scene 1: It’s Vantine’s first night on the plantation and even though she’s only known Dennis and Mac a few minutes (and, in fact, doesn’t even known their names), she makes herself right at home, gliding about in her silky lingerie and helping herself to generous servings of gorgonzola cheese (her “favorite tango!”). When Mac retires (after telling Vantine: “If it was the summer of eighteen hundred and ninety-four, I’d play games with you, sister!”), Vantine first passes the time flipping through a magazine and humming “Home Sweet Home,” but ‘she’s unable to keep still and launches into explanation of how roquefort cheese is made. Annoyed at the constant distractions, Dennis threatens to slap Vantine out of the room, and without batting an eye or missing a beat, Vantine plants her hands on her hips, squares her shoulders, and shoots back, “You and what man’s army?”
Scene 2: The many facets of Vantine’s persona are on full display in the scene that shows her waiting for Dennis in his room one evening. Like a puppy with a focused desire to please, she cheerfully pulls off his heavy boots, folds his clothes as he tosses them across the room, offers to bring him a drink, even proposes a head rub. But a flash of pain shows on her face when she realizes that he is turning out the light and going straight to sleep. And that pain just as quickly turns to defiance: “Well, let’s forget about the drink. I’ll just rub your forehead with sandpaper!”
Scene 3: It’s obvious that Vantine is in love with Dennis and nearly eaten up with bitter jealousy as she watches Dennis and Barb grow closer, but she covers her pain with wisecracks, like she does in the scene where Dennis is preparing for an overnight stay in the jungle and warns Vantine to either be pleasant to Barbara or keep out of her way. “Oh, that’s just too bad,” Vantine retorts. “She and I could have had such a lovely day. Just two girls together with so much in common. I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge, while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night.”
I’ve seen Harlow in numerous films since Red Dust, many of which have become much-loved favorites – Red-Headed Woman, Platinum Blonde, Bombshell, Libeled Lady – but Red Dust will always hold a very special place in my heart as the film that introduced me to this stunning, fascinating, and multi-talented actress.
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