The CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)

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.”

Vantine rids her bed of "vermin."

Vantine rids her bed of “vermin.”

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.

Vantine could hold her own with the best of 'em.

Vantine could hold her own with the best of ’em.

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.

Vantine makes herself at home.

Vantine makes herself at home.

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?”

Vantine works to make herself indispensable.

Vantine works to make herself indispensable.

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!”

Beneath the wisecracks, Vantine's pain shines through.

Beneath the wisecracks, Vantine’s pain shines through.

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.

This post is part of the Film Passion 101 Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA). Do yourself a favor and check out the wealth of great posts being offered as part of this fantastic event! 

~ by shadowsandsatin on December 3, 2013.

28 Responses to “The CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)”

  1. What a fun review! Of all the pre-Code dames, Harlow certainly seemed to have the most fun. I first saw her in Public Enemy but didn’t get what the fuss was about until her “an introvert, you dummy” scene from Dinner at Eight. Thanks for the memories!

  2. I, too, first saw Harlow in “The Public Enemy” and was not impressed, but she totally rocked my world in “Red Dust.” She may have been better in other films, but you can’t convince me. She is just perfect here in every way and your post makes the definitive case for her well-deserved stardom. Love her and loved you wonderful post.

  3. Karen,

    Harlow was always at her best when she was a bad girl. Few actresses could so convincingly that tough kind of dialogue. A great post!

  4. You’re right — this may be Harlow’s sexiest performance, largely because it’s so full of fun. Nice review.

  5. Sassy and attractive Jean Harlow is a true one-of-a-kind. Myrna Loy described her as “sweet”, but it seems to me that that sweetness must have been mixed with a lot of moxey and determination. She ran with the opportunities presented in Hollywood and became an actress and a star.

    It was great fun to read of how you became a fan for life.

  6. It’s not hard to understand why you became such a fan of Harlow’s once you saw her in “Red Dust,” it’s far and away her best, in my book. She wasn’t around long, but she sure left her mark.

  7. Another thing to bear in mind about Harlow’s performance in Red Dust was that a good deal of the film was shot right after her husband Paul Bern killed himself (or was murdered by his common law wife–depending on what theory you believe)–to turn in such a lively, sexy performance while going through some serious stress in her personal life is testament to Harlow’s talent.

  8. You’ve pointed out all the best reasons to love Jean Harlow. SUCH an amazing talent. Wonderful post!

  9. Harlow is certainly not one of the greatest actresses of the silver screen, but the thing about her was that she had a real presence. She is unbelievably sexy in this precode film. ” I’ve been looking at her kind ever since my voice changed!” Gable says at one point. Their banter is so easy and spirited, it’s not hard to tell that they were dear friends.

    Very much enjoyed your review.

  10. Never seen Red Dust. Thanks for the review.

    – Java

  11. I’m not known on the Internets as a Clark Gable fan but I loves me some Jean Harlow. This is one of my favorites, and to this day it amazes me how steamy it is. Fantastic write-up, Karen!

  12. This is truly Jean’s great performance. She makes us love her from the moment she enters the picture. The movie is just great storytelling with 3 great portrayals — Harlow, Gable, and Astor all shine in this one! I’m so glad your first Harlow encounter was her best role!

    • Hi, Tracy — I totally agree that Harlow, Gable, and Astor all help to make this such a great film. And I’m glad, too, that this was my Harlow introduction! It made me want to see everything she ever made.

  13. Such an enjoyable look back at Red Dust made even better with all of your observations, reasons to adore it. Really, if someone were to turn on TCM today, never having seen a classic film, I think they would be hooked after seeing this one. How could you help it?

    Lots of fun!

  14. Love her in this film too. I think this film is timeless, and it remains in my top 10 all time fav movies. It was one of the first Jean Harlow films I ever saw too. Along with Dinner At Eight, another Harlow classic.

  15. […] The second of six films featuring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, this one is as steamy as the Indochinese rubber plantation that serves as the setting of the picture. Gable is Dennis Carson, owner of the plantation, who finds himself squarely in the middle of a love triangle featuring the wife of one of his workers, and a saucy, sassy prostitute. Guess which one Harlow plays? (For more on this film – which is one of my favorite pre-Codes – click here.) […]

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