Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is a rubber plantation owner in Indochina and quite content with his life the way it is. He’s not too thrilled when he comes home one night to find Vantine (Jean Harl0w), a wise-cracking prostitute on the lam from Saigon, staying at his plantation house. Dennis is willing to tolerate her presence, but eventually she’s able to win him over.
Dennis has fun with Vantine, but is glad to see her leave just in time for his new surveyor and his wife, Gary and Barbara Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor), to arrive. Unfortunately, Gary has arrived with a case of malaria and needs to rest before he can start working. Barbara isn’t too keen on Dennis, but once she sees how he takes care of her husband, she’s pretty won over. Dennis is also quite interested in Mrs. Willis. But then, Vantine makes a surprise return to the plantation after her boat got damaged on the trip. Dennis does everything he can to keep Barbara and Vantine separated. After all, he wouldn’t want Barbara to get the wrong idea. When Gary is well enough to work again, Dennis sends him down river to do some surveying work, leaving Barbara alone at the plantation. Dennis takes this opportunity to get to know Barbara a little better and the two of them start an affair. Eventually, Dennis and Barbara decide they want to get married, so Dennis heads out to join Gary on his job to tell him. But when he gets to talking with Gary, he realizes just how much Gary loves Barbara and he doesn’t have the heart to break up their marriage. He’s also come to realize that neither Barbara or Dennis would really be happy living on the plantation. Dennis heads back to the plantation to console himself with booze and Vantine. When Barbara comes in to see what’s going on, he makes a big act out of declaring that he never really loved her anyway. Furious, she shoots him. Meanwhile, Gary has decided to return to the plantation house after catching wind of their affair and walks in just after Dennis is shot. Dennis says she shot him after he made a pass at her and Vantine backs his story up. Barbara and Gary leave the plantation and Vantine nurses Dennis back to health.
Jean Harlow really was one of the pre-code queens. One of the documentaries on the pre-code era, I forget if it was Complicated Women or Thou Shalt Not, described her as a “happy pagan” and I can’t think of a better way to describe her in Red Dust. She was a prostitute, but she was full of snappy lines and always seemed to be having a great time, nothing to indicate that she’s really a bad person. Even though she made some really great movies during the production code era, her whole image and persona were just made for pre-codes. The famous rain barrel bathing scene is definitely one of the greatest scenes of her career. Just watch how she revels in being provocative and shocking:
I also really love Harlow’s chemistry with Clark Gable. They are one of my favorite on-screen pairs because between Gable’s attitude and Harlow’s sassiness, what could go wrong? MGM originally wanted Greta Garbo to play Jean Harlow’s role and I am so glad they decided to change their minds. As much as I adore Garbo, she would have been completely wrong for Red Dust. First of all, Garbo and Gable weren’t particularly fond of each other so they wouldn’t have had that great chemistry that Harlow had with him. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine Garbo playing that rain barrel scene with such zeal.
Aside from some rather cringe-inducing portrayals of Asians, Red Dust was a pretty darn engaging movie. Great writing, great acting, and very pre-code. Lots of fun!