Friday, January 4, 2013

RED DUST

"You can check the wings and halo at the desk."

There are a lot of reasons to like the studios' embracing of manufacture-On-Demand, but the biggest is the fact that the model makes available so many cinematic treasures to consumers and collectors that might otherwise never see the light of retail day. Case in point: the plethora of pre-Code classic films available now from the vaults of Warner Archive like the 1932 MGM melodrama, RED DUST, starring two of the biggest Hollywood icons of the era, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.

Gable is Dennis Carson, a roughneck rubber plantation owner in Indochina trying to eke out a living despite labor problems, rampant malaria, dusty drought, and savage monsoons. Returning home from a business trip, he discovers that the last river boat has brought his plantation an uninvited guest: a brassy professional girl named Vantine (Harlow), who is laying low from the Saigon authorities with an in-country jungle stay. At first, Carson is irritated by her presence, but eventually succumbs to her Earthy, platinum blonde charms. All is well until the new surveyor/engineer he's hired, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), finally arrives at the plantation with his wife Barbara (Mary Astor) in tow, and Carson finds himself attracted to the more sophisticated, classy woman. With Willis suffering from malaria, and Vantine refusing to go away, Carson is soon embroiled in a torrid triangle just as a violent storm sweeps through the jungle....

Produced before the Hays Code imposed its rigid morality on Hollywood studio filmmakers, RED DUST is a frankly sexualized melodrama with flawed and believable characters that still, despite its predictable plotting, packs a surprising erotic punch today. Gable's Carson is a callous, macho brute whose only interest in the opposite sex is as recreation and household servants, while Harlow's Vantine is a wisecracking, strong-willed wanton who knows just how to use what nature gave her to survive in a man's world. By contrast, as the object of Carson's attentions, Mary Astor's Barbara is a weak-willed, porcelain beauty whose sworn fidelity to her husband is effortlessly trumped by Carson's brutish masculinity.

John Mahin's witty, sharp and cynical script is well-served by Victor Fleming's (GONE WITH THE WIND) professional direction. Although shot on the MGM lot, Fleming and his crew create a very convincing, steamy, rain-sodden, and treacherous Asian jungle setting. But it's the smoldering chemistry between Gable and Harlow that gives the movie its melodramatic fire. 

The MOD disc released by Warner Archive last Fall offers a surprisingly nice 1.37:1 4x3 "full frame" transfer culled from a very decent print. For its age, RED DUST looks quite pleasing, with solid shadows and good contrast. There are some scattered scratches, specks and other evidence of print wear, but nothing egregious nor particularly distracting. The Dolby 2.0 Mono audio is clear and relatively free of background hiss. As an extra, Warner Archive has included a theatrical trailer intended for Spanish-speaking territories (the actors aren't dubbed, but the title cards are en EspaƱol) that contains  alternate - steamier - takes of some scenes.

RED DUST is a classic early "talkie," packed with erotic tension, comedic dialogue, and mega-watt star power. Jean Harlow proves again that she was more than just platinum blonde hair, and Gable dominates the screen just by being there. For fans of classic Hollywood cinema, Warner Archive's release of RED DUST is highly recommended.

BUYRed Dust