Movie Night: Red Dust

“The attraction here isn’t really the cultural relic/curiousity value, it’s the variation of the old man meets woman, they hate each other, they clash with sparkling dialogue and then end up together ’til death they do part. This bit has been done to death in Hollywood’s 100+ year run, but it can be freshened and redeemed if the scriptwriter is up to the job.”


FourStars
FourStars

From 1932, it’s the second of six films Jean Harlow made with Clark Gable: Red Dust. (21 years later, it would be remade as Mogambo, the setting moved to Africa, with Ava Gardner in the Jean Harlow role and Grace Kelly in the Mary Astor Role. It stank. Red Dust is superior, like most Hollywood remakes, to its later imitator. The six films Gable and Harlow did together were: The Secret Six (1931); Red Dust (1932); Hold your Man (1933); China Seas (1935); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); and Saratoga (1937). Harlow died during filming of Saratoga.)


The « synopsis » according to The Movie Database (TMDb) runs thusly:

“Dennis, owner of a rubber plantation in Cochinchina, is involved with Vantine, who left Saigon to evade the police; but when his new surveyor, Gary, arrives along with his refined but sensual wife, Barbara, Dennis gets infatuated by her.”

TMDb

IMDb has a « a shorter and poorer way of putting it »:

“The owner of a rubber plantation becomes involved with the new wife of one of his employees.”

IMDb

Way to drain flavor completely out of a synopsis, Amazonians!

Red Dust is pretty much everything that cancel culture despises today. There’s racism, sexism, slavery, the patriarchy time 100, misogyny, misanthropy, animal abuse, cuckolding, adultery, (and behind the scenes, homophobia and violence) and probably a few other things I can’t even identify off the top of my head right now. But even if cancel culture would like to burn this film, it’s rather juvenile to think adults can’t look, read or watch something from earlier periods of our history and gain some understanding of a time in the nation’s life and adopt what we’ve just seen as our own outlook. In other words, watching Red Dust won’t make you go out and slap blond women on the butt or enslave coolies in Vietnam or any of the other multitudinous sins.

We have been wondering if a boycott TCM movement will start; pretty much everything they show is a reminder of the really evil or tawdry foundations of this country. And pretty much everything they show is also a pointer to a better future, even if that future is on hold right now while Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Orban, Netanyahu, Erdogan and various ayatollahs hold power.

But all that is a digression. The film itself should be considered in context. It has it’s funny moments in the banter of Gable and Harlow, but it is a drama with a twist ending. It’s the tale of what happens when a rubber plantation owner hires a surveyor, Gene Raymond, who brings along his pretty wife, Mary Astor. While Raymond writhes on the bed with malaria, Gable and Astor spark up some flames. And in the middle of all this lands, Harlow, a brassy blond hiding out in the jungle after some unspecified misunderstandings with the gendarmerie in Saigon (pronounced, inexplicably, as “Say-gone”). There’s some business with a local tiger, some difficulties with not being able to trust the local coolies, a caricature of a cook, Willie Fung who does the grinning, giggly “so solly” bit, and inadequate bathing facilities.

The attraction here isn’t really the cultural relic/curiousity value, it’s the variation of the old man meets woman, they hate each other, they clash with sparkling dialogue and then end up together ’til death they do part. This bit has been done to death in Hollywood’s 100+ year run, but it can be freshened and redeemed if the scriptwriter is up to the job. In this case, the writer wasn’t really up to the job with the majority of the script, but for some reason, excelled with the dialogue as long as it was between Harlow and Gable. And that’s where it shines.

Of course, anything Harlow did shined, especially Dinner at Eight. Gable gets first billing here, and the movie is supposedly about him, but it’s Harlow who does the best job. The proof is in the difference between the Harlow/Gable exchanges and those of Astor/Gable. Harlow wins hands down every time she’s onscreen. Gable may have dominated the 1930s cinema with his star power, culminating in 1939’s bullshit “Lost Cause” revisionist rebel/traitor masterpiece, Gone With the Wind, but Harlow was superior in every way, at least when she was given half a chance.

Sadly, Harlow was suffering from nephritis and died of uremic poisoning during the filming of her last Gable vehicle, 1937’s Saratoga. Remarkably, she was just 26 when she died, having such an amazing career in such a short time that it’s mind-boggling to think of what she might have done with a longer life. This would be repeated in the case of Judy Holliday in the 1950s, who was an awesome actress whose life ended too soon. It would have been incredible for Harlow and Holliday to have done a film together at least once. Ah, what might have been (at least if they had been given a great script and director).

We at least have Harlow and Holliday on film fairly easy to access. Red Dust is on TCM as well as DVD.

What did reviewers have to say about Red Dust?

And that behind the scenes homophobia violence? Well, that’s the Gene Raymond story, who married Jeanette McDonald (of “Nelson Eddy and” fame), but had a rather interesting life. Producer/Director George Sidney once called Raymond “the most gorgeous thing the world has ever seen.” Seems a bit far fetched for me, but he was pretty. And therein lay the problem. We’ll let Wikipedia take over:

“Biographer Sharon Rich reported in her Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald biography, Sweethearts, that Raymond and MacDonald had a rocky marriage, with Raymond physically and emotionally abusing MacDonald, and having affairs with men. This began on their honeymoon [in 1937] when MacDonald discovered Raymond in bed with Buddy Rogers.”

Wikipedia

I’m sure that would have been pretty frickin’ hot, the most gorgeous thing in the world in bed with the equally hot Buddy Rogers. But go on:

“Rich reported that Raymond had been arrested three times, the first in January 1938, as verified by a court document, and also in England during his army service, for his behavior. Raymond’s wedding to MacDonald, orchestrated by Louis B. Mayer forced MacDonald to become Raymond’s beard and the 1938 arrest resulted in Mayer blacklisting him in Hollywood for almost two years.”

Ibid

It gets better:

“Biographer E. J. Fleming also alleged that Eddy had confronted Raymond for abusing MacDonald, who was visibly pregnant with Eddy’s child while filming Sweethearts which ended with Eddy attacking him and leaving him for dead, disguised in the press as Raymond recovering from falling down the stairs.”

Ibid

Both Rogers and Raymond, like most queers of their day, went on to other marriages with women and spent their remaining years deeply in the closet. It needs to be pointed out that:

“Raymond publicly refuted the allegations of abuse, neglect and details of his marriage to MacDonald, which were published during his lifetime.”

Ibid

That quote construction seems to leave out things like affairs with men and romping in bed with Buddy Rogers, but who knows.

Critics at the time were fairly kind and the movie made a $400,000 profit (around $6.8 million in today’s dollars). The New York Times left a review up to a writer only identified by his initials, M.H., who basically recounted the plot and, while they liked Harlow, were a little snide about Harlow’s admirers in the audience at the screening at the Capitol:

“Life on a rubber plantation in French Indo-China receives attention in “Red Dust,” a pictorial adaptation of a play by Wilson Collison which is now at the Capitol. It is a far from pleasant spot, with its heat and sudden deluges of rain, its blinding sand storms and jungle beasts. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of this tale is more interesting than its story, especially the glimpses of the men at work.
“Dennis Carson, played by Clark Gable, who is in charge of the plantation, avers that so long as people in other countries want balloon tires and hot-water bottles such toil must go on. The natives are indolent, which causes Carson to use the lash on them, but no sooner have they settled down to labor than they are forced often to seek shelter from a sand storm.
To this uninviting area comes the immodest Vantine, a woman from Saigon. She at least makes existence more lively for Carson, who who is not precisely hospitable to her. There is trouble on all sides for Carson.

[There is a recounting of the Gable/Astor entanglement and Harlow’s involvement.]

“… Barbara and her husband eventually leave the plantation and Vantine takes up her abode in Carson’s comfortless shack.
“The dialogue is not especially bright or strong, but some of the lines spoken by Vantine, who is impersonated by Jean Harlow, aroused laughter from the audience. Miss Harlow’s presence in the picture apparently attracted a host of other platinum blondes, for on all sides there were in the seats girls with straw-colored hair. Miss Harlow’s performance suits the part. Mr. Gable is efficient in his rôle. Miss Astor offers a striking contrast to Miss Harlow. Tully Marshall makes the most of a minor rôle, as does Gene Raymond, who appears as Willis.”

M.H., The New York Times

I’d agree about most of the dialogue (see choice quotes below for yourself). But it’s a pretty spot-on review from the original screening.

Anyway, regardless of its content and the soap operas behind it, Red Dust is a worthwhile, entertaining history lesson and should be taken as a positive sign of just how we’ve come in almost 90 years. Or, you know, you could ignore such Pollyanna-ish constructs and, I don’t know, burn it.


Red Dust Lobby Card
Red Dust: Clark Gable and Mary Astor

Red Dust: Willie Fung, Gene Raymond, Jean Harlow

Best quotes:

Dennis Carson: Why’d you get off the boat at all? You know it doesn’t stop here again for four week, don’t you?
Vantine: Sure I do. Think I’m overjoyed about it? But, its just got to be, that’s all.
Dennis Carson: Well, then?
Vantine: I left the boat here for the same reason I took it at Saigon.
Dennis Carson: What reason?
Vantine: I got mixed up in a little trouble and I thought I’d stay out of town ’til the Gendarmes forgot about it.
Dennis Carson: And what a cast iron nerve you’ve got.
Vantine: You have to have in my line. But, don’t worry, big boy, I’ll stay out from under foot. I’ll even pay for my board if you insist on it nicely.

Red Dust

Dennis Carson: Come on, lets have it. Who are you? Where’d you come from?
Vantine: Don’t rush me, brother. I’m Pollyanna, the Glad Girl.

Ibid

Dennis Carson: Here you are kid.
[stuffs some bills in Vantine’s cleavage]
Dennis Carson: It isn’t half enough, but, when I get down to Saigon, there’ll be more. Keep your chin up.
[pats Vantine twice on her behind]

Ibid
[The bath scene]
Dennis Carson: [naked, Vantine jumps in a rain barrel] Get out of there! Say what’s the idea?
Vantine: What?
Dennis Carson: Getting in that barrel?
Vantine: Oh, I don’t know? Maybe I’m goin’ over Niagara Falls. Whoop!

Vantine: What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll – shock the duchess? Don’t you suppose she’s ever seen a French postcard?
Dennis Carson: You’ll let those curtains down if its the last bath you’ll ever take!

Vantine: Hey, where’s the reception committee? It’s been a nice little walk. Did you hear that hungry pussy cat back there?
Dennis Carson: Now, listen. This woman’s decent. You watch your language and stop running around here half naked.
Vantine: I’ll stay as comfortable as I like.

Red Dust

Vantine: [sarcastically] What a pleasant little house party this is gonna be.

Ibid

Vantine: [sarcastically] I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning on what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: That’s a… a very polished little speech for a… barbarian.

Ibid

Vantine: Don’t mind me boys, I’m just restless.

Ibid

Gary Willis: [eating dinner] Those coolies are tough to handle, aren’t they?
Dennis Carson: Didn’t I tell you they were a lazy bunch?
Gary Willis: Well, I mean, I didn’t know they were so sneaky about it. The minute you turn your back on ’em, they’re up to something or other they shouldn’t be doing.
[Dennis and Barbara look at each other]
Gary Willis: Are they always like that?
Dennis Carson: I’m afraid so.
McQuarg: I was telling him about that time that Malay tried to knife you in the back.
Vantine: Its a great country for that sort of thing.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: I won’t stand for this! Do you think you can treat Gary like – like one of your coolies?

Ibid

Barbara Willis: We shouldn’t have done that.
Dennis Carson: We did.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: Do you mind if I stay here with you?
Vantine: Think you can stand the company?

Ibid

Barbara Willis: It’s stupid of me to be so frightened.
Vantine: This storm isn’t the only thing that has you worried around here, is it? I saw him kick the door shut. He came out with rouge all over his mouth. I suppose he asked to use your lipstick?
[lights a cigarette]

Ibid

Barbara Willis: Oh, it’s too silly. What do I mean I’m scared? It was just one of those exciting little moment things.
Vantine: Well, watch out for the next moment, honey. It’s longer than the first.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t do anything. He didn’t have any reason to believe that I’d…
Vantine: I didn’t hear any cries for help.
Barbara Willis: Oh, I don’t know what came over me. I should have stopped him. I tried, but…
Vantine: But you couldn’t. Even when you tried, could you?
Barbara Willis: No. That’s why I’m scared.

Ibid

Dennis Carson: All those lame cracks won’t help you any if I come back and find you’ve been annoying her.
Vantine: Oh, I wouldn’t touch her with your best pair of rubber gloves!

Ibid

Dennis Carson: What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?
Vantine: Just a little nauseated. This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here.
Dennis Carson: Stop looking through key holes. It’s bad for the eyes.

Ibid

FourStars
Four Stars!

Red Dust. 1932. TCM. English. Victor Fleming (d). John Lee Mahin, Wilson Collison, Donald Ogden Stewart (w). Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Mary Astor, Gene Raymond, Donald Crisp, Tully Marshall, Forrester Harvey, Willie Fung. (p). Harold Rosson, Arthur Edeson (c).


Movie Night: Strait Jacket

“The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls.”

["'Tina! Bring me the axe!" Joan Crawford hacks up the Six Million Dollar Man in 1964's Strait-Jacket. "Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one."]
Four.5.Stars
Four and 1/2 stars!

From 1964 (and presented by the fabulous Svengoolie): It’s Mommie Dearest with an axe, but with a twist! Here is Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket!

The «synopsis»:

“After a 20 year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behaviour.”

TMDb

IMDb has «a slightly different way of putting it»:

“After a twenty-year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behavior. “

IMDb

Oh, okay, that’s not so different. Hmmm. Is there collusion between those two sites? But how else would you describe this thing? Let’s check «Rotten Tomatoes» then:

“In this chilling blood-tale in ‘Psycho’ style, Robert Bloch modernizes the Lizzy Borden story. A wife (Joan Crawford) literally axes her cheating husband and his lover, witnessed by her three-year-old daughter. Mom is packed off to the insane asylum for 20 years before reuniting with the daughter (Diane Baker). From this point, the axe murders continue along a contrived plot intended to lead the audience astray until the mystery is solved. Crawford’s strong performance and the excellently constructed suspense are the best elements of the film—and the chopping saves the show when the plot tends to slow.”

Rotten Tomatoes

But more importantly, what did critics say about Mommie Dearest, er, I mean Strait Jacket? Shaun Mulvihill over at Fan Boy Nation pretty much covers it very well:

“… Strait-Jacket is now hailed as a camp classic, which it is no doubt, but it’s also a throwback melodrama that is punctuated by its moments of violent ax murders. Shout!

“Having not seen Strait-Jacket in at least 10 years, one thing stood out in revisiting the film on the new Blu-ray – this film isn’t too dissimilar to the sordid drama of «Mildred Pierce» that won Joan Crawford her lone Oscar. Even though in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Crawford was being repurposed as a scream queen, she always gave her all to the performance. Strait-Jacket may have been seen as a B-movie to the studio and the critics reviewing the film in 1964, Crawford gives an A performance as the mentally ravaged Lucy Harbin. Of course, Crawford made sure to employ her role as the spokeswoman of Pepsi in the film, inserting six-packs of Pepsi throughout the film.
“The violence of Strait-Jacket looks quaint by today’s standards, with some rather unrealistic looking limbs being violently severed by a swinging ax. Even though Strait-Jacket is released after Herschell Gordon Lewis created the modern gore film with Blood Feast, Strait-Jacket is remarkably graphic for a studio film of its era. The posters used the violence as a selling point, proclaiming, ‘Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!’ I won’t lie, the violence of Strait-Jacket is funny by today’s standards, but it’s important to remember its context of film violence of its era.

“There’s no defending Crawford the person and her deplorable actions. On the screen, though, she shined bright and continues to shine as her classic are restored and revived on home video. Strait-Jacket may not have been her proudest moment, but you’d never know it from her dedicated performance. It’s a true testament to Crawford’s presence as a performer that Strait-Jacket is much more a Joan Crawford picture than a William Castle picture. Castle was a great showman and huckster, and he stepped aside to give the spotlight to bigger showman. William Castle knew he didn’t need a gimmick when he had Joan Crawford.”

Fan Boy Nation

It’s all tremendous fun, especially if you remember the context. Yes, it foreshadows Mommie Dearest, which makes you wonder where that particular flick came from (did Christina Crawford confuse a viewing of Strait-Jacket with her life? Oh, sorry. I’m sure her trauma was very real.) But for gosh sake, cinema Joan wielding the axe on Lee Majors in 1964 and then supposedly-real-life Joan wielding the axe on a tree 17 years later is rather … interesting.

Nonetheless, it’s always a fun time. The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls. Also fun is Edith Atwater as a society matron, her tut-tut husband Howard St. John, and their son, John Anthony Hayes as their son in the very-good-looking-man role, who discovers something very unsettling about his would-be fiancee.

The ending, featuring Edith Atwater’s horrifying discovery and a mask and Joan suddenly replaying her role as Nurse Lucretia Terry in The Caretakers (1963), is pretty fabulous, but shhhhh, don’t reveal it to anyone so as not to spoil their spine-tingly, horrifyingly good time! Watch it!


Strait-Jacket Lobby Card
Strait-Jacket Lobby Card

Best quotes:

Daughter Dearest, they should have called this thing. Love these quotes, especially, “Lucy Harbin took an axe …”

Carol Harbin: “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! No I didn’t mean that, I love you. I hate you!”

Strait-Jacket

First little girl: “Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one.”
Carol Harbin: [Lucy storms out to find two girls playing jump rope] “What is it, Mother?”
Lucy Harbin: “I heard them …”
First little girl: “London bridge is falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”
Carol Harbin: “It’s just a nursery rhyme, mother.”
Second little girl: “Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up, take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.”

Ibid

Four.5.Stars
Four and a half stars – for the camp value alone!

Strait-Jacket. 1964. MeTV. English. William Castle (d). Robert Bloch (w). Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, Rachelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Mitchell Cox and Lee Majors' hairy chest as one of the axe victims. (p). Van Alexander (m). Arthur E. Arling (c).


 

TCM Tonight: Summer Under the Stars – Joan Crawford

Of COURSE we had to watch some Joan tonight. Not taking time to behold the wonder that is our patron saint, Lucille LeSueur, would be anathema, blasphemy, time wasted!

Poster of Sudden Fear Movie
Sudden Fear Movie Poster

First up was 1952’s Sudden Fear — Joan with Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Bruce Bennett, Virginia Hudson and Mike “Touch” / “Mannix” Connors. David Miller directed. Playwright takes up with menacing actor Palance, who is really plotting with Gloria Grahame (who else?) to knock off Joan and take all her fabulous wealth. Mike Connors is there to be supposedly pretty and try to romance Gloria Grahame, who brushes him off because, of course, she likes being smacked around by her dreamboat Palance. Also, she has a closet with handy poison and a gun all ready to go.

Summary: “After an ambitious actor insinuates himself into the life of a wealthy middle-aged playwright and marries her, he plots with his mistress to murder her.”

IMDb.

Fabulous quotes:

Myra Hudson: “Remember what Nietzsche says ‘Live dangerously!'”
Lester Blaine: “You know what happened to Nietzsche?”
Myra Hudson: “No, what?”
Lester Blaine: “He’s dead.”

Lester Baine and Myra Hudson, Sudden Fear

“I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.” 

Myra Hudson, Sudden Fear
Harriet Craig movie poster
Movie poster of Harriet Craig, 1952.

Next up was 1950s Harriet Craig — Joan with Wendell Corey, Lucile Watson, Allyn Joslyn, William Bishop, K.T. Stevens and Ellen Corby. Directed by Vincent Sherman. She plays, what else, a Mommie Dearest without the kids, who actually hates kids, disorder, had to work to survive in a laundry and other foul places, but who now worships a perfectly clean, massive house and a Ming vahse and browbeats the servants and the little boy next door. Only thing missing is cans of Dutch Cleanser. Harriet is my paternal grandmother with money, youth, and better tailoring. Now THAT woman knew how to clean! The Ming vahse fails to survive the picture, as does her marriage.

Summary: “Domineering Harriet Craig holds more regard for her home and its possessions than she does for any person in her life. Among those she treats like household objects are her kind husband Walter, whom she has lied to about her inability to have children; her cousin Claire, whom she treats like a secretary; and her servants whom she treats like slaves.”

IMDb

Fabulous quotes:

“No man’s born ready for marriage; he has to be trained.” 

Harriet Craig.

“I’m going next door. Where the scheming widow lives.” 

Walter Craig.
Movie Poster of Torch Song

We also caught the tail end of Torch Song from 1953, with its infamous scene of Joan doing some serious legwork and vamping in full black face lip synching as India Adams sings Two Faced Woman and one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, Michael Wilding, playing blind, complete with drunken old biddy mother, seeing eye dog and costumes and more lip synching and other acts of violent culture appropriation.

Summary: “Jenny Stewart is a tough Broadway musical star who doesn’t take criticism from anyone. Yet there is one individual, Tye Graham, a blind pianist who may be able to break through her tough exterior.”

IMDb

Fabulous quotes:

“Your idea of art’s the fruit in the slot machine.”

Jenny Stewart

Jenny: “Carl, after you drop me will you take Mr. Norton home?” Carl: “Yes ma’am. What’s your address Mr. Norton?” Jenny: “Any dark bar.”

Jenny Stewart and her chauffeur

Joan emotes with aforementioned Michael Wilding, as well as Gig Young, the always fabulous Marjorie Rambeau, Harry Morgan, and Maidie Norman, who plays the usual part reserved for women of color: the maid, who remains completely silent when the white folk smudge their faces with charcoal, paint on big lips and start singin’ field hand songs. (Maidie was five hundred times the actor Joan was, but made-up black face gets Oscars and real black face gets two lines talking about how dinner or the fancy white woman dress is ready. Ms. Norman and Ms. Rambeau are pretty much the only redeeming features of this one, as well as a little bit of Mr. Wilding’s handsome mug. Should’ve been titled Black Face Lip Synching Song, but theaters in the south would have been all in a snit and shit. If you’re not into being entertained by many appalling elements in a 90-minute period, skip Torch SongSudden Fear and Harriet Craig I can personally recommend.

Tonight is the end of this year’s Summer Under the Stars. How appropriate to end it with Dearest Joan. And that fabulous production, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so that Bette Davis can yet again trample on Joan’s special Summer Under the Stars day.

It’s now September. Thank god. This summer weather-wise and otherwise was brutal. Fall can’t get here fast enough.