“This woman is decent. Stop running around half naked.”
Red Dust is one of the six films that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made together. It’s set in the jungles of Indochina, and Gable is Dennis Carson, a lonely and frequently grumpy bachelor who runs a rubber plantation. Carson returns home one day to find prostitute Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow) in one of his bedrooms. She’s traveled to the heart of the jungle along with one of Carson’s drunken employees, and she intends to hide out from the Saigon authorities until things ‘cool down’. Carson quickly discovers how impossible it is to ignore Vantine–even though he tries his best. Vantine spends her first evening at Carson’s squabbling with her reluctant host over the merits of Roquefort cheese, and with undeniable chemistry between them, they rapidly strike up a relationship.
Carson’s new employee Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives with his ladylike bride Barbara (Mary Astor) on the same boat that is to take Vantine back to Saigon. Vantine seems to want to just carry away her good memories, but Carson crassly insists on paying her for her ‘friendliness’ towards him. With Vantine out of the picture, Carson rapidly becomes enamored with Barbara, and he invents excuses to get rid of her hubbie, so he can seduce her in private. Vantine’s unexpected arrival back at Carson’s jungle quarters spoils–but doesn’t halt–Carson’s calculated seduction of Barbara.
Red Dust is Harlow’s film. She’s just magnificent as the sarcastic, unsentimental wisecracking floozy, Vantine. World-weary and more than a little shopworn, she’s the complete opposite of delicate, pampered, insipid Barbara. And it’s more than a bit galling for Vantine to see Carson scrambling to cater to Barbara’s every whim. Clark Gable is splendid as the bounder who can’t keep his hands off of Barbara, and her unavailability and unsuitability just seem to egg him on. This pre-code film isn’t particularly shy about showing Carson as the colonial exploiter who whacks the natives around while calling them ‘slugs’. Within the first five minutes of the film, he beats the natives and slaps a drunk silly. Red Dust was remade as Mogambo years later with Clark Gable in the same role.