Red Dust (1932), a steamy melodrama set on a run-down colonial Indochinese (now Vietnamese) rubber plantation, is the film that made both Jean Harlow and Clark Gable stars of the first rank, after both had been working in films for several years with modest but not major success. Directed by Victor Fleming, Red Dust was shot on a large set that convincingly depicted the day-to-day activities of the plantation, which Gable, as Dennis Carson, rules with an iron hand.
Bored and angry at the ineptitude of his drunken assistant, Guidon (Donald Crisp), Carson is in no mood for company when prostitute Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow) unexpectedly arrives on a riverboat, on the run from the law, looking for a place to hide out for a while until things quiet down. Gable reluctantly gives her a room, but when Barbara and Garry Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor) arrive to help Dennis bring the plantation back up to speed, things become complicated.
Barbara is initially repulsed by Dennis and the rustic surroundings she must endure; but when Dennis is stricken with malaria, Dennis sees him through it with quinine and his primitive skills as a doctor, winning Barbara’s admiration, and Garry’s dog-like devotion. But more is going on; Barbara is falling for Dennis, who tries to push her away, but eventually gives in to her advances. Garry, young and ambitious, is also remarkable naïve, and fails to see what’s happening right in front of his nose, but Vantine soon sizes up the situation, and makes a play for Dennis herself.
In the film’s climax, Dennis tells Barbara that her place is with Dennis, a “decent guy,” and that he is “no good” for her. Outraged, Barbara shoots Dennis, wounding him seriously. Barbara and Garry leave, with Garry outraged that a man whom he idolized has made love his wife. Vantine nurses Dennis back to health, and the film ends with Dennis and Vantine still on the plantation, very much in love, and looking forward to their future.
The film is unusual for a number of reasons. For a MGM film, it is remarkably frank in its sexuality, which is due in part to the fact that it was produced before the production code of 1934 took effect, but also to John Lee Mahin and Donald Ogden Stewart’s crisp, pungent dialogue. Then, too, it was a “problem” film that has been kicking around for a while with several unsatisfactory scripts, until Mahin and Stewart successfully tackled the project.
Fleming’s direction wrings every ounce of atmosphere out of Cedric Gibbons’ steamy sets, and the cinematography of Harold Rosson and Arthur Edeson, who suffuse the film with a soft-focus, romantic blur. Fleming, who would go on to be the principal director of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, shrewdly used Red Dust to boost his reputation; the film was thus a crucial turning point for the career of not only it’s two main stars, but also its young director.