Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Two)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow!

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Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).

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By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26 year old.

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Following our look at Dinner At Eight (1933) last week, today we’re examining the steamy Red Dust (1932).

 

Red Dust (1932)

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Conditions are spartan on Dennis Carson’s Indochina rubber plantation during a dusty dry monsoon. The latest boat upriver brings Carson an unwelcome guest: Vantine, a floozy from Saigon, hoping to evade the police by a stay upcountry. But Carson, initially uninterested, soon succumbs to Vantine’s ostentatious charms…until the arrival of surveyor Gary Willis, ill with malaria, and his refined but sensuous wife Barbara. Now the rains begin, and passion flows like water…

Starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond, and Mary Astor. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin. Based on the play by Wilson Collison. Directed by Victor Fleming.

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This excellent star vehicle takes place on Gable’s rubber plantation somewhere in Vietnam (then French Indochina). Harlow plays a wisecracking prostitute who hungers for Gable, but her initial success is thrown off course by the arrival of Gene Raymond, a surveyor, and his classy wife, Mary Astor. Raymond quickly gets malaria and Gable must nurse him to health. Meanwhile, lust flows freely between Astor and Gable — much to Harlow’s chagrin — so Gable sends Raymond on a surveying trip. Things heat up and Astor wants to marry Gable, but he decides the decent thing to do is to tell Raymond. Gable journeys into the jungle, but his conscience gets the better of him and he decides not to split up their marriage. Gable returns and ends things with Astor by pretending to carry on with Harlow. An enraged Astor shoots Gable. Gable and Harlow convince Raymond that Astor was defending her honor against Gable’s pass. The couple returns to America, while Harlow tends to Gable, who finally succumbs the spunky prostitute’s charms.

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If you’ve been following my Film Friday posts, you know that Pre-Code flicks can be surprisingly naughty — and this one is right up there on the smut list. From the heat generating off Gable and his two biddies — to the implication about Foy’s sexuality — to Harlow’s infamous nude bathing scene — it’s extra steamy. But we know going in that it’s a mature picture for mature audiences. However, even with general expectations about the film and its content, even my eyebrow was raised a few times! Harlow, not surprisingly, sparkles with the film’s best and raciest dialogue. The script, meanwhile, does little to hide her hooker status, and like all the best Pre-Codes, makes her a happy and likable character. (Interestingly, the film gained notoriety at the time for the suicide of Harlow’s then husband, which occurred in the middle of production. Fearing bad publicity, Mayer asked Tallulah Bankhead to take over the role. She refused, and Harlow thankfully returned. The film was a big hit, as was Harlow’s performance.)

The hunky Gable does the usual “tough-guy-whom-we shouldn’t-like-but-can’t help-but” bit in the beginning, but of course, later reveals himself to be a man worthy of our admiration by manipulating Astor into staying with Raymond and sparing the man — whom he respects — from the pain of losing his love. Gable’s great at these kind of roles and he has a presence like no other. He has excellent chemistry with Harlow — this being their second of six pictures together. In fact, if there’s a flaw with the picture, it’s that there’s absolutely no doubt that Gable and Harlow will end up together. Astor’s great and her stuff with Gable scintillates, but there’s a general acceptance that Gable and Harlow — cut from a similar cloth — deserve and would be happiest with each other. And we certainly want that of both of them.

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But Astor is always a fascinating actress and she gives a good performance here: hot with Gable, and cutting in her scenes with Harlow. However, unlike in Mogambo, the 1953 remake (that also starred Clark Gable) in which Ava Gardner was the Jean Harlow to Grace Kelly’s Mary Astor, the competition is little more than spicy conflict until the two seedy jungle folk unite in the final few minutes. I mean, there’s more competition between Gardner and Kelly than Harlow and Astor. But that’s less of a complaint than it is an observation.  Truly, Red Dust is superior to Mogambo in every other way, because despite the latter’s gorgeous color footage of Africa, the Code remake is cold — both in atmosphere and character. The wet and steamy soundstage (with both the literal and figurative implied meanings), upon which Red Dust was filmed, fosters an atmosphere of contained emotion. Emotion that will inevitably bubble up and burst at the seams. The juxtaposition of wildness and claustrophobia allows for greater interactions between the characters.

And that’s what Red Dust is all about: chemistry. Like most good films, the sparks are found between characters — between stars. And believe me, those sparks are ever present in Red Dust! With snappy dialogue, lustful open-mouthed kissing (which you wouldn’t see after June 1934!), and nude rain barrel bathing, this is excellent Pre-Code smut. The bonus: well designed characters and top-notch stars.

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Come back next Friday when we discuss another Pre-Code Harlow film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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