It feels at times that Pre-Code Hollywood was a mythical place and time where rules were made to be laughed at or written down on a piece of paper, which was promptly torn in Jason Joy’s face. A young Clark Gable was a sight for sore eyes, especially if he was bare chested. It is a rare sight, but if you can find it anywhere, it’s in Red Dust, a 1932 Pre-Code film directed by Victor Fleming.
One thing this film is about is desire. A woman’s desire at that. In Red Dust we have not one, but two women going bananas over Mr Gable, here playing rubber plantation overseer Denis. As if to remind themselves that the majority of the paying audiences in 1932 were female, the gratuitous scene of a bare-chested Clark Gable comes in the first few minutes of the film. He is rough and uncouth, trying to evict an unwelcome, but easy dame from his plantation – Vantine, played with gorgeous vivacity by Jean Harlow. She wins him over with her funny cheesy talk and they sleep together.
Gable is soon established as the epitome of masculinity, the ultimate macho man with a high streak of savagery, going as far as endangering the reputation of a very married and very sexually inexperienced Barbara (Mary Astor), the wife of one of Gable’s employees on the plantation, newly arrived from the ‘civilised world.’
In this other world, the world of the jungle, Denis (Clarke) is the king. And what does the king do? He sleeps with any woman who takes his fancy. Thus, the epitome of masculinity is reached when he steals another man’s wife. He observes the female, object of his attraction, in her boudoir, undressing for bed. Later in the film, as he’s crossed her threshold, he will appear as an object of desire for both the woman he desires and another woman. Vantine is both the desirer and the voice of reason. Her initial agency at seducing Clarke makes her his equal. She is both the object of desire, albeit shortly, and the one desiring, as she tries to steer Denis away from trouble and from Barbara’s bed.
She is not considered a ‘decent’ person because she is prostitute, thus presented in contrast with the ladylike Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). Hiding behind the label of decency, Barbara (Astor) and Denis (Gable) end up engaging in an adulterous affair. Thus, Vantine is not only the voice of reason, but she is also the one most people find themselves identifying with – the truly decent one. Despite being a prostitute, a second class citizen, looked down upon, she has no hidden agenda, she is observant, and her agency is what directs the narrative to a satisfactory conclusion. She is ‘damaged goods’, but she is also genuine, never shying away from speaking her mind and revealing her true self, while the other characters are duplicitous.
As if to offer an excuse for his behaviour, Denis identifies himself with the jungle in which he lives. He intends to follow his instinct by running away with his employee’s wife. However, a burst of conscience brings him down or lifts him up to the level of the kind-hearted prostitute. In the end, she is the knight in shining armour who saves him. In a fit of jealousy, Barbara shoots him for “trying to be noble” and let her go back to her husband. It is Vantine who not only covers for the adulteress, but nurses him back to health, being both mother, saviour, friend and wife.
The film ends with a poignant scene showing Vantine cleaning Denis’ wound with almost uncomfortable detail. She sticks a rod with iodine through the hole in his belly, thus marking his transformation complete. From masculine pin-up, he has been castrated as a ‘punishment’ for assuming the female traits of sacrifice and nobility. He has betrayed his masculine instinct in favour of doing the right thing and now he has to settle with a woman of loose morals. He also has the gunshot wound as a symbol of his transformation.
Vantine has the decency to cover not just for Denis, for whom she has feelings, but also for Barbara, which she has been unfavourably compared to from the beginning. She is the epitome of the fallen woman with a heart of gold that would disappear from the big screen during the Production Code, but who over the decades has managed to become well represented in Hollywood (Klute, Pretty Woman, Mighty Aphrodite).
Jean Harlow lights up the screen with her sizzling performance. In a mixture of sex-appeal, naked good fun and feminine intuition, she is by far the best character on screen. She steals the show right from under Mary Astor’s nose, who was the more established star at that point. Astor does hold her own as the seemingly demure wife of newly arrived rubber plantation surveyor, played by Gene Raymond. Her slow descent into a passionate and sordid affair with the plantation overseer (Clark Gable) is played with trepidation, showing us a upper class girl experiencing undiluted lust for the first time in her life, lust which may be stronger than herself. We can almost understand her moment of lunacy. Gable is suave yet savage, an all around cad, who, after being shot at for finally trying to do the right thing, learns that perhaps being a macho isn’t all that’s cracked up to be.