Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Classic Movies Directed by James Whale

Born on July 22, 1889, the English director James Whale stands with Tod Browning as one of the most important developers of the 1930s horror genre. Both directors worked to give the iconic Universal horrors their sense of style, but Whale set the bar particularly high with his combination of terror and sly, subversive comedy in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale directed 23 films over the course of his career, but the Universal horrors are the pictures for which he is best remembered today. In honor of Whale's birthday, here are ten classic movies where you can see the director's hand at work.

1) Journey's End (1930) - Whale's first directorial effort was an adaptation of a 1928 stage play about World War I. Its cast included two actors who would later be major players in the Universal horror unit: Colin Clive and David Manners.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1931) - This romantic drama about a prostitute and a soldier stars Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery, but it was also the third screen appearance of 23 year old Bette Davis. A 1940 adaptation of the Robert Sherwood play would prove more enduring with stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

3) Frankenstein (1931) - Whale's first horror picture would shape the genre for decades to come, influencing countless later adaptations of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel. With Boris Karloff as the resurrected monster and Colin Clive as his mentally unbalanced creator, Whale crafted a stylish, wry, and genuinely terrifying masterpiece. Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, and the deliriously mad Dwight Frye also contributed to Whale's success with their performances.

4) The Old Dark House (1932) - As the name implies, this film belongs to the "old dark house" genre of horror, with Whale emphasizing the absurdly comedic possibilities of the conventional plot. The collected cast makes this picture a delight for classic movie fans, with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, and Raymond Massey all in the mix, but the strangest pleasure is Elspeth Dudgeon cross-dressed to play the elderly Sir Roderick Femm.

5) The Invisible Man (1933) - Whale's next horror production took the darkly humorous aspect of the genre to a whole different level, with the increasingly mad Claude Rains gamboling invisibly and wreaking havoc all over the English countryside. The film was the first screen role for Rains, who remains unseen until the very last shot, but his voice proved the real draw. Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers star as the friends trying to save Rains from himself, but Una O'Connor also demonstrates her ample talent for scene-stealing and an ear-piercing pitch.

6) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Whale's earlier efforts paved the way for this outstanding picture, which also mingles absurd comedy with its gripping horror. The film reunited Whale with Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, and Una O'Connor, but its most iconic, if only briefly seen, performer is the young Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the shock-haired Bride.

7) Show Boat (1936) - Whale is remembered primarily for his horror, but this 1936 musical drama proved that he could also tap into tender emotions. Generally considered the best film adaptation of the original stage play, Whale's Show Boat gave the world both spectacle and sentiment, with touches of the Whale humor still in evidence. The cast includes many top stars, from Irene Dunne and Allan Jones to Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan, but the film is known today primarily for Paul Robeson's performance as Joe and his powerful rendition of "Old Man River."

8) The Great Garrick (1937) - After The Bride of Frankenstein, Whale moved away from horror, making several dramas and war films. This picture took Whale into the territory of the romantic comedy, with a period setting and Brian Aherne as David Garrick, the great theater personality of the 18th century. Other notable members of the cast include Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Lionel Atwill, and Lana Turner.

9) The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) - Whale continued the period theme with this adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas adventure, with Louis Hayward starring in the double role of the twin royals. Swashbuckling regulars in the cast include Alan Hale and Montagu Love, but Joan Bennett, Warren William, Joseph Schildkraut, and Albert Dekker also make appearances.

10) They Dare Not Love (1941) - Sadly, by the beginning of the 1940s Whale's career was more or less over.  Show Boat had been his last truly memorable work. They Dare Not Love, a World War II drama starring George Brent, Martha Scott, and Paul Lukas, would be his last feature film.

In 1998, Whale's story became familiar to a new generation of moviegoers with the release of Gods and Monsters, adapted from Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein. In the film, Ian McKellen plays the director at the very end of his life, while Brendan Fraser stars as the gardener who befriends him. You can also learn more about Whale by reading James Curtis' 2003 biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934)

Once upon a time, the romance of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning was one of the world’s most celebrated love stories, although today it’s a tale that only English majors with a particular interest in the 19th century are likely to know well. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), adapted from the play by Rudolph Besier, takes the usual poetic license with history, but it’s a lovely vision, nonetheless, with strong performances from Norma Shearer and Fredric March as the literary lovers. Viewers don’t really need to know anything about the poets to appreciate the elegant costumes, the tender love scenes, or the striking depiction of Victorian domestic dysfunction, but those well-versed in the works of both Barrett and Browning are likely to enjoy the film that much more. Memorable appearances by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Una O’Connor will give classic movie fans a particular thrill, as well.

Norma Shearer plays celebrated poet Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid who lives at Wimpole Street with a large collection of siblings and their overbearing father, Edward (Charles Laughton). The younger Barretts live in fear of Edward, who refuses to let any of them marry, and even Elizabeth, his favorite, shrinks from his relentless control. Strong-willed Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) engages in a forbidden romance that enrages her father, but his ire is even greater when he suspects that Elizabeth has more than platonic feelings for the energetic young poet, Robert Browning (Fredric March).

Shearer embodies Barrett’s intelligence and frailty beautifully, and she looks fabulous in the sumptuous period gowns and the poet’s signature curls. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the fourth of her career. Fredric March makes an excellent foil to her languid lady with his boundless energy and enthusiasm; he dashes into the room at their first meeting, an irresistible force determined to pull Elizabeth into life and love despite her own misgivings. The two talk of poetry briefly, invoking Browning’s early work, Sordello, in particular, but their later conversations turn almost entirely to affairs of the heart. That reluctance to be literary might be one of the film’s real weaknesses, since it denies uninitiated viewers a chance to figure out what these two poets are actually famous for, and it seems a shame that Barrett’s “How Do I Love Thee?” never gets an airing, since it was first written during the period that the film chronicles.

The supporting players fill the Wimpole Street house with well-defined characters who help to shape the lovers’ story in one way or another. Charles Laughton offers a compelling argument for patricide in his portrayal of Edward; the incestuous nature of his obsession with Elizabeth spills out in one climactic scene, but throughout the entire film he makes the viewer’s skin crawl with his thick lips, pitiless religiosity, and absolute suffocation of his children. Maureen O’Sullivan, as Henrietta, gets several excellent scenes of rebellion against him; she’s less a saint than Elizabeth, but her fiery courage makes us root for her to escape her father’s clutches by any means necessary. (The real Henrietta Moulton-Barrett did eventually marry Surtees Cook, although her father immediately disinherited her.) The delightful Una O’Connor also makes a noteworthy contribution as Elizabeth’s maid, Wilson, who loves Elizabeth far more than she fears Edward.

In addition to the Best Actress nomination for Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street also earned a nod for Best Picture, but it lost on both counts to the big winner of 1934, It Happened One Night. Director Sidney Franklin liked his film so much that he remade it in 1957 with Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth Barrett and Bill Travers as Robert Browning. See more of Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), and The Women (1939), and catch Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The versatile but always brilliant Charles Laughton also stars in Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Look for Una O’Connor in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), and see quite a lot of Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and its sequels.

Learn more about Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The Poetry Foundation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

In Praise of 42 Year Old Classic Movie Actresses

Being a 42 year old woman myself, I'm fascinated by the presumption of Tom Junod's recent Esquire piece, which opens with the statement that "there used to be something tragic about even the most beautiful forty-two year old woman." The essay has swiftly and justly provoked a chorus of mockery and retort from both men and women alike. What particularly caught my attention, though, was Junod's use of Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967) as his touchstone for the "old view" of the forty-two year old woman's tragic sexuality. For the record, Anne Bancroft was just 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson, while her supposedly 22 year old lover, Dustin Hoffman, was actually 30. Once Junod brought up the subject of classic films and the 42 year old woman, I couldn't help but think about iconic actresses and the roles they were playing when they really were 42. Let's take a look, shall we?

Bette Davis, born in 1908, turned 42 in 1950, the year she starred in All About Eve, one of her most celebrated films. Beautiful, successful, and certainly desirable, her Margo Channing was one of her greatest characters, and one who had a lot in common with her real-life self. The movie won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and Davis picked up her ninth Best Actress nomination.

Joan Crawford, born in 1906, turned 42 in 1948. She didn't have a picture come out that year, but the next year saw her star in Flamingo Road (1949), and in 1950 she made The Damned Don't Cry and Harriet Craig. Sex appeal is her character's chief weapon in the crime drama, The Damned Don't Cry, and Joan would go on being fabulously tough and sexy in This Woman is Dangerous (1952), Torch Song (1953), and Johnny Guitar (1955).

Katharine Hepburn entered the world in 1907 and celebrated her 42nd year in 1949, when she gave Spencer Tracy every ounce of trouble she could muster in the marvelous comedy, Adam's Rib. Hepburn wasn't done, either, not by a long shot. She still had The African Queen (1951), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and even Rooster Cogburn (1975) ahead of her. She would earn eight of her 12 career Oscar nominations after she was 42, and she would win three more times, all in the last two decades of her long screen career. Irrelevant? I think not. Tragic? Hardly.

Claudette Colbert, born in 1903, was by no means fading at the age of 42, which she reached in 1945. She starred that year in Guest Wife, but she had bigger hits later on, especially with The Egg and I in 1947. Funny, sassy, and classy, Colbert also starred with John Wayne in Without Reservations (1946) and with Walter Pidgeon in The Secret Heart (1946).

Living legend Maureen O'Hara, she of the fiery heart and hair, was born in 1920. She turned in 42 in 1962, a year before her iconic turn in McLintock! (1963) with frequent leading man John Wayne. In 1962 she starred in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation with Jimmy Stewart, and she reunited with Stewart for The Rare Breed in 1966. She was still yanking Duke's chain as late as 1971, when they made Big Jake.

Not enough for you? We're not even close to finished.

Doris Day starred in The Glass Bottom Boat  in 1966, 42 years after her birth in 1924.

Olivia de Havilland, born in 1916, made The Proud Rebel in 1958, the year she turned 42.

Ginger Rogers, born in 1911, turned 42 in 1953, the year she starred with Cary Grant in Monkey Business and more than held her own against nubile newcomer Marilyn Monroe.

Joan Blondell, born in 1906, made Nightmare Alley in 1947, and turned 42 in 1948. The feisty Pre-Code star continued to work right up until her death in 1979.

Ingrid Bergman, who was born in 1915, turned 42 in 1957. She won an Oscar that year for Best Actress for her performance in Anastasia (1956). In 1958, she starred with Cary Grant in Indiscreet and with Robert Donat in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. She still had two more Oscar-nominated roles ahead of her; she won Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and picked up her final Best Actress nod for Hostsonaten (1978).

Pause with me a moment to imagine any of these great ladies of Hollywood responding to Tom Junod's assertion that they were tragic because of their age at 42. Are your imaginary ears blistering yet? Mine sure are. Sic' em, Bette, Joan, and Kate!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: I REMEMBER MAMA (1948)

Nominated for five Academy Awards, I Remember Mama (1948) is one of those movies that requires a handful of hankies to watch, especially for those who have fond memories of their own mothers. George Stevens’ nostalgic melodrama has all the right ingredients for a classic tearjerker, including a sweet, sincere performance from Irene Dunne as the idealized matriarch, whose dedication to her family knows no bounds. Barbara Bel Geddes also makes a lasting impression in her second screen role as the narrator of the tale, but the cast is full of talented character actors who each bring something special to the picture and enhance its appeal. While it might prove too sentimental for some modern viewers, those who enjoy heartwarming family stories will find much to love in I Remember Mama, which wisely balances laughter and tears in its depiction of the Hanson family’s experiences.

Barbara Bel Geddes stars as Katrin, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants living in San Francisco in the first decade of the twentieth century. Along with her brother and two sisters, Katrin grows up under the devoted protection of her father, Lars (Philip Dorn), and mother, Marta (Irene Dunne), who make many sacrifices for the benefit of their children. As Katrin enters adulthood and becomes a writer, she recounts the many ups and downs of the family’s life together, but she focuses most on the selfless love and support of her mother.

Both Dunne and Bel Geddes earned Oscar nominations for their performances, but the picture really belongs to Dunne, who manages to make Mama an angel without making her dull. Equally adept at comedy and sentiment, Dunne gives Mama enough good humor and strength to see her through almost any crisis, even little Dagmar’s emergency surgery. Some mothers might sit at home and cry, but Mama disguises herself as a cleaning lady in order to sneak into the ward and keep her promise to her daughter. Scenes that might otherwise play as maudlin, like the euthanization of an injured pet cat, are lightened by Dunne’s handling of the moment. The audience believes in Mama because of Dunne’s performance of her; the role would bring Dunne the last of five Best Actress nominations, and it’s a shame she never won. Bel Geddes, fresh-faced and girlish, looks far younger than her actual age as the adolescent Katrin; her youthful appearance and soft voice lend credibility to her role as a teenager still trying to find her place in the world. Katrin spends much of her time on the sidelines, watching and taking note of her mother’s actions, but Bel Geddes shines in the few key scenes where she takes center stage.

The two lead actresses get ample support from the rest of the cast, which features some memorable players who bring both depth and humor to their roles. Oskar Homolka is quite the scene-stealer as Uncle Chris, the overbearing patriarch whose loud personality masks his loving, generous spirit. Ellen Corby plays timid Aunt Trina with such a yearning for happiness that she alone of Marta’s three sisters commands our sympathy. Both Homolka and Corby picked up Oscar nominations for their performances, pitting Corby and Bel Geddes against each other for Best Supporting Actress (they lost to Claire Trevor in Key Largo). Trina’s mild-mannered suitor is played by Edgar Bergen, appearing without his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy; as Mr. Thorkelson, he functions mostly as a comical figure but has a tender scene with Trina near the very end of the picture. Dedicated classic movie fans will also appreciate the contributions of Rudy Vallee, Florence Bates, Cedric Hardwicke, and Barbara O’Neil in brief but effective appearances.

The original story of I Remember Mama came from Mama’s Bank Account, a novel by Kathryn Forbes, which was adapted into a stage play by John Van Druten. A television series and Broadway musical followed, proving the story’s enduring appeal to audiences. For more of Irene Dunne, see The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Barbara Bel Geddes is best remembered today as Ellie Ewing on the television series, Dallas, but you’ll also find her in Blood on the Moon (1948), Panic in the Streets (1950), and Vertigo (1958). See Oskar Homolka in Sabotage (1936), The Invisible Woman (1940), and Ball of Fire (1941). Like Barbara Bel Geddes, Ellen Corby had her most memorable role on television, as Grandma Walton on The Waltons, and she also has a small part in Vertigo; look for more of her in Caged (1950), Angels in the Outfield (1951), and Shane (1953).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

Like his earlier film, The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) straddles the line between mystery thriller and screwball romance. The sinister elements of this disappearing act staged on a moving train are matched, if not outweighed, by a pair of bickering amateur detectives and a cast of wildly comical passengers, particularly the vanishing lady herself, played by the delightfully dotty Dame May Whitty. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave deftly manage both laughs and thrills as the picture’s leads, holding their own against the scene-stealing antics of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. Filled with Hitchcock’s sly humor but still capable of real suspense, The Lady Vanishes is a highlight of the director’s British career and a must-see film for fans of his later work in Hollywood.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris, a spoiled socialite who befriends an elderly governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), while boarding a train filled with British tourists leaving a continental holiday. When Miss Froy suddenly disappears, Iris finds that nobody will admit to having seen her, and a doctor (Paul Lukas) insists that Iris imagined the whole encounter. With the help of a good-humored music scholar named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris searches the train for her missing friend, but nefarious forces conspire to prevent Miss Froy from being found. Meanwhile, the other British passengers have their own reasons for hindering Iris’ investigation, some more innocent than others.

The picture opens with a comical scene involving a holiday hotel overwhelmed by delayed train passengers, and this sequence sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. The major characters are arranged like chess pieces, or perhaps dominoes, in these introductory segments, each with defining characteristics that will play into the larger plot. Iris and Gilbert clash in their initial interaction, and their energetic attempts to irritate one another prove that they are destined to become a couple. Most of the other passengers appear in pairs or small groups: we have the adulterous lovers traveling as the Todhunters, the suspiciously foreign Signor and Signora Doppo, along with the formidable Baroness, and the cricket mad tourists Charters and Caldicott. Aside from Miss Froy, who spends much of the movie missing, the most memorable of these are the cricket fans, who impede Iris’ search for Miss Froy only because they fear that stopping the train will make them miss a much-anticipated test match back in England. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne walk off with the picture every time their hilariously obsessed characters turn up, but their best and most scandalous scenes take place early on, when they are forced to share the maid’s bedroom in the overcrowded hotel.

As funny as the movie is, it doesn’t forget that it also has a mystery to solve. Miss Froy’s disappearance propels the initial suspense, but the plot gets thicker as time passes, ultimately evolving into a tangled web of political intrigue and espionage. Paul Lukas gives his brain surgeon, Dr. Hartz, a condescending air that the audience sees as suspicious right away, which builds the dramatic irony when Iris and Gilbert keep turning to him for assistance. The foreigners also give viewers the willies with their staring eyes and repeated insistence that Miss Froy does not exist, but Iris becomes suspicious of them much sooner. Magic tricks, a nun in high heels, a mysterious patient wrapped in bandages, and a dramatic finale all keep the plot twisting and turning right up to the end, when the gathered passengers get the chance to prove their mettle.

Be sure to note well-known British actress Googie Withers in a small role as one of Iris’ friends. For more of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, see The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936). You’ll find Margaret Lockwood in Susannah of the Mounties (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940). The Lady Vanishes is the first screen appearance of Michael Redgrave, whose later career includes The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and The Innocents (1961). Don’t miss Dame May Whitty in Suspicion (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943), but he also appears in Dodsworth (1936), Strange Cargo (1940), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne were such a hit with audiences that they went on to reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott in Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour (1941), and Millions Like Us (1943).

The Lady Vanishes is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion; the special features include Crook's Tour for those smitten with Radford and Wayne's comical duo. You can also see The Lady Vanishes on Hulu Plus, as part of their collection of Criterion releases.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

Long before Ghost (1990) moved audiences with its tale of supernatural romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) depicted the bittersweet love affair of a living woman and a spectral man. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz crafts a story short on special effects but bursting with sentimental ambience, including a tender score by Bernard Herrmann and Oscar-nominated cinematography from Charles Lang. Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney give memorable performances as the title characters, while the solid collection of supporting players includes George Sanders, Edna Best, and a very young Natalie Wood.

Tierney stars as young widow Lucy Muir, who defies her husband’s manipulative family by relocating to a remote coastal town with her daughter (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper (Edna Best) in tow. In Gull Cottage Lucy discovers the ghost of the previous owner, a salty sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). The two clash at first but eventually develop a deep bond; Gregg, however, cannot give the lonely widow the real companionship of a living man, and the arrival of a persuasive suitor (George Sanders) threatens to take Lucy away to a new life.

In the liminal space between land and sea, the living and the dead can meet and speak, but the film focuses on the romantic possibilities of this threshold rather than the frightening. Gull Cottage reveals itself to be not so much haunted as enchanted, since Daniel Gregg is the most solid looking specter in the history of ghost stories. Rex Harrison conveys his character’s ghostliness through his attitude as a man beyond life, resigned and sad but still capable of deep human feeling. He comes very close to Tierney’s yearning widow but never touches her; the audience experiences this separation as an almost unbearable romantic tension, which we realize torments the characters, as well. This reawakening of passion in Lucy’s heart has dangerous consequences, however, since it leaves her vulnerable to the more corporeal, if morally suspect, charms of George Sanders as the children’s book author, Miles Fairley.

Poignant performances sell the story far better than special effects. At the height of her career, Gene Tierney combines sentimental beauty with substance as Lucy, a heroine who must summon every ounce of her strength to break away from what others want for her in order to live her life on her own terms. Her abominable in-laws, played with relish by Isobel Elsom and Victoria Horne, give Lucy a chance to show her resolve early on, so that we believe in her as a woman unlikely to be deterred by a disagreeable ghost. Rex Harrison is perfectly cast as the gruff captain; known for his philandering and charismatic persona, Harrison has the roguish quality of a roving captain in spades but also reveals a touching sensibility. Natalie Wood gets very little screen time as Lucy’s daughter, Anna, but she’s convincing as a girl who might prefer tales of action and adventure to the treacly stories of “Uncle Neddy.” More significant is the contribution of Edna Best as the loyal housekeeper, Martha, whose solicitous care suggests some frailty about Lucy that is never really discussed. The friendship between Martha and Lucy transcends their professional relationship and helps to ground the picture in some real human warmth, which assures us that Lucy’s life is never as lonely as we might fear, even after Anna grows up and moves away.

Take the time to appreciate Anna Lee in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Fairley; the hard-working character actress was a regular in John Ford’s ensembles. For more of Gene Tierney, see Heaven Can Wait (1943), Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Rex Harrison is best remembered for his roles in My Fair Lady (1964) and Doctor Dolittle (1967), but his other films from the 1940s include Night Train to Munich (1940), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948). George Sanders won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for All About Eve (1950); he also makes notable appearances in Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and Ivanhoe (1952). See more of Edna Best in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and catch young Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), but he also directed Gene Tierney in the 1946 Gothic thriller, Dragonwyck.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: RED DUST (1932)

Steamy Pre-Code sensuality drives the plot of Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), in which Clark Gable and Jean Harlow prove the powder keg appeal of their onscreen chemistry. The story unfolds against the equally heated backdrop of an exotic tropical location, where tigers and torrential rains mirror the violent natural forces at work in human hearts. Like many classic films with Eastern settings, Red Dust suffers from an Orientalist attitude toward the native workers and a horribly stereotypical Chinese domestic, but Gable and Harlow are so good that the movie works in spite of it, and Mary Astor gives an excellent performance as the married rival who loses her moral high ground by falling for Harlow’s man.

Gable stars as Dennis Carson, the head of a remote rubber plantation in Indochina. When his masculine world is invaded by streetwise Vantine (Jean Harlow), Carson complains loudly but soon takes advantage of the situation and Vantine’s considerable charms. Vantine hopes for a real relationship, but Carson throws her over when the well-heeled Barbara (Mary Astor) arrives with her naive husband, Gary (Gene Raymond). After Carson nurses Gary through a dangerous fever, he earns the younger man’s fervent admiration, which makes Carson feel guilty for his affair with Barbara. Jealousy erupts into violence as the monsoon season bears down and Gary finally begins to suspect Carson’s designs on his wife.

Red Dust was the second film in which both Gable and Harlow appeared but the first to capitalize on their sex appeal as leads; they work together so well because both have screen personalities that radiate toughness and animal lust. Gable looks like a guy whose idea of romance is a rough and tumble roll in the hay, and Harlow is just the kind of girl to like it that way. The surprise for us - and for Carson and Vantine - is that their attraction to each other becomes something more lasting and substantial. Carson chases Barbara because she appears as a rarity in his world, but it’s clear that she can never belong to it, and Gary’s boyish innocence is too pathetic and pure even for the worldly Carson to destroy. Vantine might be a woman of easy virtue, but she ultimately has more integrity than Barbara; she isn’t the one committing adultery on the heels of her honeymoon, and her lies protect both Gary and Barbara from their own foolishness. Their spontaneous acts of altruism and generosity assure us that Carson and Vantine deserve each other; whatever their faults, they’re better people than even they realize until the moment of truth arrives.

The setting for the story provides arresting images, from the tiger prowling the forest to Harlow naked in a rain barrel, but it also falls back on the usual clich├ęs of lazy coolies and simple-minded house servants. The rubber plantation workers are represented as so much human cattle, with some pointed remarks about their eagerness to rape white women thrown in, but the most grating element for modern viewers is Willie Fung’s idiotic Hoy, who unfortunately gets the movie’s last line. Fung made a career of these kinds of roles, and it’s not his fault that parts for Asian actors were so limited in classic Hollywood, but his Chinese version of Stepin Fetchit is almost impossible to watch. Donald Crisp’s Guidon is an obnoxious drunk, but even he fares better than Hoy, who serves as the butt of a running gag that isn’t funny in the first place.

For more of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, see Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), and Harlow’s final film, Saratoga (1937). Victor Fleming, who was uncredited as the director of Red Dust, is best remembered for his work on The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939), but he also worked with Harlow on Bombshell (1933). Look for Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). John Ford remade Red Dust as Mogambo in 1953, with Clark Gable starring once more; Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly both earned Oscar nominations for their performances as the female rivals for his love.