One of the real treasures from the Pre-Code Era, “Red Dust” (Metro, 1932), is quite possibly the raciest picture Metro ever released during the twenty-seven years that Louis B. Mayer ran the place — I can’t think of another that even comes close. Clark Gable plays Dennis “Fred” Carson, the hard-driving, hard-drinking, womanizing overseer on a rubber plantation in Indochina. Harlow plays an on-the-lam whore named Vantine, who fetches up at the plantation one night. Here’s how they meet.
The passed-out drunk is Donald Crisp, cast against type: in this one, he’s a thoroughgoing swine. He’s not very good in the part, but it’s a relief to see him do something different from the insufferably dignified gentlemen he usually played. Gable’s partner, McQuarg, is played a fine old character actor named Tully Marshall.
Before I saw “Red Dust” for the first time, I never really understood Harlow’s appeal. In “Dinner at Eight,” for instance, the dumb broad she plays is so spoilt and bad-tempered and shrill, I find her far more irritating than amusing. (It doesn’t help that most of her scenes are with horrible Wallace Beery.) But she’s tremendously appealing and funny in “Red Dust,” and she steals every scene she’s in. In his own quiet way, however, Tully Marshall in this next scene gives her a run for her money. (Willie Fung is the racist cartoon of a houseboy. The ugly Asian stereotypes in “Red Dust” are pretty breathtaking by today’s standards.)
Whenever I’m in a bad mood, Tully Marshall’s performance — especially his reading of “If it was the summer of eighteen hundred and ninety-four, I’d play games with you, sister” — is always enough to chase the blues away. Marshall is the sort of old pro that makes me love old movies. Two years before he made this picture, he appeared with John Wayne in Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail,” which was shot in Mexico. During the shoot, Wayne was afflicted with a dose of la turista so terrible that he lost eighteen pounds in a single week; for the rest of his life, the memory of that awful week made him shudder involuntarily. When he was well enough to return to work, the first scene he shot involved Tully Marshall and a big jug of liquor. He entered with Marshall slung over his shoulder. According to Wayne, “I set him down and we have a drink with another guy. They passed the jug to me first, and I dug back into it. It was straight rotgut bootleg whiskey. I’d been puking and crapping blood for a week and now I just poured that raw stuff right down my throat. After the scene, you can bet I called him every kind of an old bastard.” Despite his notoriety as a world-class booze-hound, Marshall was in constant demand; he appeared in almost two hundred pictures, including “Ball of Fire” and “Grand Hotel.” Every time I see him, I think of how the old soak and his jug of San Juan possum juice almost turned “The Big Trail” into “The Last Run” for young Duke Wayne. Over the past year, it has become abundantly clear to me that good supporting performances like Tully Marshall’s are very often what I like best about the pictures that give me the most pleasure.
But in this particular case, it’s Harlow who owns the picture. Her combination of vulgarity, street smarts and sunny good-nature has never been surpassed. Like so many movie stars of the Studio Era (and unlike so many of today’s stars), her voice is as unmistakable as her face, but it’s also notable — especially for that era — for its foghorn ugliness. The advent of talking pictures ruined the careers of so many Silent Era glamour queens, yet Harlow’s career didn’t really take off until audiences got a load of the strident clamor that issued from her milk white throat. She rarely sounds perfectly natural — overemphasis and sing-song are two hallmarks of her vocal style — but her commitment to the material is absolute; her facial expressions and body language are so spontaneous and lively that her overtly artificial vocal mannerisms work in her favor (at least, they do in “Red Dust”). In her scenes with Gable, she’s clearly acting — putting on a show — but she’s not acting for us: she’s showing off for the guy she’s trying to hook. Look at how deftly she warms him up and wins him over in this next scene. He’s irritable and she’s exhausted, but she’s so attracted to him that she can’t stop flirting. The more she chatters, the madder he gets, but the more violently he tells her to shut up, the hornier she becomes — she’s impossible to insult. His steely hostility hasn’t a chance against her saucy vivaciousness. She and Gable make a brilliant team, but she’s the one who drives the scene, and she does it with great wit and verve.
This next clip is the best-known scene in the picture: Harlow takes a bath in a rain barrel. She did it topless. We don’t get a peek, but Gable sure did. At one point between takes, she stood up, gave the crew below a good look and said, “This is for the boys in the lab!” The film never left the set, however: Victor Fleming had it removed from the camera. He didn’t want it to turn up on the black market.
“Red Dust” certainly looks like a Metro high-gloss picture of the era: the glamorous lighting for Gable and Harlow, the familiar indoor jungle settings and the backlot shores of Metro’s Lot One Lake (where the early Tarzan pictures were shot) — everything about its look is unmistakably Metro. But it sure doesn’t act or think like a high-gloss Metro picture. The randy banter between Gable and Harlow is breezy and fun-loving, not passionate and earnest — and their complacence about sex is completely at odds with Metro’s fastidious primness. In fact, I can’t think of another American picture of its era in which adult sexuality, promiscuity and marital infidelity are treated with such buoyant nonchalance. Before the picture’s over, jealousy will lead to gunfire, but nobody gets killed or is even seriously hurt. The whole point of view is radically different from Metro’s strict moral code. In this picture, Gable has sex with Harlow the day they first meet; he carries on with her for a month, and when he’s ready to try a new flavor, he gives her a big wad of cash, slaps her on the ass and puts her on the boat back to Saigon. Then he promptly forgets about her — until her boat runs aground and she comes back for more. But when Harlow returns, Gable’s already busy seducing his new employee’s wife (Mary Astor), and treats Harlow badly. Gable carries on with Astor until he discovers that her husband (Gene Raymond) is a decent guy. Angry with himself and disgusted with her, he sends her back to her husband and tells them both to get lost: “You two pack your tennis racquets and go back where ya belong.” It’s hardly what one expects from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. And through it all, we root for Gable. It’s not only the sexiest picture Metro ever made, it’s also the most subversive.
There’s something else that sets the sexuality in “Red Dust” far apart from other pictures of its era: sex looks like a lot of fun. Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Jack Barrymore and all the other famous screen lovers of the era made lust look horrible and serious — their idea of wantonness looks like my idea of a hanging judge as he pronounces sentence. But there’s nothing brooding or terrifying about the sexiness in “Red Dust”: it’s happy and fun; it’s a romp. Lust doesn’t make Gable, Harlow and Astor frown and smolder, it makes them light of heart and full of laughs. Me too.
Poster for the Italian release. It’s much better than the American poster, but Sinclair is misspelled.
In its first run, William Wyler’s excellent screen adaption of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, “Dodsworth” (Samuel Goldwyn, 1936) was a critical and box office success, and went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Walter Huston); Richard Day won for his beautiful art direction. Sidney Howard’s screenplay is startlingly frank, sophisticated, intelligent: although no lines from the picture are on the list of the AFI’s 100 Most Memorable Quotes, “Dodsworth” is one of the most scintillating scripts ever to come out of Hollywood: it is full of quotable lines. Here are a few examples, chosen at random:
Sam Dodsworth: All right, I’ll enjoy life now if it kills me, and it probably will.
Sam Dodsworth: Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?
Captain Lockert: Well I must say, for a civilized woman who’s been married as long as you have, you’re making a great deal of a small matter.
Fran Dodsworth: You’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet.
Arnold Iselin: Let me remind you, Dodsworth, that Shakespeare’s “Othello” ends badly for the hero. Sam Dodsworth: Yeah? Well, I’m not Othello, this is not the middle ages, none of us speak blank verse, not even you.
Baroness: Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the . . . old . . . wife of a young husband?
Fran Dodsworth: But what’s to become of me? Sam Dodsworth: I don’t know. You’ll have to stop getting younger some day.
Sam Dodsworth: Love has got to stop someplace short of suicide.
“Dodsworth” tells the story of Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a wealthy, recently retired American automobile manufacturer, and his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who, in their twentieth year of marriage, set off on a long-anticipated extended tour of Europe. It’s to be a voyage of romantic adventure and self-discovery — or so they hope. “Ah, I love you more than ever, now that I’ve got time for it,” Sam says to her on their first day aboard the Queen Mary. But the mad, bad, decadent Old World has other plans for them. Before they’re halfway across the ocean, Fran is already beginning to affect a pretentious Great Lady manner; Sam refuses to pretend he’s anything but what he is. At home, Fran was proud to be the wife of “the most impressive man in Zenith,” as she calls him, and gladly played the role of the dutiful wife. But now that they’re crossing the Atlantic on a luxury ocean liner and rubbing elbows with the international smart set, her husband’s boisterous tactlessness and lack of refinement exasperate and humiliate her.
On the Dodsworths’ first night at sea, Fran is flattered to receive the flirtatious attentions of a youngish British officer, Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven), which she makes no attempt to conceal; before long, she takes to ridiculing Sam’s plainspoken vulgarity, his “bourgeois ideas,” his childish “anglomania” and so on. Sam cheerfully refuses to be offended, but seeing that he’s in the way, and believing that the flirtation is innocent enough, he makes himself scarce. It’s all perfectly friendly, but little cracks in the marriage have already begun to appear.
Walter Huston’s performance remains one of the greatest in the history of motion pictures. Unhappily, Ruth Chatterton’s performance has aged badly. To be sure, acting styles change, but it’s hard to believe anyone ever found the histrionics of this chunky harpy acceptable, let alone attractive. Her voice often takes on a metallic edge that reminds me of a buzz saw. Yet, no fewer than four men in the picture fall madly in love with her — it’s completely bewildering. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent — especially Mary Astor, who’s a perfect match for Huston. Their scenes together are beautifully acted and as enchanting as any I’ve ever seen.
‘Why Don’t You Try Stout, Mr Dodsworth?’
For the rest of the crossing, Sam pokes about the deck by himself and does his best to amuse himself. Fran spends the last night of the voyage dancing with Capt. Lockert. Sam goes out to the port bow to get his first look at Bishop’s Light, a lighthouse off the Cornish coast, as soon as it comes into view.
“Why don’t you try stout, Mr Dodsworth?” Mary Astor makes it sound like a musical phrase. She has a melodious voice that is wonderfully caressing and filled with compassionate understanding (only Deborah Kerr could match her ability to express intelligent kindliness). There’s great refinement in the way she speaks, but not the least trace of primness or stuffiness in her perfect manners — and her imperfectly concealed vulnerability gives her enormous pathos.
While the soul of this drama is unquestionably Samuel Dodsworth, its heart is Mrs Edith Cortright. Mrs Cortright is a part that Mary Astor was born to play — a compassionate, intelligent woman who has been through the mill; experience has left her a little world-weary, but her good nature and common sense have kept her from becoming jaded. She’s not deeply unhappy, but she has been drifting for too long, and it doesn’t agree with her; she’s lonely and time is passing her by. There’s no self-pity in Astor’s portrayal: she’s poised and affable, amused and amusing; but her big, sad eyes and the flutter in her voice hint at the vulnerability that her self-possession cannot entirely conceal. Deep wells of emotion lie beneath her calm surface — she has a lively sense of humor, but it’s rueful; her exquisite politeness is etched by anxiety. Really, I don’t think any other actress could have played the role as superbly as Mary Astor. She is probably best known for her witty and glamorous turn as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon,” but Edith Cortright is her finest, most appealing performance.
‘You’re Almost Sure to, My Dear’
In this next clip, Mrs Cortright has two beautiful little exchanges with Fran. In both of them, what is said amounts to very few words, and what is left unsaid speaks volumes. The entire picture is full of moments in which a few words and a look express an enormous amount of psychological and emotional information.
Before home video drove revival houses into extinction, I saw “Dodsworth” many times on the big screen. The picture never drew enormous crowds, but even when the audience was a small one, Astor’s delivery of “You’re almost sure to, my dear” always got a big laugh. As delightful as it is to hear the quiet, sophisticated Mrs Cortright stick a knife into the odious Mrs Dodsworth, the deliberate impoliteness of her remark is, I think, significant — precisely because it seems so out of character. Why does she insult her hostess? Well, it seems probable that she wants to warn Fran not to shave quite so many years off her age: nobody will ever believe her. Also, Mrs Cortright has seen enough of Fran to know that she dislikes the way she treats Sam. Her little dig also puts to rest any notion that she’s a saint. Without this little exchange, she might easily have seemed too good to be true. (As a matter of fact, Mary Astor was only thirty when she played Mrs Cortright, who is supposed to be about ten years older; Ruth Chatterton was forty-four. Astor looks younger than Chatterton, but her gravitas gives her the authority of a much older woman.)
I particularly like the look in Mrs Cortright’s eyes when she says, “My dear . . . don’t.” It’s not condemnation, judgment or righteousness she’s expressing; she’s simply doing the wretched woman a favor by offering her a word of sound advice that she herself probably had to learn the hard way. Fran has been barely civil to her, and Mrs Cortright has seen plenty of evidence that Fran treats Sam abominably. But Mrs Cortright is a woman of the world, and she knows that a bounder like Arnold Iselin could easily eat a gullible snob like Mrs Dodsworth alive. And of course she’s also thinking of Sam: “My dear . . . don’t” is her parting act of kindness to him. When Mrs Cortright goes from the Dodsworths’ suite at the end of this scene, she takes with her the only amiable companionship Sam has known for the past several months. With her departure, and until Sam can persuade his wife that it’s time that they “were beating it back home to America,” he is bereft of friends. And we are bereft of her company for the next half hour — a grievous loss.
‘Do Try Not to Be Too Dreadfully Lonely, Will You?’
The marriage continues to fall apart for the next few reels until the inevitable happens. In Vienna, Fran becomes infatuated with a sweet, rather imbecilic young Austrian baron named Kurt Von Obersdorf. (“He may be poor, but he holds one of the oldest titles in Europe!” Fran tells Sam, who remains unimpressed.) Unlike Arnold Iselin, Kurt does not cuckold Sam, whom he considers a friend, but he takes Fran out dancing nearly every evening. Late one night, Kurt heaves a tragic sigh before taking his leave of her: “Ah, why are you not free?” By this point, Fran is barely on speaking terms with her tiresome old husband, who’s snoring in the other room, and the prospect of a title dazzles her. Later that same night, when Sam wakes up and looks in on her, she tells him that she has decided to divorce him just as soon as she can. Here’s their farewell at the train station. True to form, Fran brings Kurt along: her selfishness and thoughtlessness are quite remarkable.
William Wyler said that directing Chatterton was “like pulling teeth.” According to him, “She only wanted to play her as a selfish bitch, and I kept trying to make her see that that Mrs Dodsworth had a very good case for behaving the way she did.” The battles between Wyler and Chatterton were volcanic. In the end, she got her way and the picture suffers for it. Mary Astor said that Chatterton hated the role, and observed, “The character is that of a woman who’s trying to hang onto her youth — which was exactly what Ruth herself was doing. It touched a nerve.”
‘I Don’t Want to Intrude, but I’m Sorry’
“Mrs Cortright! Of course! Well, isn’t this great!” Truer words were never spoken. The sudden reappearance of Edith Cortright always gives me a rush of delight. No matter how often I see this scene, when she begins to walk out of the American Express office, unaware that Sam Dodsworth is standing only a few feet away from her, the suspense is terrible. The pleasure they take in each other’s company — especially after all the misery Sam has just been through — is almost painfully satisfying. Look at how earnestly and sympathetically she hangs onto his every word, and how grateful he is to be talking to this beautiful, intelligent, charming woman! Oh, man, it’s so moving! And the beautifully discreet way she gives comfort: “I don’t want to intrude, but I’m sorry.” “You haven’t said anything you shouldn’t have said.” Everything about her caresses, comforts and seeks to heal his shattered confidence and restore his pride. And on top of it all, she’s FUN.
I’ll let this last clip speak for itself, but will add, only, that despite appearances to the contrary, fewer than ten minutes later, the story comes to what may be fairly described as an ecstatically happy ending.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, “Dodsworth” was a box office success when it first opened. Since then, it has been largely forgotten. For years, I’ve tried to account for its undeserved obscurity: why isn’t it more popular? But recently, it occurred to me that I was missing a more pertinent question: Why was it popular in 1936? Well, I have a theory about this.
The Scandalous Miss Astor and the Gloomy Dean of Broadway
In 1935, Mary Astor was granted a divorce from her husband, Franklyn Thorpe, but he was given custody of their daughter, Marilyn. In 1936, Astor was back in court, suing for custody of Marilyn. Thorpe countered by trying to introduce into evidence, as proof of Astor’s unfitness to raise a small child, her private diary, in which she had written detailed accounts of many of her sexual encounters. The Court ruled the diary inadmissible: it had been tampered with and pages had been torn out (allegedly, by a popular leading man whose disappointing sexual performance Astor described in detail). But some of its contents got leaked to the press, and soon the story became front page news. To complicate matters, copies of a second diary were distributed to reporters across the country. This second diary was eventually proven to be a forgery and a complete fake, but not until after it had kept the scandal on the front page for weeks. And the story broke at exactly the same time that “Dodsworth” began filming. For much of the shoot, Astor spent one part of her day on the set, and the other in court. She was afraid that Sam Goldwyn would invoke the morals clause and have her replaced, but Goldwyn took a more sentimental view: “A mother fighting for her child is good.”
Mary Astor was big news in 1936.
The most explosive passages in Astor’s diary had to do with her ecstatic couplings with a superhuman lover whom she identified as “G.” After weeks of speculation, the identity of this bedroom dynamo was discovered and made public: it was the celebrated playwright and director, George S. Kaufman. As fate would have it, Kaufman was actually in Los Angeles when the scandal broke; he was working with his partner Moss Hart on the first draft of a play that would eventually become their Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, “You Can’t Take It With You.” Kaufman was staying in a bungalow at the Garden of Allah, but once his affair with Astor became public knowledge, he was forced to go into hiding on Irving Thalberg’s yacht, and later in Moss Hart’s home in Beverly Hills. As the trial progressed, Judge Goodwin J. Knight issued a subpoena for Kaufman to appear in court. Kaufman was served, but he ignored it; when he didn’t show up in court, the furious judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. Kaufman holed up at Hart’s place. But when the authorities came looking for him there, he narrowly escaped detection by hiding behind the living room curtains while they searched the place.
After this close call, it became clear that Kaufman needed to get far away from Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Hart also risked jail time for obstructing justice and harboring a fugitive. But getting Kaufman out of town was tricky: the house was surrounded by reporters and private investigators. At length, Hart hired a laundry truck to come to the house. Kaufman hid inside a large laundry hamper (I like to think it was wicker, like the ones used by the Chinese white-slavers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), and Hart piled a load of clothes on top of him. Then the driver, who was well paid to keep his mouth shut, drove Kaufman out to the train station in San Bernardino. Unfortunately, he missed his train, and the next one didn’t arrive for another six hours. And it was raining cats and dogs. Kaufman didn’t want to risk waiting at the station, for fear of being recognized, so he ducked into a nearby movie theatre. He sat through the feature two and a half times; it starred Mary Astor. Later, when asked to comment on his flight from Los Angeles justice, Kaufman replied, “My leave-taking from California may have been undignified, but I felt it necessary. I have been in the public eye too long, and I think the public might be glad, and should be glad, to get me out of its eye.”
George S. Kaufman (a/k/a the Gloomy Dean of Broadway)