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.
The Family Circle: George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Craven, Billie Burke and Bette Davis
It’s the only time John Huston worked with Davis. It’s an absurd melodrama, with Davis as a mean, mean, mean mantrap. Quite hilarious. That big piece of solid timber from Ireland known as George Brent is also in it.
Brent, de Havilland: On the bum.
Halfway through the picture, when Brent’s life is on the skids, he wears the most amusing greasepaint whiskers . . . I love that sort of stuff. And not in a cynical, sneering way: I genuinely like a certain amount of blatant artifice — it’s in keeping with the steamed-up nature of melodrama. Huston doesn’t hold back or go for realism — a whole lot of fur flies in this one. The last fifteen to twenty minutes are wonderfully over-the-top . . . and include one of the silliest car chase sequences I know — day for night shooting, which always looks phony; process shots, which look even phonier; and the speed of the cars has been increased by omitting every third or fourth frame, a technique that always makes me laugh.
About George Brent: except for his performance in “Jezebel,” when he played a charming bounder of the Old South, he was almost always stolid to the point of catatonia. Yet he came to America as a refugee from Ireland. He lammed it out of the Old Sod with a price on his head: he was a courier/hit man for the Sinn Fein when it was led by Michael Collins. A guy with that sort of past should have been a livelier actor, it seems to me.
There are a lot of good performances in this one. Frank Craven, who was the original Stage Manager in “Our Town” on Broadway, plays Davis and de Havilland’s put upon father. Charles Coburn plays a rapacious businessman who lusts after his febrile niece (Davis). Billie Burke, in a rare dramatic role, plays Lavinia, sister of Coburn and invalid mother to evil Bette and goody-two-shoes de Havilland. Burke gives a remarkable performance as a silly, selfish, sentimental neurasthenic. It’s essentially the same thing she always did, but this time, she’s pathetic and a little bit terrifying. Ernest Anderson makes an impressive debut as an ambitious, intelligent young black man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He conveys a beautiful combination of decency and shrewdness; when he finds himself in trouble, and understands that his innocence is meaningless in a Whites Only world, his despair is devastating. A wonderful performance — and no sentimentality in it. There’s a musical lilt to his speech that makes him a pleasure to listen to. He’s a very warm presence and he gives a seriousness to the melodrama that it would entirely lack without him. Hattie McDaniel plays his mother; she, too, is beyond reproach. Quite apart from the great moral authority and skill McDaniel brings to the role, it is a relief to see her play a role that gives her more to do than jumble her syntax and mispronounce big words to make white folks roar with laughter.
The commentary on the DVD is by Jeanine Basinger, who’s knowledgeable and straight-forward. She wrote a biography of Davis a few years ago. She reminds me of a younger, stouter Leonard Maltin, minus the beard — she gets her facts straight and she knows a lot, but her analysis rarely is very impressive. Still, she’s well-informed about the studio system, and appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various sound stages on the Warner lot. That counts for a lot.
Davis didn’t want to play the bad girl; she wanted to play the sweet one, and argued that she was too old for the part. Then she hated the hair and the costumes (she took charge of both, and had her costumes redesigned by Orry-Kelly, her favorite designer, who did nearly all of her costumes while she was at Warners). She also thought the script was terrible, and an insult to the novel, which she said was “brilliant.” The author of the novel was equally appalled by the “phony” script. Moreover, during filming, Davis’ husband at the time was hospitalized in Minneapolis with pneumonia. Davis held up shooting by going to visit him (her friend, Howard Hughes, provided her with a private plane to take her there); shortly after she arrived, she received a cable from Jack Warner, ordering her to get her ass back to the lot. Between her concern for her husband and her fury at Warner, her own health suffered; her doctor ordered her to return by train (rather than air) and to get plenty of rest before returning to work. It was Davis who discovered Ernest Anderson. Huston couldn’t find a young black actor to play the role to his satisfaction, so Davis recommended Anderson. She had seen him waiting tables at the commissary and thought he had the right look for the part. That was about the only thing Davis liked about the whole picture. A few weeks before production wrapped, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Huston went off to war. Raoul Walsh finished the picture, but received no credit. He and Davis clashed immediately; she developed laryngitis from screaming at him, and in no time, refused to take any of his direction. The preview was a disaster. Audiences were in no mood for this sort of picture at the beginning of the war; the subplot that dealt with racial discrimination offended many people, and the picture was almost universally panned in the press.
Davis had a similarly low opinion of “Deception,” which is far from her best performance, but is one of my favorite pictures. She was a superb actress, but I find her opinions of her own work totally unreliable. She was hardly more reliable about other actors’ performances. She always insisted that Errol Flynn was no actor, and was furious when he was cast as her co-star in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” (That clumsy title was jury-rigged. Originally, it was to be called “Elizabeth the Queen,” after Maxwell Anderson’s play, but when Flynn was cast in it, his box-office power made him demand that the title be changed to include his character’s name.) If you ask me, Flynn not only holds his own against her in that picture, but he gives the better performance. He was also great in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” No actor since has come close to matching his ease and grace in that part. He was terrific in many of the other swashbucklers (e.g., “Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk”). He makes it look so easy, but the artificial, bombastic dialogue takes a lot of skill to put across. Flynn spoke that sort of claptrap better than anyone else. He also turned in a nice performance in “Gentleman Jim.” His range was not terribly broad, but he was a fine leading man — a hell of a lot better than many with higher reputations. The drinking and hard living made him unreliable and wrecked his looks by the mid- to late-forties, but he was a much better actor than Davis (and many others) ever gave him credit for.
Bette Davis as high maintenance mantrap: Whooping it up all by herself. Walter Huston tends bar.
You shouldn’t read the rest of this if you haven’t already seen the picture and are planning to do so.
“In This Our Life” verges on camp — maybe even crosses the border in a few places, as, for example, Davis’ stolen interview with Charles Coburn before her final flight from justice: “You’re not even listening! You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others! You’d let me go to prison! All you’re thinking of is your own miserable life! Well, you can DIE for all I care! DIE!” It has all the makings of camp: both characters are irredeemably wicked and both are in extremis: he, under sentence of death from his doctor; she, trying to escape justice after killing a child in a hit and run accident (which she has, for good measure, pinned on their maid’s (Hattie McDaniel) virtuous son (Ernest Anderson)). The physical setting is extreme, as well: the room is a nightmarish clutter of late Victorian kitsch: hideous, elaborately carved furniture and massive display cabinets; heavy, excessive window treatments; busy wallpaper. And Huston stages the scene in front of a roaring hearth, which lends a ghost-story-by-campfire atmosphere to the scene, and an adumbration of the fires of Hell that await these two monsters. Yet it’s not camp. Both actors are totally committed to the material; Coburn is almost touching in his snivelling terror: his panic is completely believable; Davis gives a huge performance, with all cylinders firing, but what she does is not camp: for one thing, her choices are too specific — she plays each beat of the scene, each change of tactic, with great clarity and finesse, and she keeps building the emotional intensity so that she doesn’t peak until that final “DIE!” She gives a showy, out-sized performance, yet I wouldn’t call it hamming: the emotionalism is certainly extreme, but it’s too grounded in reality to be considered fake, and her absolute control over how much to give and when is so ideally suited to the dramatic structure (in this scene and throughout the rest of the picture) to be dismissed as ham acting.
Fay Bainter and Bette Davis “Julie, but you cain’t fight marriage!”
“Jezebel” was Bette Davis’ second Oscar win, but the only one (as far as she was concerned) that she earned fair and square. She won her first in 1936 for “Dangerous,” a dim-bulb soap in which she gives a rather silly histrionic performance (histrionics are what she did, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that she learnt how much is enough and how much is too much). At the time, it was widely thought that her Oscar win for “Dangerous” was a consolation prize for not having won the year before for another histrionic (but truer) performance as the slattern in “Of Human Bondage.” For that one, she wasn’t even nominated, yet she received so many write-in votes from Academy members that she very nearly won.
Fay Bainter, who plays her Aunt Belle in “Jezebel,” won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, and she gives one of her typically fine, subtle and nuanced performances. Nobody much remembers her today, but I hold her in almost as high esteem as I hold Claude Rains.
There are many things in “Jezebel” that are particularly fine: the staging of the fatal waltz is brilliant — the way all those white dresses sweep away from the encroachment of the red dress — like drops of oil flying away from the center when a drop of vinegar is dropped into their midst (I also love Steiner’s melody for the waltz). Also the staging of the scene with Fay Bainter, when she comes to the full realization of her niece’s wickedness . . . “I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God.” How many actresses could resist the temptation to overplay that moment? Bainter is perfection itself in that scene, as she is when she is introduced to Amy Bradford (“Pres, your wife . . . My dear, Pres’ wife would naturally be welcome here . . . but you are for your own sake.”) But the greatest of the great is Davis’ apology followed by her own introduction to “Bradford . . . Amy Bradford . . . from New York . . . ” Never were those goggle eyes put to better use. And the way that Fay Bainter watches her receive the news as if she’s waiting for the dynamite to go off . . . ! Quite incredible. The whole sequence is so invisibly edited, for years, I imagined it was all done in a single take, but of course it’s not. There are lots of edits — more edits than Wyler usually allowed into a single sequence — but they’re all so ideally placed and the continuity is so seamless, you don’t notice them unless you’re looking for them — and even then, I find myself so caught up in the action that I forget to count how many there are. Henry Fonda’s not as good in his part as many of the others, but he’s perfect in that scene, because his natural diffidence and awkwardness are exactly what the scene demands.
Davis apologizes. “Pres, I’m kneelin’ to ya.”
Fay Bainter and Claude Rains starred together in one stupendously stupid picture, “White Banners” (1938, same year as “Jezebel”) — spiritually uplifting “pass-it-forward” treacle by Lloyd C. Douglas (who also wrote “Magnificent Obsession” — same theme as “White Banners” and for my money, the funniest camp picture ever). She and Rains are so fine in that otherwise execrable picture, I’m happy to endure (though not accept) Douglas’ creepy proto-Christian folderol. She was nominated for Best Actress in that one, making her the first actress to be nominated in both acting categories in the same year. Fay Bainter gave many excellent performances, and never a bad one. The trouble is, with the exception of “Jezebel,” she was nearly always in lousy pictures. Her last picture was “The Children’s Hour” (1961, directed by Wyler). Stupid picture, great performance — I may even say, quite awesome. When the vicious little schoolgirl whispers the libelous gossip into Bainter’s ear in the backseat of a taxicab, Bainter’s wordless reaction is stunning — you can see a lifetime of experience and know-how in that moment. Here was an actress who knew her job! In every bad picture Bainter was in, she was always worth watching. On Broadway, Bainter played Walter Huston’s straying wife, Fran, in “Dodsworth.” What a shame she didn’t play it in the picture! I’ve resigned myself to Ruth Chatterton’s fussy performance, which works in its way, but I can’t really admire it. Wyler tried to force Chatterton, over her strong objections, to play Fran as something more than a hateful bitch, but Chatterton outlasted him. (Even Bette Davis never got her way when Wyler objected!) Chatterton does Hateful Bitch to perfection, But is it Art? How I should have liked to see Fay Bainter in that part! (Incidentally, both Davis and Bainter were under contract to Warners at the time. Davis’ weekly salary was $650 when she starred in “Jezebel”; Bainter’s was $2,000.) Bainter’s last major stage role was as Mary Tyrone in the first national tour of “Long Day’s Journey.” What a performance that must have been. Throughout her career, she appears to have followed Huston’s sage advice to a young actor: “Son, give ’em a good show and always travel first class.”
Another unjustly forgotten character actress, Spring Byington, gives a witty performance in the small role of Mrs Kendrick in “Jezebel.” Mrs Kendrick is a foolish old busybody whose polite conversation consists entirely of platitudes and old saws, which she speaks as if she had freshly minted them (“Well, I always say, ‘Better late than never’ “; “I always say, ‘Spare the rod and you spoil the child!’ “; “I always say, ‘Punctuality is the politeness of kings!’ “; ” ‘Business before pleasure,’ I always say . . . “; “I always say, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ “), while everything she says to her daughter is a reproof (“Stephanie, your manners!”; “Well, we still do [curtsy] in New Orleans: no call to take up with Yankee manners.”). Mrs Kendrick is a one-joke character, but Byington brings her fully to life. A sweet little gem of a performance. Byington is also in “Dodsworth,” by the way, and gives a beautiful performance. She and Bainter represent a type of supporting actress — solid, reliable, but totally individual — that barely exists anymore. Before the Method came along and shook all the refinement and grace out of American acting, such supporting actors and actresses were thick on the ground. They spoke well, looked well, moved well, and gave wonderfully detailed performances that supported the stars’ performances without calling attention to themselves. How I admire that old technique!