Jean Harlow

Red Dust (1932, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how much would be different about Red Dust if the film weren’t so hideously racist, particularly when it comes to poor Willie Fung (as the houseboy), but at least it wouldn’t go out on such a nasty note. Especially since the finale, despite being contrived, at least plays to the film’s strengths, which it had forgotten for a while.

Red Dust’s strengths are Jean Harlow and, at least when they’re bantering, Clark Gable. It’s not about the performances being better than any of the others—all the performances are good, with the exception of Fung, but… that one isn’t his fault—it’s just Harlow’s the most likable person in the picture. Sometimes it seems like she’s the only likable person, just because the other likable folks are offscreen somewhere, sent away so Gable can seduce married woman Mary Astor.

The film starts with Harlow ending up at Gable’s Vietnam rubber plantation. Well, actually, it starts with Gable and occasional sidekick (and likable folk) Tully Marshall overseeing the plantation. Lots of quick expository action, lots of casual racism involving the workers (it’s okay, though, because Gable works hard like a white alpha male should—though it turns out he inherited the plantation from his dad and seemingly grew up there so, wow, what a dick), then in comes Harlow. After some good banter, they end up canoodling. Harlow’s hiding out from some problems in Saigon, where she’s probably a working girl. Red Dust is Pre-Code but it’s still 1932 and all.

So once she and Gable hook up, the movie jumps ahead three weeks or so. They’ve been shacked up, but it’s time for her to go. She’s sweet on Gable, even though he’s an abject asshole; he doesn’t even seem to notice. Red Dust is great for passive displays of not just white man’s “burden” but also toxic masculinity and privilege. John Lee Mahin’s script is rather unaware of itself. Not blissfully, it’s not an intentional move on Mahin’s part, it’s just baked in no one would ever think about those things, which almost plays to its favor. Once Gable’s doing nothing but romancing Astor, well… if the script were avoiding anything, it’d be hard to tolerate Gable.

Anyway. After the jump ahead, Astor and husband Gene Raymond. Raymond’s Gable’s new engineer, Astor is the wife he wasn’t supposed to bring. Raymond arrives ill, so Gable and Astor have to nurse him back to health. Only then Harlow shows back up because of plot contrivance—albeit a logical enough one—and Gable doesn’t want her contaminating blue blood Astor. Gable’s got to figure out how to seduce Astor while keeping it not just from Raymond, but somewhat from Harlow as well. At least, he doesn’t want Harlow messing it up for him.

The way it plays is celibate hard-ass Gable discovers he likes having a woman around with Harlow, then wants to “trade up” for Astor.

Meanwhile, once Astor arrives, Red Dust is hers for a while. All through her perspective, including the tour of the rubber plantation and how rubber is made. The tour comes relatively late in the picture, given rubber-making is most of what Gable and Marshall talk about it. It’s a rather nice narrative move from Mahin and director Fleming in a film where there really aren’t many nice narrative moves. The script’s not clumsy, just leaden. Gable’s charm plays a lot differently as he manipulates and seduces Astor (and abuses and neglects Harlow).

There’s an obvious finish to all of it, which doesn’t require anything but to completely flush the idea of Astor having a character. Then, after the first flush, when she’s reset, the script flushes her again, taking what starts as a role with quite a bit of potential and reducing it to plot fodder.

Acting-wise, Harlow’s the best, just because she doesn’t go through any character development contortions. When Gable’s not being a complete bastard, he’s good. He’s always fine with the physical aspects of the role, but when he’s in asshole mode he’s just muscling through the material not acting it. Fleming’s no help with directing his actors and they need it with Mahin’s script.

Astor’s better at the start than the finish. In theory she’s got the best character arc, but it all happens off-screen. The film skips over some crucial scenes for her character development (Red Dust runs a somewhat long eighty-two minutes as the scenes with Astor and Gable eventually get tedious). Raymond’s okay as the beta male husband. Not sure if we’re supposed to consciously notice Astor’s taller than him or not.

Marshall’s great as the sidekick (when he’s in the picture) and Donald Crisp is surprisingly good as Gable’s other overseer. Surprisingly because he’s usually passed out drunk in the picture and doesn’t get but two scenes with any activity. But he’s real good in them.

Fleming’s direction is okay. Red Dust is a stage adaptation and occasionally feels like it, but once the monsoon season starts, there’s always something inventive going on visually. Harold Rosson’s photography is excellent. Blanche Sewell’s editing is not, though it appears Fleming didn’t give her enough coverage. And it’s not bad editing, it’s just not excellent editing. It’s fine. Technically, Red Dust is a success.

Dramatically, it’s incredibly problematic (even without the contrivances and frequent, casual racism). The film wastes Gable’s potential and limits Harlow’s.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Dennis Carson), Jean Harlow (Vantine), Mary Astor (Barbara Willis), Tully Marshall (McQuarg), Gene Raymond (Gary Willis), Willie Fung (Hoy), and Donald Crisp (Guidon).


Suzy (1936, George Fitzmaurice)

The war story love triangle: girl mets boy, girl marries boy, girl thinks boy dies, girl meets second boy, girl marries second boy, first boy returns, one of the boys dies. Suzy isn’t even an interesting spin on it. The film throws in a relationship between lower class Jean Harlow with her upper class father-in-law Lewis Stone in an attempt to make the story poignant, to give her character some depth, but it fails miserably. Watching the scenes with the two of them, the attempted manipulation reeks. The two aren’t bad together, but Suzy works at its best during moments of high charisma. Cary Grant (as the second boy) has a lot of it, but Franchot Tone’s actually got more in his scenes. Tone’s doing an Irish accent for most of the film (it appears after his first or second scene) and it’s mildly grating, but he’s still good. Harlow ranges, when the character makes sense, she’s good. When it doesn’t, she’s only okay. Unfortunately, the script rarely bothers making sense.

The film does succeed on a few levels, mostly due to George Fitzmaurice’s direction. It has two definite periods–England before the war and France during–and Fitzmaurice gives each part of the film an atmosphere. These distinctions don’t help the film much, but it’s good work and it makes the film a more pleasant experience. His direction of dramatic scenes is pat–a lengthy long shot followed by some close-ups and then a medium shot–but the sets are at least nice. The supporting cast helps a lot in Suzy–Una O’Connor’s got a great scene and there are some others… The film’s quality isn’t particularly bumpy. It does get better after awhile and might actually approach getting good, but it betrays the story in the end. I timed the last act, trying to guess the resolution to the love triangle and figured for a couple scenes–one between Harlow and the winner and another with Lewis Stone, since the film hung everything on he and Harlow’s friendship. Following a couple great action scenes–one of them was just flying footage from Hell’s Angels, but the other one must have been Fitzmaurice unless Suzy was written to match Hell’s Angels leftover shots–the film stops. The love triangle’s resolved, but there’s nothing else. It becomes a war picture for the first time. Instead of finishing the characters’ stories, the audience gets a bit about valor and distinction and then a “The End.”

Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell wrote (some of) Suzy and, according to IMDb, they were a highly paid screenwriting team. They were a waste of money.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Horace Jackson and Lenore J. Coffee, based on the novel by Herbert Gorman; director of photography, Ray June; edited by George Boemler; music by William Axt; produced by Maurice Revnes; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jean Harlow (Suzy), Franchot Tone (Terry), Cary Grant (Andre), Lewis Stone (Baron), Benita Hume (Madame Eyrelle), Reginald Mason (Captain Barsanges), Inez Courtney (Maisie), Greta Meyer (Mrs. Schmidt), David Clyde (‘Knobby’), Christian Rub (‘Pop’ Gaspard), George Spelvin (Gaston) and Una O’Connor (Landlady).


Libeled Lady (1936, Jack Conway)

Libeled Lady suffers from a few things, but it’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t work about the film because there are so many things working well. There’s a great William Powell slapstick fishing scene in the film, there’s a great wedding scene where the husband gets a peck and the best man gets a passionate kiss, there’s even a nice courtship between Powell and Myrna Loy, except Powell’s married to Jean Harlow and Loy is suing Harlow’s boyfriend, played by Spencer Tracy. The problem stems from not knowing what to do with Harlow. Libeled Lady is a ninety-eight minute comedy with four major stars, it having focusing problems isn’t even in question….

The film opens with Harlow and Tracy and it stays with Tracy for a bit, introducing Powell in a great way, but up until that introduction (and even immediately following) Libeled Lady is a newspaper comedy. This genre has disappeared, but it was prevalent in the 1930s. I’ve read the early talkie screenwriters were newspaper reporters, explaining the newspaper office as a frequent setting and the reporter as a dedicated hero. But then it turns and becomes an odd Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy, one where you really miss W.S. Van Dyke behind the camera. When Tracy and Harlow return to the film, Harlow has become superfluous. It’s not a traditional comedy–there are different expectations and responsibilities. It’s a little more serious. The audience comes to like Loy (or Loy warms to Powell and the audience warms to Loy while Powell in conflict). But, Powell never reveals the full extent of his subterfuge to Loy when the audience gets to see (again turning the film’s focus to Harlow and Tracy). There isn’t a scene because it doesn’t work with that returning focus to Harlow’s side of the story.

It’s a lot of fun, and Tracy is really good in the opening. He and Powell have a good repartee going too, but we only get to see it once. Harlow and Powell were together at the time and the chemistry cares over to celluloid, but it’s also a Powell and Loy film, which causes a disconnect. I think it’s in Myrna Loy’s biography–when Loy had a cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet as Powell’s long-unseen wife, it wasn’t even a question for audiences she would be the wife–it was expected. It doesn’t help the film perturbs Harlow’s character arc to fit that clean ending or makes Tracy so ineffectual in the second half–though the scene with him running across a foyer is delightful. It’s in an awkward part of the film, but Tracy’s fun translates well.

It’s good. It is. It’s just the problems are more visible then they should be….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Conway; screenplay by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Wallace Sullivan; director of photography, Norbert Brodine; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by William Axt; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jean Harlow (Gladys), William Powell (Bill Chandler), Myrna Loy (Connie Allenbury), Spencer Tracy (Haggerty), Walter Connolly (Mr. Allenbury), Charley Grapewin (Mr. Bane) and Cora Witherspoon (Mrs. Burns-Norvell).


Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)

It’s called Dinner at Eight, not Leading Up to Dinner at Eight. I had this film taped from TCM and it was near the head of my movielens recommendations–and movielens has been frighteningly accurate–so I watched it….

There’s a lot of good acting in the film–I can’t decide which Barrymore is better or if Wallace Beery is the best. Billie Burke, as the hostess, is good and Jean Harlow’s got some nice moments.

But, really, come on. I can’t believe this one has the reputation it does. It’s not just that it’s stagy, it’s that it isn’t about any of the characters, just about being about them. And it’s too long. Way too long. And there’s no dinner. Don’t be cute, show me the damn dinner.

For a while, it seemed all right. Star-crossed lovers and ruminations about aging… but then it just got long and irritating.

I think I’m going to have to go with Lionel, now that I think about it more.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; director of photography, Williams H. Daniels; edited by Ben Lewis; music by William Axt; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Marie Dressier (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Wayne Talbot), Billie Burke (Mrs. Oliver Jordan), Madge Evans (Paula Jordan), Jean Harsholt (Jo Stengel), Karen Morley (Mrs. Wayne Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), May Robson (Mrs. Wendel), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phoebe Foster (Miss Alden), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Copeland), Hilda Vaughn (Tina), Harry Beresford (Fosdick), Edwin Maxwell (Mr. Fitch), John Davidson (Mr. Hatfield), Edward Woods (Eddie), George Baxter (Gustave), Herman Bing (The Waiter) and Anna Duncan (Dora).


Scroll to Top