Today's movie post is part of the Mary Astor blogathon (which I have very kindly been allowed to join) an event honouring the life and film career of actress Mary Astor, for her birthday week, and is hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. Click on the picture link for a complete list of participating blogs.
Mary Astor (1906 - 1987) was an American actress whom most people would remember for her role in The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, in 1941, but in total Mary appeared in a phenomenal 123 motion pictures over four decades. Although not strictly a star in the accepted sense of her time, she was a featured player who became a star in the eyes of the public, always a lady and very sexy, without being an overt ‘sex-bomb.’
In Red Dust, made almost ten years earlier in 1932, Mary Astor was billed as a supporting role, but hers was essentially pivotal as the third point in a love triangle. Clark Gable and Jean Harlow were the top billers, and it was the second of six movies the Gable and Harlow made together. They are all just so photogenic, and I have included a lot of screen shots from the movie. It was just too hard to choose between them!
The movie opens with a very young, thin Gable (Carson) looking suave in jodhpurs in the middle of the rubber plantation, and cross about the lack of rubber coming out of the trees. Something he checks by swishing the raw 'rubber milk' or latex around in his mouth. Yuch!
Then there’s a dust storm and Carson and his sidekick 'Mac' McQuarry go back to camp to wash up. They find a drunk asleep at the table and carry him into his room to sleep it off. They throw him on to the bed in the dark – right on top of Vantine (Harlow). She’s just landed there from Saigon to escape a 'spot of trouble.'
Carson is sick of the work, the heat, the dust one week and the mud the next – just to get rubber “to keep old ladies warm”. Vantine and Carson don’t hit it off at first, but after a discussion about blue cheese he smiles for the first time, changes his mind, and they get VERY friendly.
Before she knows it her four weeks in are over, and Vantine is back on the boat to Saigon, and Carson offends her by offering her money for 'expenses.' The new plantation engineer Willis and his wife have just arrived on the same boat, and look sparkling and white, and slightly out of place.
Carson is shocked to see her, a woman, and poor Mary is a bit shocked at the state of the house, and the washroom, which is outdoors and has no privacy, but she is full of plans to make everything ship shape and homey. Willis is the meantime is ill – with fever. Mary and Carson don’t hit it off either, and he refuses to get the doctor or to stay and nurse Willis, and Barbara gets mad and slaps him.
|"Do you think you can treat Gary like one of your Coolies"|
Meanwhile Willis is getting worse, and Barbara is in a panic. Carson stays and nurses him for two days, and the fever breaks. Barbara is apologetic for her earlier behaviour, and it's obvious that Carson has feelings for her. He brushes Vantine off when he finds her in his room that night. Poor Vantine, you just can't help but like her, despite her not being the sharpest tool in the shed (she breaks a barometer because it's not telling the time properly).
The next day Willis is up and ready for work, and Vantine teases Carson by having a bath without shutting the curtains. Of course while he's telling her off, Barbara appears. Carson takes her off for a tour of the camp, including the 'factory' where the rubber 'milk' is transformed into rubber (by adding acidic acid), and then put through rollers to make it a sheet. It's quite an interesting process, and Mary is impressed.
Barbara discovers that none of the workers are allowed to bring their wives, as the camp is 'no place for a woman.' The native women would cause trouble and the white women couldn't "stand the gaff". Carson tells her that was born to it, and doesn't' mind the loneliness, but admits that Vantine is part of the life here, "if a man is interested." Barbara aims to be happy and find her place, and thinks she could be happy on the plantation. Carson asks if he can make it his job to make her happy. Before she can answer a sudden storm makes them run for home, and Carson ends up carrying Barbara, who's dressed in high heels. Vantine sees Carson carry Barbara up the stairs into her room, where they share a kiss.
"Did the duchess sprain her ankle?" Vantine asks Carson when he appears. She knows something is going on between them - the lipstick on his face is a give away. Carson leaves and Barbara, scared of the storm, asks Vantine if she can stay with her. The girls have a chat, both bemoaning the fact that neither of them could resist Carson.
That night they all sit down to dinner. Gary and Carson talk about the coolies, and how you can't trust them when your back is turned - and Barbara, feeling guilty, excuses herself. Carson, meanwhile, organises for Gary and the other men to go on a surveying trip that will take a few weeks, and be too harsh for the women. Barbara is worried, and wants to go, and Vantine threatens to tell Gary that something is going on between his wife and Carson. She doesn't though, and Carson and Barbara end up falling in love.
They talk of their future, about getting out of "this rotten country," and Carson says he will tell Gary when he visits the men the next day. Barbara is worried, because Gary is "so helpless." When Gary and Carson have a chat while waiting to shoot a tiger, Gary tells him how much he loves Barbara, and how wonderful their life will be when they move back to America. Carson realises that Gary is right, and that really Barbara could never be truly happy in the jungle.
|"You got him!"|
Carson decides that Vantine is more his type - suited to the 'dirty, rotten country,' and really they do seem well suited. They even have a sweet way of calling each other by nicknames - Fred and Lilly. Of course while they're embracing, after a playful wrestle, Barbara walks in. She;s not happy.
Carson tells Barbara that he is not a one woman man, but she is welcome to take her turn. Astor plays the wronged lover to perfection, and shoots Carson, and with wonderful timing, Gary walks in. To protect Barbara, Carson and Vantine tell Gary that Carson had tried to break into Barbara's room because he was drunk, and had been after her all along. Gary is at once proud of his wife, and disgusted with Carson, and when Vantine suggests to him that he take Barbara away, he agrees. As does Carson who says, "You two pack your tennis racquets and go back where you belong."
|"If she hadn't plugged you I would have" says Gary|
The alternative name for this movie could have been Rain, as it seems to rain all the time, but of course there was another movie in 1932 with that title, starring Joan Crawford (see the review here). In that movie, Crawford played a prostitute, which Harlow's character has been called in this movie, and the nice lady was played by Kendall Lee, but she did not feature much, unlike Astor in Red Dust. A similar character however, who even has a similar line about the rain never stopping.
|Kendall Lee in Rain, 1932|
I like to think of Harlow's Vantine more as just a girl out for a good time, thank a hooker. Astor's Barbara, however, is almost her opposite. Naturally dark haired, not bottle blonde, conservatively dressed, not flauntingly 'half naked', and definitely a lady - a lady who was smart and sexy, without being overtly so, strong and brave to a point, who fell in love with another man, against her better judgement. You just know that after this experience she would return to America a better, stronger person, more in love her husband than ever and ready to raise a family.
|Mary Astor and Gene Raymond in “Red Dust” (1932)|
Living in the tropics in 2013, as I do, with air-conditioners, fly screens and electricity, I can't imagine that tropical Asia would have been a great place for a lady in the 1930s, let alone one like Astor's Barbara, either. We never really learn exactly where the plantation is (although we see a bucket labelled the North Co-chin Rubber Co in the first scene), but we do learn it is close to Saigon, Vietnam.
In 1925 the Michelin Rubber Plantation was begun near Dầu Tiếng District in Binh Duong Province, 72 km northwest of Saigon, and I like to think Carson's plantation was nearby. Michelin would have course produced rubber for car tyres, and in this movie Carson talks of producing rubber for hot water bottles, pencil erasers and teats for babies bottle, so it was probably small than Michelin's 12,400 hectares (31,000 acres). You can read more about natural rubber here. Rubber production in Vietnam and all of Asia was disrupted by the Japanese in WWII, and of course by the later Vietnam war. Vietnam is currently the fifth largest producer of natural rubber in the world.
Gable also starred in the remake of Red Dust, Mogambo, twenty years later, with Ava Gardner in Harlow's role, and Grace Kelly playing a part similar to one portrayed by Mary Astor. It's on my 'to watch' list!