Friday, 1 July 2011

A star is matured...Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)

Coming to a lot of older films “out of your period” it’s sometimes hard to properly contextualise them and, in particular, the film stars. Every so often you get a real poke in the eye, like with Louise Brooks, Elmer Booth or Eleanor Boardman, but mostly you need time to adjust, to work out why the actor in question was popular and what level of ability they had. What really made them transcendent?

Sometimes things can be confused by that actor’s development: not all stars were born some, most, had to work hard to establish a style that made them memorable and special.

I think this was true of Jean Harlow. Watching her early appearances in "Public Enemy", "Platinum Blonde" or "Secret Six", you’re impressed with her presence, her looks and, well yes, her looks...but she’s a little bit inconsistent and not always sure footed. Yet she had raw talent to burn…there was always something about Harlean.

Not for nothing did Laurel & Hardy cast her in “Double Whoopee” and other shorts, whilst Clara Bow recognised the threat when she saw the bit part player on set for “The Saturday Night Kid”: “…take her off the goddamn set and never bring her back…Who’s gonna see me nexta her?”

Clara grew to like the scene-stealer and gave her a helping hand: “She’s gonna go places…you’ll see.” And as the 30’s get into their stride we do see.

By “Red Dust” to me Harlow looks like a complete star – pitch perfect, completely in the role and very hard not to watch! Made in 1932 when she was still only 21, it crucially matched her for the second time with Clark Gable. The duo’s chemistry is magical and came more from the fact that, off screen, they were great buddies rather than lovers.

That friendship provides the ideal underpinning for their screen relationship as Gable’s rubber plantation owner, Dennis Carson, ignores the more obvious charms of Jean’s blousy “working girl”, Vantine, for the allure of the classy, but married, Barbara Willis (played with icy reserve by Mary Astor). “He wants the one he can’t have…” (and it is driving him mad) and sends Barbara’s honest Joe husband on long missions into the rain forest as he attempts to woo her.

All the while Vantine stands as honest witness pricking his conscience with her frank appraisal of events in a series of sassy, funny, one liners. She delivers these with pin point accuracy and her warmth for Carson shines through. She knows he’s taking the wrong path but has to bide her time: these two are going to have to save each other in the end. It’s a pretty sophisticated storyline and definitely “pre-code”; infidelity, prostitution…Jean bathing in a barrel!

Another Victor Fleming movie, this is one more to add to the “why the heck aren’t they on DVD yet” list but I enjoyed it even on old VHS. There's a trailer on youTube but, seriously, c’mon MGM!

And that Gable guy…he’s interesting too! Someone I don’t really know much about but maybe one of those stars born less made?

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