BluRay/DVD Reviews

RED DUST

By • Dec 1st, 2012 •

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Deliciously pre-code, this torrid tale of sex and love on a godforsaken rubber plantation in Indochina holds up just fine today. Pre-code films tend to. They have a modern energy and sexual abandon which soon became absent until the restoration of cinematic sexual freedoms in the mid ‘60s and onward. Moreover the cast clicks. Top billed femme Jean Harlow has less screen time than Mary Astor, and a less pivotal role, but must have incited mucho male and female theater attendance for the show’s run. Opposite both of them is Clark Gable, exuding macho confidence both in testing tree sap and seducing young employee Gary Willis’ wife.

Harlow is a floozy traveling up river after having been banished from some sleazy port near Saigon. Gable runs the plantation and gets a kick out of her unexpurgated dialogue and antics. She, on the other hand, would like their liaison to blossom into something more permanent. But fate won’t have it that way. A new research engineer (aka ‘rube’) (Gene Raymond) arrives from England with his uptight wife (Mary Astor), and things rapidly go the only way they can under the circumstances – very badly from a moral standpoint. Harlow watches the sparks catch between Astor and Gable, and proves to have a better moral compass than the other two in the triangle. Her performance is both funny and vulnerable. She also takes a pretty notorious bath, from which, legend has it, she emerged nude to amuse the crew. Supposedly director Fleming immediately took the film out of the camera and destroyed it.

It’s important that praise be given to the quality of the DVD. It looks fresh and sharp, and I’m told this is somewhat miraculous, and the end result of some pretty arduous restoration work by the WB team, including National Board of Review William K. Everson Film History award winner George Feltenstein. If the master material were badly damaged, which indeed it was, we’d never know it from what we’re seeing on this DVD.

I spoke with George Feltenstein, who appraised me of just how bad the film’s elements were. Back in 1978, hundreds of MGM nitrate negatives went up in a George Eastman House fire that made the front page of the New York Times. Among them were SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and the B&W sequence from THE WIZARD OF OZ. And RED DUST. That incredible tragedy having been acknowledged, there were still the ‘safeties’ – back-up elements on those titles prepared by the studio. But, as Feltenstein ironically explained, “Safeties weren’t so safe.” The amount of damage to the surviving RED DUST elements was unbelievable.

It gets more complicated. Warner Bros Motion Pictures Imaging (MPI) was capable of working miracles on damaged elements, and not just their own. MPI has done great restoration/preservation work on such non-studio titles as THE GODFATHER and THE RED SHOES. But heavyweight titles such as those two attract the kind of budgets that allow for great restorations. Older titles such as the1932 Gable/Harlow flick are a tough argument for major studio investments. A financially feasible process needed to be devised in order to save the older titles. Over time MPI accomplished this, and Feltenstein explained that 90-95% of the damage was repaired by MPI. Nonetheless he still had to go in by hand on certain frames and shots, and indicated as one such mission the ‘pan to the parrot.’.

The sound was also cleaned up. RED DUST now has a good, clean track. There’s still era-related hiss, but other defects such as crackle are gone.

Now don’t you want to own this wonderful title? You should.


Incidentally, RED DUST was remade by John Ford in the 50s, this time called MOGAMBO. The story was slightly altered, but the same characters and same love triangle remain. Amazingly, Gable reprised his role, but the ladies were replaced by Ava Gardner and Tippi Hedren…no wait a minute, not Tippi Hedren…Eva Marie Saint. No, that’s not right either… What’s that other Hitchcock blonde’s name? Oh yes, Grace Kelly.

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