Tag Archives: Donald Crisp

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).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ARTHUR KENNEDY'S CONQUEST OF THE SCREEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT AND VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Sons of Liberty (1939, Michael Curtiz)

Despite Michael Curtiz directing and Claude Rains starring–Curtiz does better than Rains–Sons of Liberty is a rather tepid little short.

Rains plays a Jewish proto-American (circa 1776) who sacrifices all for the United States. He even dies penniless because he won’t sign a document on the Sabbath. Of course, Liberty never says the word “Jewish.” I was shocked when someone identified a rabbi by title.

The short also has a lot of problems establishing characters. Gale Sondergaard shows up as Rains’s wife–she’s not very good either. She shows up after Rains has supposedly been in jail for a year. I understand they’re playing fast and loose with history–I didn’t look up the real story because I wouldn’t want it ruined–but Curtiz and writer Crane Wilbur ignore even the most basic narrative requirements.

While it’s interesting as a historical document, but Liberty is a flop.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Curtiz; written by Crane Wilbur; directors of photography, Sol Polito and Ray Rennahan; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Howard Jackson; produced by Gordon Hollingshead; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Claude Rains (Haym Salomon), Gale Sondergaard (Rachel Salomon), Donald Crisp (Alexander McDougall), Montagu Love (George Washington), Henry O’Neill (Member of Continental Congress) and James Stephenson (Colonel Tillman).


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Mary of Scotland (1936, John Ford)

Even with the overbearing music and the strange lighting for emphasis (play-like, it dims to concentrate attention on an object or person), lots of Mary of Scotland is rather well done. Ford’s got some excellent shots and, at times, creates anxious scenes. It’s hard to get particularly excited during most of the film because, while there’s always something going on, it’s more interesting as history than drama. Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March are both good–Hepburn’s got some extraordinary moments–and they’ve got good chemistry, but it’s hard to sustain concern for their problems. Ford seems to get it–or maybe the source play got it–and makes everyone but Hepburn and March, and some of the supporting cast, absolutely evil. Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth, for instance, comes off slightly more inhuman than Emperor Palpatine. Moroni Olsen’s clergyman comes off even more soulless.

The wickedness of royalty raises a lot of questions about the film and historical filmmaking in general–the scene where Eldridge finally confronts Hepburn plays like something out of a Universal horror film of the era. In order to get sympathy for one royal, all the others must be abjectly inhuman. It’d be fine–I wouldn’t have even noticed it–if Mary of Scotland had a story going on. But it really doesn’t, it just sort of ambles along, killing the excellent momentum of the opening–Hepburn’s first night as queen is eventful and sets up the film with a lot of potential. But there’s so little visible interest from Ford’s part. Once he gets around to the lighting effects, he just keeps doing them; it’s a pragmatic way to get things over with.

There’s some excellent supporting performances–John Carradine’s great as Hepburn’s loyal secretary (playing an Italian no less). The scenes with Carradine are some of the film’s most enjoyable, because they’re fun. Also, a lot of March’s early scenes–fun. Donald Crisp’s early scenes, fun. Later on, there’s only Douglas Walton to provide any amusement (and we’re supposed to laugh at him, not with).

By the end, Ford would have been better served with title cards explaining events then trying to tell them scenically. Hepburn and March keep up, but the story’s rote. Regardless of historical inevitability, Dudley Nichols and Ford really should have found some way to vivify the last act. Instead, there’s the dour meeting between the two queens–which the viewer’s been waiting the whole film to see–and the pay-off… leaves a lot to be desired. And then the end, which leaves even more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Joseph H. August; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Mary Queen of Scots), Fredric March (Earl of Bothwell), Florence Eldridge (Queen Elizabeth I), Douglas Walton (Lord Darnley), John Carradine (David Rizzio), Robert Barrat (Lord Morton), Gavin Muir (Earl of Leicester), Ian Keith (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Moroni Olsen (John Knox), William Stack (Lord Ruthven), Ralph Forbes (Lord Randolph), Alan Mowbray (Lord Throckmorton), Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton) and Donald Crisp (Lord Huntley).


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