Tag Archives: Mary Astor

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).


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Midnight (1939, Mitchell Leisen)

Midnight is a rather smart film. Screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are able to do a whole bunch of plot twists–always through comedic means–because of how they’ve got the film structured. The film opens with Claudette Colbert arriving in Paris, penniless. Taxi driver Don Ameche takes pity on her and falls for her. There’s the beginning of a great melodrama.

Only Ameche loses Colbert and his subplot is about finding her. He doesn’t have any other plots, just that subplot. He’s not in the movie a lot after the first third, though he does come back in time for the finish, which is good because it’s why his name is second-billed above the title.

John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer and Rex O’Malley all get billed under the title, which stands out. They seem like bigger names than under the title billing suggests. And Barrymore’s a big part of the film. He’s the one at the center of Midnight’s actual plot–Colbert helping Barrymore keep Lederer away from Astor. See, Barrymore’s Astor’s husband and Lederer is her indiscreet companion. Lots of amazing comedy stuff from Barrymore. He’s got great material, but his performance is phenomenal–with director Leisen doing a lot of it non-verbally. Sight gags with John Barrymore, it doesn’t get much better. He’d run away with the movie if it weren’t for everyone else racing him.

Astor, for example, is fabulous. Her part–mischievous adulterer–ought to get old fast, but never does. Brackett and Wilder give each scene’s leads wonderful dialogue, but Leisen makes sure the actors without lines are doing just as much acting listening to whatever disaster is occurring or being avoided in front of them. Midnight’s never madcap, it’s never rushed, it’s always thorough. The jokes, visual or aural, always get enough time. In the second half, the film even introduces one-line caps to each sequence. It’s great–and it’s deliberately done once the film has changed gears a bit. Midnight is always unpredictable (at least in how Brackett and Wilder are getting where they’re going).

Lederer’s solid. O’Malley’s fantastic as Astor’s sidekick. It’s with him she gets the most to do; the script’s very much constructed to emphasize the comedy, Leisen’s direction–of Ameche and Colbert, of Colbert and Lederer–is often overly melodramatic. There are some gorgeous shots of the fellows romancing Colbert–great photography from Charles Lang–and they could just as much be for drama or tragedy, but instead they’re for comedy.

The “leads” are both excellent. Quotation marks because Claudette Colbert’s so much more the lead than Ameche but then again, maybe not. It’s almost like Brackett and Wilder took three separate stories–Colbert’s, Ameche’s, Barrymore’s–and squished them all together, only keeping the best parts.

Once the film gets to the third act, however, it seems like the magic might run out. The film’s pacing slows down to a real time crawl and it’s very hard to anticipate what’s going to happen. Then it turns out Brackett and Wilder had something ready for just the occasion. Fine cameo from Monty Woolley in the third act as well.

Midnight is a wonderful picture. It’s exquisitely written, smartly acted, smartly directed. The comedic range of Barrymore and Ameche is something to behold.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mitchell Leisen; screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Rex O’Malley (Marcel), Hedda Hopper (Stephanie) and Monty Woolley (The Judge).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.

The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.

One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.

Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.

Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager) and Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King).


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The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

Even though almost every moment of The Maltese Falcon is spent with Humphrey Bogart’s protagonist, director Huston keeps the audience at arms’ length. Most of the film’s more exciting sounding set pieces occur off-screen, but so does Bogart’s thinking. The audience gets to see him manipulating, often without context.

His most honest scenes are with the women in his life–secretary Lee Patrick, damsel in distress Mary Astor, ill-chosen love interest Gladys George. Of course, Huston’s script doesn’t even make it clear (right off) Bogart’s going to be honest in those scenes. Huston reveals it a few minutes later, which is important as Falcon is an intentionally convoluted mystery but only on the surface. It’s more an epical character study of Bogart, something Huston doesn’t feel the need to reveal until the last seven or eight minutes.

Huston’s approach leads to a briskly moving film with a bunch of fantastic scenes. Bogart (and the viewer) see the result of the villains’ machinations, but Bogart saves all the conclusions. He doesn’t share, not with Patrick, not with Astor, not with the viewer. Huston’s exceptionally controlled with the narrative structure. It’s brilliant; he’s able to set up a fantastic conclusion for the mystery, but also for the character study, all because of that structure.

And the acting. Bogart’s phenomenal, so’s Astor, so are Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet almost gets as good of material as Bogart.

Wonderfully playful score from Adolph Deutsch.

It’s a magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Thomas Richards; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Samuel Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Barton MacLane (Lt. of Detectives Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook), Gladys George (Iva Archer) and Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer).


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