#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust. Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina. He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.
His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection. First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced. She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.
But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.
It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another. Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.
Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around. She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.” Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously. And she lives to annoy Dennis.
Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell. But what we forget is just how funny she was. She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.
Gable is deliciously young and handsome. He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.
Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara. Their chemistry burns up every scene.
But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.
Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust. They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo. Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses. The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl. The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey. Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.
The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner. The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.
And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?
Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.
(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role. And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)
For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.
Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine. Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course. In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy. The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.
Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:
Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley. He just comes across as a jerk.
Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed. She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.
She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley. There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing. Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.
And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old. He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older. To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.) And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.
Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags. And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.
The critics disagree with me, as critics often do. Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress. Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing. Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.
Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences. Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.
You won’t be sorry.
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