A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, October 3, 2016

Red Dust (Victor Fleming, 1932)

Victor Fleming is the credited director on two of the most beloved films in Hollywood history: Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). I say "credited director" because it's widely known that many other directorial hands were involved in both movies. Fleming took over the former only after George Cukor had been fired from it (reportedly on the insistence of Clark Gable). Some of Cukor's scenes remain in the film, and others were reportedly directed by Sam Wood and King Vidor, but GWTW is mostly the product of its obsessive, micromanaging producer, David O. Selznick. The Wizard, too, was primarily the work of its producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed; once again a director, Richard Thorpe, was fired from the film before Fleming was brought on, LeRoy directed some of the scenes, as did Cukor and Norman Taurog, and the Kansas scenes are well-known as having been directed by Vidor after Fleming went to work on GWTW.  So was Fleming more than just a replacement director or a fixer of movies gone astray? The best evidence that Fleming was a pretty good director on his own is Red Dust, a funny, sexy adventure romance that established Gable, especially when he was teamed with Jean Harlow, as a top box-office draw. Fleming demonstrates a sure hand with the material, keeping it from bogging down in melodramatic mush in the scenes between Gable and Mary Astor. The action is set in Hollywood's idea of a rubber plantation in French Indochina -- what Vietnam was called back when Americans were pronouncing Saigon as "SAY-gone," if the movie is to be trusted. Dennis Carson (Gable) manages the plantation when he is not being distracted by the arrival first of Vantine (Harlow), a shady lady, and then of Barbara Willis (Astor) and her husband, Gary (Gene Raymond), an engineer who has been sent to survey an expansion of the plantation. Carson and Vantine have been spending several weeks of unwedded bliss before the Willises arrive, but pretty soon he is making a play for Mrs. Willis, using the old trick of sending the husband off to survey the swamps while she remains behind. All of this is handled with delicious innuendo, possible only because the Production Code had not yet gone into effect: for example, the scene in which Vantine rinses off in a rain barrel while Carson looks on (and in), or the fact that Carson and Mrs. Willis's adultery goes unpunished except for a flesh wound. Both Harlow and Astor sashay around in improbable barely-there finery by Adrian. Fleming went on to make another pre-Code delight with Harlow, the screwball comedy Bombshell (1933), which alludes to the Hays Office's concerns about Red Dust. John Lee Mahin was screenwriter on both films, though some of the better lines in Red Dust were contributed by the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart. The movie is marred only for today's viewers by some period racism: the colonialist attitude toward the native laborers as "lazy" and the giggling Chinese houseboy played by Willie Fung.