For this week’s post, we’re digging into some of the films of Jean Harlow. And coincidentally, covering some Clark Gable as well. Jean Harlow was known as a major sex symbol in her films in the 1930s. Sadly, she died of a sudden illness (likely kidney failure, but I couldn’t find consistent sources on this) in 1937 when she was only 26. It’s hard telling how her career would have developed over the years, but she was a major star in the 1930s. To the point that she’s still remembered today. Actors and directors with decades long careers are often forgotten. The fact the Harlow was famous for only 7 years and is still remembered is astonishing. This week’s films are:
Victor Fleming – Red Dust (1932)
Sam Wood – Hold Your Man (1933)
This post will also sadly have to mourn the loss of FilmStruck, the film streaming service that I use to source a lot of the films on this blog. We’ll talk more about that in the reflection.
Let’s get into it.
Red Dust (1932)
A prostitute, Vantine, wanders into a rubber plantation and starts what she thinks is a relationship with the foreman, Dennis Carson. She leaves just as a new employee, Gary, arrives with his young, attractive wife, Barbara. Carson uses his power as foreman to send Gary off on a long job far away from camp, and uses the time to seduce Barbara. But when he falls in love with her, will he be able to steal her away for good?
The film is directed by Victor Fleming, who went on to direct some of the greatest films of all time, including Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. The film stars Jean Harlow as Vantine, and Clark Gable as Dennis Carson. Harlow was a star from the moment she appeared on screen, and Gable definitely would have been well-known at this point. But he hadn’t appeared in his legendary roles like It Happened One Night, or Gone With the Wind yet.
The film is set on a rubber plantation in southeast Asia. I imagine that this film played very differently in 1932, but 80 years later, it is abrasively racist and sexist. The Asian workers are all portrayed as lazy and dumb. Carson and his white coworkers constantly comment on it, and they have to remain constantly vigilant or else the workers will just stop working anytime there isn’t a white person telling them what to do. In one scene, Carson physically moves workers towards the work to get them working. And the one Asian person with a speaking role is the cook, Hoy, who is portrayed as so dumb he might be mentally disabled. It’s the sort of thing that can be understood, but not forgotten, and is really grating to a modern audience.
This film is also pre-code, which leads us to some plotlines we wouldn’t normally get. For example, Vantine is a prostitute. This isn’t something we would really get in a Hays era film. Also, she has sex with Carson with no preamble. Just a bit of banter, and then she jumps into bed with him. In a later scene, when she’s leaving, he explicitly pays her for the sex. This is an interesting moment, because Vantine tries to refuse the money, essentially signalling that she saw their relationship as romantic, rather than transactional. But Carson disabuses her of that notion very quickly and efficiently.
It’s also almost impossible for me not to look at this film through a feminist lens. As you might know if you read this blog regularly, I’m a PhD student, and some of my work is related to feminist theory. This isn’t necessarily about women exclusively, it’s about power relationships, and in this film, the women have no power. We have Vantine, who arrives at the camp running away from some trouble in another city. And when Gary arrives, he brings his wife Barbara. It’s clear that Barbara assumed that she would live in some kind of grand mansion while the workers sweat and toil all day. But when she arrives, she realizes that while the white people have some luxuries that the workers don’t, they’re still in the middle of the jungle, and live in something not much better than a hut.
Another pre-code aspect of the film is that there are no heroes here. Carson is portrayed as a truly awful person. He isn’t heroic. He’s good at his job, but he is cruel to his workers, including the other white men in the party. He treats Vantine as an object, and when Barbara arrives, he quickly decides to take her for himself, and plots a way to make it happen.
When Gary and Barbara arrive, Carson sees immediately that he’s sick, and that he needs medical attention. He gives specific instructions to Barbara and then heads off for the day. But Barbara is terrified. She’s just arrived in a strange place that she was completely unprepared for, and a strange man just told her her husband was deeply ill, and could die from his illness. She’s beside herself. But Carson plays the tough guy, even seeming to enjoy it when she slaps him.
But the next day, when Gary’s illness is at a critical stage, Carson stays with him, providing good medical care. This earns Barbara’s respect, and Carson begins working on her. Meanwhile, the boat that Vantine was on crashed, and she returns to camp, trapped there for more than a month. Carson and the others are concerned that Barbara will be offended that a prostitute is at the camp.
The interactions between Barbara and Vantine are interesting. Vantine starts out by lying about why she’s there, feeding her a story about her brother living at a nearby plantation. Barbara, to her credit doesn’t believe it at all. Initially, their interactions are cold and sniping. Vantine knows that Carson wants Barbara, and is rejecting her, so there’s some jealousy here.
Once Gary is healed, he goes to work, and Carson offers to take Barbara on a tour of the plantation. He turns on the charm, and when they get caught in a massive storm, he carries her to the hut, and into her room. He’s holding her in his arms, and when she asks him to put her down, he refuses, and kisses her. It seems clear it’s against her will, but looking at the power dynamic, how could she refuse him? She’s all alone in the room, and this is her husband’s boss. What will happen to her and her husband if she refuses? Will he lose his job? Will Barbara be raped? It seems her best option is simply to let him kiss her and hope that it ends there.
After he leaves, Barbara is confronted by Vantine, who implicitly knows everything happened. Barbara suggests she should have stopped him, and Vantine does some victim blaming, telling her she didn’t hear any cries for help. In some ways, Vantine begins talking Barbara in to the idea of pursuing things with Carson, making it seem like she really does want him.
That evening, Carson puts the rest of his plan into motion. He assigns Gary and the other workers to build a road far away from the camp, a project that will take 3 weeks. The veteran employees object, explaining that it’s a terrible idea, since the rains have already started. Carson dismisses their concerns. When Gary suggests he’ll take Barbara with him, Carson explains it will be very rough living, and that Barbara would be more comfortable there.
Vantine sees through all of this, and when everyone else is gone, she calls Carson out. He doesn’t deny what he’s trying to do, essentially just tells her to keep it quiet.
The film cuts out some time, and when we come back in, it is several weeks later, and Carson and Barbara have already been sleeping together for some time. But at this point, it isn’t a tawdry fling, Carson and Barbara are in a relationship, and they are planning their life together. Carson gets called out to the remote camp to help with an issue, and he tells Barbara that he will reveal everything to Gary when he gets there.
But when he does, Gary does nothing but talk about Barbara, and all the plans they’ve made. He tells him about the property they’ve purchased, the kids they’re going to have, and how he couldn’t live without her. Carson finally starts acting like a human, and feels some amount of guilt. He and Gary kill a tiger that’s been attacking the camp, and Carson heads back immediately, which is suspicious to all the men in the camp. One of them mentions to Gary how it’s obvious that Carson is sleeping with his wife, and Gary sneaks out of the camp to see for himself.
Back at the camp, Carson confides in Vantine that he has to end things with Barbara. He paints himself as the victim, even though everything bad that is happening is entirely his fault. Vantine takes the opportunity to comfort him and get him to come back to her, and they start play fighting and kissing. Barbara hears the commotion and comes out of the bedroom with a gun for protection. In order to ‘fix’ things, Carson makes a big show of telling Barbara that he never had feelings for her, and that he’s not a one woman man. He is exceptionally cruel, to the point the Barbara eventually shoots him in the side. At this point, Gary walks in, wondering why everyone is so heated, and why his wife shot Carson.
Carson here does something kind, taking the blame for her anger, and maintaining the fiction that Barbara didn’t accept his passes. He claims he made a pass at her and she refused. Vantine backs him up, claiming that Carson has been making moves on her for weeks, and Barbara finally had enough. This allows Barbara to remain virtuous in Gary’s eyes, and go back to her normal life.
The film ends with Vantine taking care of Carson, nursing him back to health, and the two fall in love. This could be read as a happy ending, I suppose, but we’ll examine it more later.
Hold Your Man (1933)
Eddie is a con man working the streets. When one of his cons goes bad, he has to hide in the apartment of Ruby, a beautiful young woman who has her own cons. She agrees to hide him, and they strike up a friendship, and then a relationship. But when a scam they run together goes very wrong, Ruby is sent to prison, and Eddie goes on the run. Will they be able to reunite before Eddie is caught?
The film is directed by Sam Wood, who had a really nice career, but isn’t really remembered as one of the all-time greats. The film again stars Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. In this, their importance is flipped from the previous film. Harlow is clearly the star, and the film is centered on her. This film is also clearly being affected by the Hays code. We’ll talk more about this in the comparison, but one important aspect of the Hays code was the idea that any crime depicted had to be punished. Criminals on film either had to suffer consequences, or be reformed by the end of the film. That’s exactly what happens here.
We start off the film with Eddie running a scam which will look familiar to anyone who’s a fan of Better Call Saul. And considering how big a plot point it is for Jimmy/Saul to love classic film, it’s entirely possible he got the idea from watching this scene. Eddie manipulates another man into finding a wallet with him at the same time. Neither considers returning it, and they sneak off to see what’s in it and split it. There are only a few dollars there, but they find a diamond ring inside of it. Eddie contrives an appraisement from his accomplice standing in front of a pawn shop. Eddie convinces the man to pay him for half the value of the ring, then sell it. The man agrees.
Of course, the ring is worth nothing, and the man quickly finds out, grabbing a police officer and chasing Eddie. Eddie runs into an apartment building and starts trying doors. He enters an apartment and looks for somewhere to hide, opening the bathroom door to find Ruby. Harlow had a reputation as a temptress and sex symbol, and this is the second of two films that I watched for this post that had a scene with her suggestively nude in a bathtub.
Eddie quickly talks her into helping him. She agrees quickly, which seems strange, until we get further into the film and see she is something of a con artist herself. He hides in the bathroom, and when the police show up, he manages to cover his face in suds and pretend he is someone else. He manages to get away with it. He immediately starts flirting with Ruby as she helps him dry off his clothes.
What’s interesting here is that Ruby isn’t a shrinking violet. She has lots of agency in this film. When Eddie looks around, he sees pictures of men that devote themselves to Ruby, including a prize fighter and a firefighter, among others. When he hits on her, she doesn’t helplessly fall into his arms, she rejects him. When he offers to kiss her, she threatens him with the hot iron.
But she shows her affection in other ways. They part without any way to contact each other, but Eddie mentioned a club where he was a regular. Ruby takes Al, a man she’s dating, but really she’s scamming him to the club, hoping to see Eddie. Al is earnest and caring. He genuinely likes Ruby. Which sadly makes him the perfect mark. Ruby throws her purse away and tells Al that her rent money was there and that she doesn’t know what to do. He of course gives her the money.
That night, Eddie comes in, and Ruby calls him over, calling him an old friend. They make an excuse to dance, and Eddie suggests she should pretend to be sick, and then come to his house for the night. She acts indignant, but when she returns to the table, she does exactly that, claiming that she doesn’t feel good and needs to go home. Eddie scams Al out of $10 while pretending to engage in a friendly wager for the bill. Later that night, she visits Eddie.
Again, she shows her agency by staying wary of Eddie. She claims she has two rules when visiting, avoid couches and stay on her feet. Additionally, she complains that he scammed her date. Not because of the scam, but because he was her mark. Eddie responds by cutting her in.
During this scene, several of Eddie’s friends come to visit, including Gypsy, the other woman he’s been seeing. She and Ruby get into a fight. She slaps Ruby, and Ruby punches her. After the group leaves, Ruby tries to leave herself, but Eddie uses some unsavory tactics to keep her there, eventually forcing a kiss on her. She doesn’t seem to object, but scenes like this put the idea in men’s heads that even when women say no, they really mean yes. But in the world of the film, Ruby was just playing hard to get, and everyone is satisfied in the morning.
That morning, Eddie is approached by his normal accomplice and another conman on what they say is an easy job. While discussing it, Ruby discovers that Gypsy was arrested the night before. Eddie jumps at the chance to do the job, and is arrested and sent to jail for a month. Ruby stays in his apartment and takes care of things, showing her commitment to him.
When he returns, Ruby is there waiting for him. She contrives a way for Eddie to find a letter from one of her lovers, and Eddie and his accomplice Slim decide to use Ruby to run a scam on him.
Here’s where the film turns, as the man is a bit too smart to fall for the scam, and Eddie gets angry when he insults Ruby. He punches the man shoving him out the door. Unfortunately for Eddie, the man falls awkwardly, suffering a head injury, and dying. Eddie and Ruby go off to get a marriage license, and return to a swarm of police officers around their apartment building. One of the neighbors sees Ruby’s platinum blond hair, and the police chase and catch her while Eddie runs.
Ruby is sent to a ‘boarding house’, but it’s more of a cross between a prison and a reeducation camp. The women there haven’t really committed crimes, but they’re more ‘women behaving badly. Ruby is there for some kind of role in the death of this man, or possibly just for having a relationship with a married man. Another woman is there for being a socialist. Yeah, that appears to be her only crime. Wanting to tell people about her socialist beliefs. Of course, the film doesn’t take her seriously, and she’s portrayed as a crazy person who turns every conversation into one about the glorious destruction of capitalism.
Gypsy is also there. We know that her crime was taking off her clothes in public. She renews her rivalry with Ruby, and she is as cruel as possible. But Ruby is up to the challenge. In addition, this film has a black woman with a speaking part. This is really interesting, because in the era, black people were only seen on film as servants, and rarely with speaking parts. But here, we see Lily Mae, a black female prisoner. She’s not portrayed as evil, or dumb, but as sympathetic, and mostly an equal to the others. Though when Gypsy leaves the prison, she uses a strange racial slur to her and lets her know she’s the only one of her kind she ever liked.
In the prison, the women are given classes in sewing and baking, revealing the traditional roles they want to indoctrinate these women into. Up to this point, Ruby has been a completely non-standard female character. She is in charge of her own life, and doesn’t depend on men for anything. But the authorities see these women as a threat, and work to force them into their traditional roles.
Ruby discovers she is pregnant while in prison. Most of the other women try to take care of her, while Gypsy laughs at her. Gypsy is really cast as a major villain in the story.
Eventually, a visiting day arrives, and Eddie takes a huge risk, sneaking in as the brother of another inmate in order to see Ruby. Unfortunately, Ruby decided to take the punishment for another woman who had torn a hymnal, putting her in solitary.
This leads to an extended sequence where the inmates band together to help get Ruby out of solitary so that she can see Eddie, while Eddie tries to get a priest visiting his daughter to marry them. The priest is Lily May’s father, and again the film portrays a black person as kind, thoughtful, and wise. Definitely not the norm in this era. After initially wanting to follow the rules, he finally agrees to perform the ceremony.
The couple is finally reunited, and just have time to finish the marriage ceremony before the police bust in and arrest Eddie.
The film cuts forward several years, when Eddie is released from prison. They have both decided to go straight, and Ruby’s old mark Al has offered Eddie a job in Cincinnati. The former criminals are now redeemed, and fully indoctrinated into the heteronormative roles that society demands of them.
The Double Feature
In this post, we have two wildly different films, separated by a year. One had very few restrictions, while the other was certainly affected by the Hays code. It produces two very different films. In one, the villain of the film is rewarded with a loving partner at the end. In the other, both halves of the couple are sent to prison, and must change drastically in order to earn their happy ending.
In Red Dust, the film makes a value judgment of it’s characters and decides that the adulterer and the prostitute are perfect for each other, while the housewife is allowed to escape, continuing her idyllic life, far away from the hellish world occupied by Carson and Vantine. This film is essentially about how women are used and manipulated by men, and must use whatever methods they have available in order to survive. Vantine only has her freedom because she sells her body. Barbara is attached to Gary, but when claimed by Carson, she doesn’t have agency to say no. She is only able to go back to Gary when Carson makes a conscious decision to release her. Carson’s deception, taking the blame for everything that happened is a kindness. Vantine supports the fiction, because that’s simply how women must operate in this world. If Barbara admits that she participated in the adultery, her life is largely over. There’s also a risk that if she claims she was raped, her life also might be over. All she can do is go along with the fiction, and count it as a blessing.
In Hold Your Man, Ruby is essentially free. She owes nothing to anyone, and has managed to use her beauty and wits to survive in the world. She is able to choose the man she wants. There’s a fascinating scene while she’s in prison when Al comes to see her, and tells her that she will be allowed to leave prison if she agrees to marry him. This is just trading one prison for another. She refuses, because it goes against her arc. She is independent, and when she makes herself dependent, it’s because she chooses to do so. And as I mentioned above with more than a little bit of snark, the ending of the film places Eddie and Ruby into the polite society that they’ve been on the outside of for the entire film. Stories have always been an important method for giving society a set of rules to follow, and spreading those rules, and the Hays code was very effective at spreading the rules that certain elements of society wanted encoded into culture.
As for Jean Harlow herself, she’s certainly interesting to watch on film. I don’t know if I can call her a great actress, but it’s impossible to imagine where her career would have gone if she had survived through the 1940s, when film’s golden age really started cooking. It’s too bad we never got to see what she would end up doing.
This has been a really sad week for me, as I learned that Filmstruck, the film streaming service for classic films is being shut down. News reports about it kind of make it seem like it’s not a financial problem, but more just boredom from the parent company. They just don’t care. I’ve been running this blog for about 18 months now, and Filmstruck was a major part of it. Whenever I wasn’t inspired by my personal collection, I was always able to find something strange and interesting on FilmStruck. This blog will certainly suffer from it’s loss. I’ll of course keep the blog going. But pairings like the one above just won’t be possible. It will put a lot of pressure on my personal collection, which I’ve already covered in a lot of posts. And I’m not in a position to simply purchase whatever films I want to cover every week. In general, my blog will probably be a lot more boring going forward. A lot more obvious pairings. I’m thoroughly gutted by the loss of FilmStruck.
I’m still here in Amsterdam, and I feel a little lost trying to pick films for next week. But since FilmStruck was unceremoniously murdered, let’s pick a couple of mystery films involving murders. Next week’s films are:
Frank Capra – Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
George Pollock – Murder…She Said (1961)
Both mysteries around murder, both comedies, one of which stars an all-time classic mystery character, the other a classic in several mediums.
See you next week.