90 Years of MGM- 1932’s Red Dust and 1953’s Mogambo

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mogamboThe battle of the sexes! The battle of the gorillas!

These two films basically follow the same general plot but as pieces of entertainment are as different as a hurricane and a drought.

And, although this is a reposting of an old post from a few years ago, we have one important change to announce. Unlike back in 2009, when we reported that Red Dust wasn’t yet available on DVD, it now is available. Thankfully this great pre-code classic can now be gotten with a few mere clicks of the mouse. To make matters even better, the film looks outstanding, definitely benefiting from some remastering. Although it had always been rumored that the original prints were too damaged for a release, the new MOD looks outstanding. Pick it up from The WB Shop.

142654red-dust-postersMade by MGM, both tell the story of a rather remote outpost (and a male only one at that) becoming the center of a feisty love triangle. In Red Dust the setting is a rubber plantation in French Indo-China, where in Mogambo we are stranded in the depths of Africa on what can only be explained as an animal wrangling operation. Here wild animals are captured and prepared for shipping to zoos, circuses, and the like. Definitely not the 2008 politically correct place to be.

mogambo-1953-00-40-15913The local overseer and the man in the center of the love triangle is played by Clark Gable in both pictures- and definitely looks the worse for wear in the latter effort. (Although the knee high khaki socks in Mogambo almost save the day.) Life in both cases proceeds as normal until the arrival of a solitary woman who immediately begins a torrid relationship with Gable. In Red Dust the woman is an on-the-run prostitute played by Jean Harlow and the later film sports Ava Gardner, whose profession is best described as ‘showgirl.’

Once that love connection is made, a young couple arrives. It’s a new employee and his wife in the earlier picture and a roving anthropologist and his wife in Mogambo. The man in these newly arrived couples mean little as their only purpose is to fall immediately direly ill to permit Gable and their respective wives to become completely smitten, thus completing the final point in our triangle. Red Dust’s Mary Astor does well playing a refined and sophisticated wife but Mogambo’s Grace Kelly is a train wreck, but more on that later.

After a while the husbands recover (thank goodness!) and Gable decides to fess up on his breaking up of their marriages. However in both cases he takes the honorable way out and instead destroys his relationship with the wife and returns to the open arms of his original love.

Neither film is a true classic, but Victor Fleming’s (a drinking pal of Gable’s) work clearly shows in Red Dust. The picture is lively and Gable, Harlow, and Astor all turn in good performances. Gable seems to shout his way through the first reel or too and Harlow sounds quite shrill, but those drawbacks can be overlooked. Both Gable and Harlow exude a raw sexuality that seems to fit with the theme of the picture. If only Gardner could do the same!

red-dust-1932-00-12-46000Red Dust is a bit racier, being a pre-code picture. For example the scene of Harlow showering in the barrel would not have cleared the censors a scant few years later. Amazingly as originally shot Red Dust likely would have been racier still – after Harlow’s husband of two months committed suicide in the middle of filming all of her work to that point was reshot. The newly filmed material featured higher necklines and lower hemlines on Harlow’s wardrobe.

The only severe drawback to Red Dust is the insanely racist depiction of the plantation’s Asian workers as lazy, grinning, and stupid. Even an appreciation of the standards of the time doesn’t help to assuage the blatant symbolism inherent in the film.

Mogambo’s strong point is that it doesn’t depict Asians in a racist way at all; it simply has no Asians in the picture. Mogambo is pretty unwatchable. None of the three leads (Gable, Gardner, or Kelly) seem overly attached to their roles and the whole lot seem to be just going through the motions. Where exactly was director John Ford in this mess? Gable looks too old to play his part; Gardner fails utterly to generate any of the tension one felt between Gable and Harlow twenty odd years earlier (perhaps aided by current husband Frank Sinatra‘s constant presence on set). And Grace Kelly seems rather ditzy with a slight English accent to boot.

mogambo-1953-01-26-59280The great gorilla hunt which should be the climax of Mogambo quickly becomes a farce. The gorilla footage was obviously shot at a different time and the human equivalent is clearly shot on a set rather on location. Ummmm, and beware of the feared African pineapple. If you look in the gorilla footage the gorillas are actually eating PINEAPPLE, which is not native to any part of Africa. But again, perhaps this is a colorized outtake from Red Dust, as pineapples do at least grow in Southeast Asia. And although there probably was no realistic alternative at the time, there is an overabundance of rear projection during the finale.

And not to be overly picky but during that great storm that strikes as Gable and Kelly return to the main house pay close attention to the wind. The large trees further away are bent almost double with the force of the wind but the fairly nondescript vegetation close to the house is standing straight up- and the woven porch blinds show narry a ripple of breeze.

johnfordBut despite most of its flaws Mogambo has its die hard fans- and it definitely didn’t hurt anyone’s career at the time. Gable, who was by then on the downside of his career, still had ten pictures left to make. John Ford still had 18 features to film, including the classic The Searchers. Grace Kelly was just getting started and still had the bulk of her career ahead of her- and in spite of her horrid performance here she did win a Golden Globe for it. And Ava Gardner too had most of her career yet to come.

So if forced to watch Mogambo, remember that no one’s career was harmed in the making of the picture. Try to refocus your torturer on watching Red Dust instead, it will be a much more enjoyable experience.


This post is part of a celebration of MGM’s 90th Anniversary hosted by the great folks at Silver Scenes. Check out all of the great contributions by clicking that cool graphic (the one with Charlton Heston) or by clicking here.

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4 thoughts to “90 Years of MGM- 1932’s Red Dust and 1953’s Mogambo”

  1. It’s been so many years since I’ve seen Red Dust I had completely forgotten that it took place in Indo-China…I only remember being shocked that Mary Astor was playing a straying wife ( I had only seen her in her mid-1940s MGM mother roles ). I read some place that Clark Gable/Jean Harlow were filming the outdoor shower scene in Red Dust when she got the news that Paul Bern was dead. Somehow Mogambo just wasn’t able to pull off the punch that the original had. I think MGM was slipping a bit already at this stage, when they were resorting to remaking a lot of their former hits. A little side note : I always enjoy the scene in The Courtship of Eddies Father when Glenn Ford is watching Mogambo on TV and his lips are moving as he’s watching Gable/Kelly embrace. Such a nice little touch. Thanks for reposting this great review of a truly iconic MGM classic. Red Dust that is….

  2. Red Dust over Mogambo hands down! Besides adoring Harlow in the original I have to admit my stomach turns over the 1950s habit of pairing old leading men with 20-something leading ladies. Great post – very entertaining and informative.

  3. Admittedly, I have not seen “Red Dust”, but everyone says it is the better movie. However, I have tried to watch “Mogambo” a few times and, although I love the wardrobe, it is a pretty unwatchable movie. (You asked a good question: Just where WAS John Ford?)

    Your comparison has prompted me to get off my behind and locate a copy of “Red Dust” once and for all!

  4. Whoa, you’ve been hard to Mogambo! I wathced it in an special to honor Gable in the 50th anniversary of his passing, in 2010. Plot-wise, I rather enjoyed it, ven being an anomalous picture in John Ford’s filmography. But it is hard to compete with Red Dust, with Harlow, and with a younger and sexier Gable.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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