In 1932 Jean Harlow was completely naked on-screen in the film Red Dust. She was only 21 at the time. Even more shocking was that while Red Dust was still in production, Jean Harlow murdered her husband, wealthy MGM executive Paul Bern, and got away with the crime. Like most Hollywood legends, this is a combination of fact and fantasy.
Let’s start with the murder. The fact is that Paul Bern did die of a gunshot wound while Red Dust was being filmed. The official story was that it suicide, but rumors swirled that Jean Harlow had killed him. After all, Jean Harlow had already gotten al she needed from Bern, who was twice her age. He had persuaded MGM to hire Harlow, and star her in Red Dust. Who needed him around after that?
In reality, Bern’s death almost cost Jean Harlow the role. MGM was aware of the murder rumors and wanted to dump Harlow from Red Dust. MGM offered the starring part to Tallulah Bankhead. However, Ms. Bankhead always had real class, and she refused to take a movie role away from a young woman whose husband had just died.
As an added twist to the tale, the most likely explanation is that Paul Bern actually was murdered, but not by Jean Harlow. Decades later, ex-cops and MGM security people admitted that Paul Bern was probably murdered by his ex-lover Dorthy Millette, who was mentally unbalanced. Dorthy Millette had been released from a mental institution the day before Paul Bern’s murder. The day after Paul Bern’s death Dorthy Millette herself committed suicide by jumping off a Ferryboat.
MGM’s people re-arranged the crime scene to make it look like a suicide, thinking that a suicide would somehow damage the company’s reputation less than a murder. They also created a bizarre hand-written suicide note. At the time of the supposed “suicide” very little police investigation was undertaken. Pointedly, the police did not have a handwriting expert examine the letter to see if it was really penned by Paul Bern. Such was the power of the major movie studios over the police in 1932.
There are also multiple stories about the naked bath. Anyone viewing Red Dust today will quickly see that Jean Harlow does not appear naked on screen. There is implied nudity, exhibitionism and voyeurism, but nothing is actually shown.
Red Dust is a story about love and sex on an isolated rubber plantation in French Indochina (current day Vietnam). Clark Gable is Dennis Carson, the owner of the plantation, and Jean Harlow is Vantine, a wild type who shows up from Saigon. It is strongly implied that Vantine is a prostitute on the run.
Dennis and Vantine seem perfect for each other since both are rough and sexually easy going, with the attitude that life should be fun. But this is complicated by the arrival of the married couple Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his wife Barbara (Mary Astor).
Dennis immediately falls for the beautiful sophisticated Barbara, despite the fact that she is a married woman. Vantine, knows that she can never compete with a woman like Barbara and is extremely jealous.
However, Red Dust is not known for its forgettable and formulaic plot, but rather for two scenes with Jean Harlow. The first is the naked bath scene where Vantine (Harlow) bathes naked in a rain barrel while Dennis (Gable) stands over her playing with her hair. Dennis is looking straight down into the barrel seeing Vantine nude. He is not even pretending to look away.
The implied sexuality in this scene is so blatant that many viewers of the film swore later that they really had seen Jean Harlow naked. In fact, Jean Harlow’s body is completely hidden by the barrel and the audience sees nothing. Clark Gable’s acting was so good that the look on his face convinced viewers that he really was was staring at a beautiful naked woman. In film it is often the implied actions that are the most erotic.
There is also the movie lore that Jean Harlow really was naked and that after the scene was shot, she stood up and got out of the barrel, giving giving the film crew a full view of her nude body. This is complete nonsense, but members of the film crew were able to get free drinks in Hollywood for years by claiming they had been on set when Jean Harlow paraded around nude.
However, it was another scene that really shocked 1932 audiences. Valentine is leaning back against Dennis and his arms are wrapped around her. Instead of having his arms discretely around her waist, Clark Gable’s arms are definitely around Jean Harlow’s voluptious breasts. There was nothing implied about this. It broke the unwritten rule of what could be shown touching what in a mainstream film, and one of the factors that lead to film censorship a few years later.
Red Dust is amazingly mild by today’s standards, and at the most would get a PG-13 rating. Critics have always panned the acting abilities of Jean Harlow, but considering the circumstances she did an amazing job. Here was a 21 year old woman who was able to perform, while at the same time having the general public whispering that she was a slut and murderer. It is incredible that she was able to take the pressures of that type of life and even show up to work.
Red Dust ends up being the type of film where the story about the movie is more interesting than the movie itself. Many one day someone will make a movie about the making of Red Dust. Now that would be worth seeing.
We rate Red Dust 4 Stars ****
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