Dennis Carson (Gable) manages a rubber plantation in French Indochina. A prostitute named Vantine (Harlow), who is seeking to avoid the authorities in Saigon, arrives at the plantation, having taken the boat upriver. She and Dennis flirt for a little bit before starting a relationship. That relationship is interrupted when engineer Gary Willis and his wife Barbara (Astor) arrive. Barbara is a classy, sophisticated lady, the exact opposite of the wisecracking Vantine. Dennis finds an excuse to send Gary on a difficult surveying expedition deep in the jungle, while Barbara, who stays behind, proves receptive to Dennis's charms.
Red Dust was a big hit for MGM, and it made Gable the most popular leading man in Hollywood. Gable and Harlow starred together several more times before Harlow's untimely death at the age of 26 in 1937. 21 years later, Gable again starred in The Remake, Mogambo, with Ava Gardner in the Harlow part and Grace Kelly in the Astor part. Red Dust has a place in the National Film Registry.
This movie provides examples of:
- Ambiguously Gay: Hoy is way too interested in Vantine's underwear. Vantine makes a remark about how "you even find them in the jungle".
- Asian Speekee Engrish: Hoy, Dennis's servant, is a very, very unfortunate stereotype, with the broken English, the servile attitude, and the bad teeth.
- Bathtub Scene: One of the most famous in movie history, possibly the Trope Maker, occurs when Vantine takes a bath in the rain barrel. Much to Dennis's consternation, she doesn't bother lowering the curtains around the rain barrel bath. (Legend has it that Harlow stood up and flashed the crew, causing director Fleming to confiscate the film.)
- Betty and Veronica: A typical example with the proper, reserved, high-class Barbara as Betty and the earthy, brassy, much less reserved Vantine as Veronica. Hair color inverted with a brunette Betty and blonde Veronica.
- Break Her Heart to Save Her: After Dennis finds out how much Gary loves Barbara and how unsuited she would be for the primitive conditions on the plantation, he decides that it'll be better for her if she remains with her husband. So he lies to her, saying that he never really cared for her and their affair was just a casual thing.
- Chinese Laborer: The "coolies" that work the rubber plantation. Dennis and the other whites in charge make some very racist comments about them.
- Deadpan Snarker: Vantine is constantly making sarcastic comments. She calls Barbara "the duchess".
- Drowning My Sorrows: Dennis gets drunk after he decides that he won't break up the Willises' marriage and end his affair with Barbara instead.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Vantine is a kind and affectionate person underneath the brassy, Deadpan Snarker exterior.
- Love Dodecahedron: Dennis finds himself having to choose between Barbara and Vantine, with Barbara's husband being a complicating factor.
- Major Injury Underreaction: Dennis after being shot by Barbara. Though he's seriously hurt and remains bedridden for a while, his immediate reaction is calmly saying: "All right. If that makes you feel any better."
- Malicious Misnaming: Inverted with Vantine and Dennis, who keep pretending not to know each other and calling each other "Lila" and "Fred".
- Motor Mouth: Vantine just will not stop blabbing, like when she's nattering on about what kinds of cheese she likes.Vantine: I like gorgonzola.Dennis: Is there any brand that will stop you from talking? I'll order a ton of it.
- Ms. Fanservice: Vantine apparently did not pack any bras in the bag she took with her to the rubber plantation.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Joan Crawford was originally cast but the studio disliked the affair she was having with Clark Gable, and removed her in an attempt to end it.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Dennis pulls Vantine onto his lap, they start kissing, and the camera pans away.
- Sexy Soaked Shirt: Much of this film is dedicated to making Jean Harlow look sexy, but Mary Astor gets some Fanservice of her own when Barbara and Dennis get caught out in the open during a monsoon.
- Toplessness from the Back: Happens with Harlow during the iconic Bathtub Scene.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: Dennis, wanting to dispatch Vantine after Barbara shows up, decides to treat her as a prostitute, and stuffs some money in the Compartment.
- When It Rains, It Pours: A monsoon drenches the plantation, and leads to Dennis and Barbara getting intimate.