Films show a thrilling, virile Gable with Harlow and Gardner

Critics' Picks : New Dvds

June 18, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

CLARK GABLE: THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION / / Warner Home Video / / $59.92

China Seas (1935) and Mogambo (1953), the two most entertaining movies of the six in Clark Gable: The Signature Collection, owe their existence to a movie that amazingly isn't in the box: Gable's breakthrough film, Red Dust (1932). The movie's screenwriter, John Lee Mahin, took credit with generations of historians for seeing Gable in Night Nurse (1931) and telling Red Dust producer, Hunt Stromberg, "There's this guy, my God, he's got the eyes of a woman and the build of a bull. He is really going to be something."

For Red Dust, it was natural to link up Gable with Jean Harlow, and under Victor Fleming's direction they struck comic-erotic sparks. Set on an Indochinese rubber plantation (Gable played the manager) and co-starring Harlow as a prostitute and Mary Astor as a cultured wife ready to be swept off her feet, Red Dust remains one of the great Hollywood pictures about love and adultery. Gable hit his cocksure stride as both a leader and a lover, and Harlow developed a walk that, as critic Gerald Weales put it in Canned Goods as Caviar, was "a marvel. It contains little of the teasing seductiveness that Hollywood sex goddesses are supposed to display. Her sexuality is direct and matter-of-fact; she moves like an athlete."

Red Dust was such a smash that MGM remade it with Gable twice: unofficially as China Seas and officially as Mogambo. In Tay Garnett's China Seas, Gable's the skipper of a bullion-laden steamer that gets targeted by pirates. Harlow is once again a good-time girl (though not the whore she was in Red Dust) and Rosalind Russell is his classy lost love, who turns up widowed and willing. Gable and Harlow remain as homegrown and wised-up as they were in Fleming's movie. They project the democratic, down-to-earth sexuality and smarts that made them ideal fantasy figures for Depression-era audiences. Neither as raffish nor as vivid or emotionally complex as Red Dust, China Seas still has laughs and thrills to spare. So, miraculously, does John Ford's Mogambo, made 21 years after Red Dust, with Gable in the same romantic role (this time as a Great White Hunter in Africa), Grace Kelly in the Astor-Russell part as the up-to-no good wife, and Ava Gardner as a more glam version of the Harlow gal-who's-been-around. Kelly and Gardner spar with comic brio, and Gable holds up his corner of the triangle. He'd long ago proven his deftness at this kind of show. What energized his performance was that his screenwriter -- Mahin again (who'd also done the final draft of China Seas) -- turned Gable's character into a homage to Fleming, the director who made Gable what he was. Mahin even called the character "Vic."

* Special features: The other movies in the set are San Francisco, Dancing Lady, Boom Town and Wife Vs. Secretary. The biggest extra is the documentary, Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome, with Liam Neeson as host. Neeson's own Gable-like virility and his magnificent Gaelic lilt are the best things about it. Originally aired on TNT a decade ago, it's a breezy yet woefully superficial introduction to the star's most famous movies. It glides quickly over Gable's hard-knocks origins, though they're part of what made him a sensation. Gable had grown up on an Ohio farm. He'd worked part-time as a garage mechanic and labored as a rigger and tool dresser and cleanup man at Oklahoma oil wells and refineries. American moviegoers responded to him so directly because they thought he was one of them. Also, the documentary sketches in MGM's star-making skills without acknowledging how director Fleming in Red Dust and Test Pilot (1938) laid down patterns that Gable brought to apotheosis when Fleming took over Gone With the Wind. Still, for novices, Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome offers a quick trot through the reign of Hollywood's "King."

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SAN FRANCISCO / / Warner Home Video / / $19.97

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