Quick Takes are brief capsule reviews, quickly written and quickly read.
Victor Fleming’s Red Dust was released in October 1932; by that time the following year, he made a whole new picture starring the same actress that is a virtual parody of her life, even including a significant portion in which she’s shooting a scene from Red Dust. That’s how fast the 1930s moved. More than just a fun riff on their prior masterpiece, Fleming and Jean Harlow use this seeming trifling set-up to thoroughly eviscerate the machine that made them both wildly successful.
Harlow plays the overworked, overcrowded, overambitious Lola Burns, whose inner and outer life is manipulated at every turn by E.J. Hanion (Lee Tracy), the publicity man who never sleeps. Their relationship is essentially abusive, as he creates elaborate scenarios out of thin air to keep her beautiful, single, and in the headlines, no matter how bad the headlines may be. She falls for them because they reflect her desires, not especially for a lasting relationship or a family, but to live parts she plays or would like to play onscreen. She is worldly and graceful around her European suitor, assumes a Madonna stance when a baby is considered, and enthusiastically affects the manner of a housewife-to-be when a ladies’ magazine comes calling. Even when she’s deep into one especially-dreamlike romance, claiming to have left the movie business, she has to turn on the radio to make sure she has the right musical score to accompany her reverie. Like Lola, Harlow pushed hard (and quite successfully) in the coming years for more diverse roles, but Bombshell has her right in her element, flipping her wild hair and attacking the world’s chaos head on. It’s a virtual real-time portrait that offers tremendous sympathy to a young woman too constantly embroiled in chaos to allow her to even consider how the movies have warped her mind.
Harlow doesn’t take the only hits here – Bombshell was adapted from an unproduced play, and was more directly commenting on Clara Bow, the It Girl of the late silent era. One of Lola Burns’ many suitors is director James Brogan (Pat O’Brien), himself a sort of noncommittal instigator, and the director of the Red Dust they’re making within the film. Fleming, who directed both real films, was himself engaged to Clara Bow. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.