‘Red Dust’ in ‘Bombshell’

October 1933 could well be the all-time high point of movies-it-movies. It marked the premiere of Wild Boys of the Road and Footlight Parade, as previously discussed, and also of Bombshell, which opened on the 13th. In my opinion, Bombshell isn’t as good a movie as the other two — it’s pretty mean and sour, and too long — but boy is it meta.

An MGM production directed by Victor Fleming (later to helm The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind), it stars Jean Harlow as Lola Burns, a Hollywood blonde “bombshell” (the movie coined the term) who’s based on part on Harlow herself and in part on Fleming’s ex-lover Clara Bow, aka “The It Girl.” (The phrase is applied to Lola in Bombshell.) The movie-in-movie comes at the start of the picture, after a very nifty and clever montage that shows a little of what goes into being a bombshell. And by the way, that’s the real boxer Primo Carnera sparring with Lola.

The clip we see is a Harlow-Clark Gable clinch from Red Dust, a Fleming MGM picture, set in French Indochina, released the year before. That’s enough to earn this post a “Watching yourself” tag, but soon things get even more self-referential, and weird. Lola is told that because of a request from the Hays Office, she needs to go into the studio to do “retakes on Red Dust.” But that doesn’t make sense! Red Dust is already done and dusted, so to speak; we’ve just seen it playing in the theater. The other strange thing is that before 1934, the Hays Office — the outfit headed by Will Hays that was supposed to keep Hollywood fare moral — had no authority to ask for retakes, or basically anything.

A sign of that is Bombshell itself, where we’re told that Lola is “supposed to wear the dress without the brassiere,” and most definitely does so. And where there’s double entendre dialogue galore. Journalist to Lola, praising the scheduling skills of the studio publicist played by Lee Tracy, with whom she has a romantic history: “He can always fit things in.” Lola, rolling her eyes: “He certainly can.”

Harlow in the barrel; director Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) consults the script.

One of the most famous examples of pre-Code laxity is the scene in Red Dust where Harlow, clearly naked, takes a bath in a rain barrel. And sure enough, that’s the scene that, in Bombshell, supposedly needs a retake. She shows up on the set, eyes the barrel, and says, “Back in Indochina again. Say, where’s Clark? Isn’t he working this with me.” The answer is no. Apparently, a Gable appearance would be too self-referential even for Bombshell.

3 thoughts on “‘Red Dust’ in ‘Bombshell’

  1. Ben Zimmer

    Love it! But it’s a bit of a stretch to say the movie coined the term “bombshell.” From my WSJ column last year:
    “[W]hile real bombshells were exploding on the battlefields of World War I, ‘bombshell’ took on more salacious shadings on the home front. The vaudeville entertainer Eva Tanguay was billed as ‘a bombshell of joy.’ (She also earned the labels ‘bombshell of energy’ and ‘bombshell of hilarity.’) Heywood Broun, writing in the New York Tribune in 1918, was hardly impressed. ‘Miss Tanguay is billed as a “bombshell,”‘ Broun wrote. ‘Would to Heaven she were, for a bomb is something which is carried to a great height and then dropped.’
    “Jean Harlow brought the term more notoriety in 1933, when she starred in a romantic comedy originally titled ‘Bombshell.’ It was re-christened ‘Blonde Bombshell,’ as movie columnist Louella Parsons explained at the time, because of ‘how many people thought this picture was a war story.’ Harlow is still remembered as the original ‘blonde bombshell.'”


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