This month’s film is the 1953 jungle romance-adventure Mogambo.
The most interesting thing about this film is that it is a remake of Red Dust, with Clark reprising his role. What man could reprise the leading role of the jungle Lothario twenty years later? Only Clark Gable, of course.
Gable is Victor Marswell, who earns his living in Africa by trapping wild animals for zoos and carnivals. His no-nonsense way of life is interrupted by the arrival of Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (Ava Gardner), a sassy showgirl from New York who is stranded there. They clash at first but soon are bedfellows. Just as Honey Bear leaves, anthropologist Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) and his lovely wife, Linda (Grace Kelly) arrive. Honey Bear’s boat wrecks and when she returns to camp, she finds that Victor now only has eyes for Linda. Heartbroken, she watches their affair unfold behind Donald’s back.
This film was a big hit for MGM–actually the biggest hit of Clark’s career since Gone with the Wind. He was relieved that the picture made money; none of his post-war films had been blockbusters. Much of it’s appeal was the fact that it was actually shot on location in Africa. Audiences of the 1950’s were becoming bored with mainstream moviefare as they could see the same thing at home on their newly acquired television sets. They wanted new and exciting things to draw them into the movie theaters. Mogambo certainly delivered that!
Clark is older, grayer and heavier, of course, but the film is no less steamier. I don’t really find myself comparing it to Red Dust when I watch it, as the films are similar really only in their floorplans–the decoration is all different. But there are a few notable comparisons.
The biggest difference between Red Dust and Mogambo would be that while Red Dust‘s Indochina was constructed completely on MGM’s backlot, Mogambo was filmed on location in Nairobi and Uganda. Clark filmed this during his two-year tax exile in which he also filmed Never Let Me Go and Betrayed. Only the last few weeks of filming took place in a sound stage in London. He was excited about filming in Africa, although he had trepidations about the journey, as his flight from Rome to Nairobi was the first plane he had boarded since Carole Lombard’s death in 1942.
The landscapes are beautiful–truly they could not have been faked on a soundstage. The lack of music isn’t noticeable although I do find myself tiring of the African chanting by the end. The footage of animals that is randomly interspersed into the action is rather laughable–especially the shots of the gorillas they are supposed to be hunting. It is rather obvious that they are shouting to the actors to “look afraid!” of invisible gorillas and then the grainy footage of wild gorillas is inserted. But no matter.
Clark was pretty happy for the most part on the set, as he spent a lot of time at the nearby animal preserve and would rise early to go hunting. He butted heads several times with brutish director John Ford. By the time the shoot moved from the African jungle to the British soundstages, the two were hardly speaking.
Ava Gardner is perfect in the role of Honey Bear, handling equally the challenge of playing a woman who is carefree in spirit but also covering a broken heart.
Grace Kelly is stoic, prim and proper and so wide-eyed, like a child. I can’t blame her as she plays the role as written. If you were to compare her role to Mary Astor’s in Red Dust, you would find many differences. Mary’s adulterous wife was prim at the beginning but as the film went on she became sexier and sexier; her stolen moments with Clark are steamy. You understand Clark’s desire to toss aside the too-easily-attainable Jean Harlow for the more hidden sexiness of Mary. Whereas in Mogambo I find myself wondering who in the world would cast aside fun-loving Ava for Grace with her chirpy accent and eye-batting innocence.
It is rather funny that there is more chemistry between Ava and Clark than Grace and Clark, as Grace was spending a lot of her time in Clark’s tent after hours. Grace was only 24 when this was filmed and Clark was 52. She was still a budding star and was in awe of him from the beginning. She said, “There were two reasons I did Mogambo: a free trip to Africa and Clark Gable. If it had been filmed in Arizona, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Grace fell desperately in love with Clark, which became commonplace for her to do with later male co-stars as well such as Bing Crosby and William Holden, and her intense attraction frightened off Clark. At first, he found her a great companion–beautiful, blonde and up for anything, she would rise early with him to go hunting. Their relationship quickly cooled when Grace’s mother joined her in England for the sound stage filming. You can read more about their short relationship here.
Ava Gardner is one of those women that I can’t say whether or not her and Clark ever shared sheets. They seemed to have more of a buddy-buddy relationship and she wasn’t really his type–looks-wise. If they did, it definitely wasn’t on the set of Mogambo. Ava’s husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, flew in to spend the shoot with her. When the shoot extended over Christmas, MGM flew in food and Frank sang Christmas carols to entertain the cast and crew. While Clark and Grace were spending “quiet time” in Clark’s tent, Ava and Frank were anything but quiet in their tent–screaming at each other at all hours of the night. Sick of the constant fighting, Frank left before the shoot was over–also to do a screen test for a little film called From Here to Eternity. Soon after his departure, Ava’s scenes were put on hold as she flew to London to have an abortion. “I hated him so much then that I wanted his child to go unborn,” she later said.
Ava wasn’t the only one to go missing. Clark also delayed production when he ran a fever and developed a gum infection. He had to return to Los Angeles to have his dentist correct the problem.
No Oscar nod for Clark, but Ava was nominated for Best Actress and Grace for Best Supporting Actress the following year. Neither won, but at MGM’s urging Clark escorted Grace to the ceremony.