Mogambo (1953): John Ford’s Romantic Adventure, Starring Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Both Oscar Nominated)

One of Clark Gable’s most popular films of the 1950s, Mogambo is John Ford’s remake of the 1932 feature, Red Dust, directed by Victor Fleming, which had also starred Gable.

MGM’s prestige release, made on a budget of $3 million, generated huge profits at the box office: over $8 million.  It was the 11th most commercial film of 1953.

John Ford works from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, who also wrote the first version.

This colorful, lively and enjoyable remake displays three stars at the top of their form: Ava Gardner in the role that Jean Harlow played in 1932, Grace Kelly in the one played by Mary Astor, and Gable as the man caught in between.

Reprising his lead role, Gable plays Vic Marswell, a macho white hunter and safari-leader, who’s dissatisfied when his Kenyan headquarters are invaded by Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (Ava Gardner in her only Oscar-nominated role), a vivacious American show girl he’s trying to forget.  Honey Bear’s attraction, however, overcomes Marswell’s initial hesitation, and the couple are soon together again.

A further interruption occurs upon the arrival of Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden), a British anthropologist, with his beautiful wife Linda (Grace Kelly), whom Marswell has been engaged to escort into the gorilla country.

Nordley does not notice the immediate attraction that his wife feels for Marswell; Honey Bear is the only one who immediately becomes aware of the situation.

Unfortunately, a series of accidents prevents her departure, and then makes it necessary for her to go on the safari.

The affair between Marswell and Linda becomes more serious as the journey proceeds. Honey Bear continues to make malicious wisecracks, forcing Marswell to admit the truth to Nordley.

However, the naïvete and trust of the young Britisher proves to be touching for the hard-boiled American (who has never been married), and he cannot bring himself to shatter the former’s illusions.  Later on, Marswell even saves Nordley’s life when he is attacked by a gorilla.

Returning to camp, Marswell sends Linda back to her husband by pretending that the affair was just a diversion for him. Predictably, he ends up with Honey Bear again as his girl.

The film strikes the right balance between being a romantic melodrama and a safari adventure, mixing thrilling outdoor scenes with more intimate interior sequences.

Contributing to the film’s overall impact is the on-location shooting, in Okalataka, French Congo, Mount Kenya, Lake Naivasha and others.

The music in Mogambo was performed by local native tribes, which was unusual for a mainstream Hollywood movie.

Gable had played similar “macho” roles before, but despite his advanced age (he was 52), he gives a creditable enough performance as a cocky and attractive male, easily winning the attention of both Gardner and Kelly.

“Mogambo” represents the peak of Ava Gardner’s career: She had never before looked more beautiful and had never given a more natural, spontaneous, sexier, and funnier performance. The Academy voters showed their respect with a Best Actress Oscar nod for Gardner (her only one).

“Mogambo” was Grace Kelly’s third film and the one that established her as a major star. It’s noteworthy that Kelly was not Ford’s first choice for the role of Linda; Gene Tierney dropped out due to health problems.  In the following year, Kelly would star in no less than three movies, including Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” winning the Best Actress Oscar for “The Country Girl.”

Some critics (not me) prefer the Victor Fleming version, which, among several qualities, features Jean Harlow in one of her finest performances.

Oscar nominations: 2

Best Actress: Ava Gardner

Supporting Actress: Grace Kelly

Oscar awards: None

 

Oscar Context:

The winner of the 1953 Best Actress Oscar was Audrey Hepburn for “Roman Holiday.”

Donna Reed received the Supporting Actress award for “From here to Eternity,” which swept most of the Oscars.

Cast:

Clark Gable

Ava Gardner

Grace Kelly

Donald Sinden

Philip Stainton

Eric Pohnmann

Laurence Naismith

Dennis O’Dea

Credits

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Produced by Sam Zimbalist.

Directed by John Ford.

Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison.

Cinematography by Robert Surtees and F.A. Young.

Art Director: Alfred Junge.

Editor: Frank Clarke.

Release date: October 9, 1953.

Running time: 115 minutes.