1953’s Mogambo is a fascinating and beautiful movie, to say the least! Could you get any other result when you put Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner together in a film, and then set that film in Africa, and throw John Ford in as director?
My Summer Star This Week: Ava Gardner
So yesterday it was all about Ava Gardner on TCM. Ava films played all day long! Whenever I watch an Ava film like Mogambo, it’s a little bitter-sweet because the stunning Ms Gardner didn’t get too many chances to showcase anything but her beauty in her films. And it’s a shame. As Mogambo clearly demonstrates, Ava could act! She was a very talented actress, in fact. Her talent should have been better utilized by her studio, MGM. But when you see this beautiful woman, can you really blame MGM for almost exclusively capitalizing on her gorgeous face? Anyway, let’s get to the film!
Mogambo takes place in Africa. We first meet big game hunter Victor Marswell, played by Clark Gable. He’s one of those man’s man characters that Gable always played so well! Just full of life, charisma, and magnetism. Then we meet Ava, who matches Gable frame for frame with her zest for life, charisma and magnetism! Ava plays Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly, a good-time girl who finds herself on safari because she’s supposed to meet a Maharajah in Africa. But he never shows up! So Vic and Honey Bear, who hit it off right away and realize they are kind of peas in a pod, get together ASAP, if you know what I mean…!
Meet the Nordleys
Things are looking good for Vic and Honey Bear for a whole day, until the Nordleys, an English couple who have come on safari to study gorillas, show up. They’ve hired Vic to be their guide. Trouble is, Linda Nordley is Grace Kelly. Which means she’s GORGEOUS. When Vic agreed to take the Nordleys on safari, he wasn’t expecting Linda to be so…well…Grace Kelly. As Vic says when they meet,
“Well, the wife of the last scientist who was here weighed about 180 pounds of pure muscle, had a good start on a mustache, and every time she spoke to her husband, every lion in the territory took off!”
A Classic Love Triangle...on Safari!
Linda’s beauty is clearly a surprise to Vic, and he’s immediately drawn to her classy gorgeousness. And Linda is attracted to Vic too, though she totally doesn’t want to be and is completely torn between her loyalty to her husband, and this pull she feels towards Vic.
And don’t forget Honey Bear! She’s a smart dame, and picks up right away on the sparks between Vic and Linda. So we have a classic love triangle, set on safari in Africa. While Honey Bear makes clever and caustic remarks to try to hide her hurt at being thrown aside for another woman, Vic and Linda try not to look at each other longingly in public. Still, Linda’s husband (played to bland perfection by Donald Sinden) is the only one in the camp who seems to have NO IDEA about the physical attraction and tension between his wife and the big game hunter.
So which stunningly beautiful woman will Vic choose? And if he chooses Linda, will she leave her husband for him, or put her marriage vows first? When will Vic and Honey Bear WAKE UP and realize they are perfect for each other?!!! Does anybody get mauled by a gorilla???!! Watch Mogambo to find out!
Gable Take Two
Mogambo was not the first time Clark Gable played this role. LITERALLY. Names and locale were changed, but Gable had already played the Vic Marswell character back in 1932’s Red Dust. Mary Astor and Jean Harlow played the Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner roles, respectively, in the first film. What a compliment to Ava that she was chosen to fill the shoes of the legendary Jean Harlow, and what a compliment to Gable’s eternal appeal that he could pull off the exact same role TWICE, 21 years apart!
Clark Gable: The King of Hollywood
I should probably be outraged that in Hollywood culture, Gable could do this while no one else from the original cast of Red Dust was even offered a role in the remake. But I’m not: Clark Gable is THE KING, and if you’re able to pull off walking around in safari shorts with your chest exposed at age 31 and still pull it off at age 52, massive props! Louise Brooks once said about good old Clark that he didn’t take himself too seriously, and that he wore his crown
“at a humorously apologetic angle.”
Well said! Maybe that’s another reason why I can’t get mad about Gable playing romantic leads right to the end of his career. The guy was so darn likeable!
Ava and Grace: BFF’s Forever!
Despite the warring females they play in the film, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly became good friends while making Mogambo. But it didn’t start out that way!
When filming began on location in Africa, Ava brought then husband Frank Sinatra along. Anyone familiar with the Ava/Frank marriage knows that it was an incredibly tempestuous, passionate relationship, full of ups and downs. One minute they were screaming at each other, the next they were making up. Never a self-conscious pair, they did all of this fighting and loving very much in the public eye. As Donald Sinden (he’s the guy who plays Grace’s husband in the film in case you forgot. Don’t worry if you did, again, it’s the blandest role ever…!) shared, while filming Mogambo in Africa,
“…a great row broke out [between] Frank and Ava…you should have heard the language and the screams and shouts…Cursing and screaming like wild creatures…I put my head out of my tent to see what the devil was going on. And I see Clark Gable and Grace Kelly are sticking their heads out at the same time! And there were things being thrown from Ava’s tent, pots and things, flying out of the tent; they were throwing them at each other! Then, suddenly, silence. The argument was over, and the next thing you heard was the bed creaking.”
A Hot Mess
When Grace witnessed the highs and lows of the Sinatra marriage on the Mogambo set, which often involved copious amounts of alcohol, she reportedly told a friend,
“Ava is such a mess it’s unbelievable.”
But after spending more time with Ava on location, Grace came to admire Ava’s free spirit and complete lack of inhibitions. Despite her “Cool Blonde” screen persona, Grace was a lot of fun, and always ready for a laugh. And boy did Gracie have a lot of laughs when hanging out with the witty and adventurous Ava Gardner!
Giving Ava Credit Where it’s Due!
In fact, Grace’s meeting of future husband Prince Rainier can be traced back to Ava! Ava introduced Grace to Rupert Allan, the journalist who eventually convinced Grace to attend the Cannes Film Festival, where Grace met Prince Rainier. And as we all know, the rest of that famous romance is history. (And yes, Ava was one of the wedding guests of course!!)
The Real Life Ava
Friends of Ava’s quite unanimously agree that in Mogambo, we catch a glimpse of what Ava was like in real life: no other character she played in her career came as close to the fun-loving, quick tongued, beautiful Ava than Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly.
Isn’t that fun to think about? Next time you watch the film, remember that you’re getting a taste of what it was like to hang out with Ava Gardner. Pretty cool!
Did you catch Mogambo yesterday? Do you think Gable pulls off the romantic lead? Do you think Ava deserved more roles like this that really showcased her abilities?
Don’t forget to check out the TCM film schedule for my recommended films as Summer Under the Stars continues on TCM this month!