Two decades after burning up the screen with Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932), Clark Gable returned to the material that had made him one of the preeminent leading men of the 1930s when he starred in Mogambo (1953). This time around, the action–shot on location and brought to life in splendid Technicolor–was moved from Indochina to the Dark Continent, with Gable’s character becoming a big-game hunter in Kenya (as opposed to a rubber plantation owner in Asia). Other than the location change, the essential story remains the same: Gable becomes embroiled in a love triangle with a good-time girl (Ava Gardner, stepping into the Jean Harlow role) and a sophisticated married dame (Grace Kelly, subbing for Mary Astor), all while fighting the elements and avoiding the dangers of living in the remote African wilderness.
In this version of the tale, Victor Marswell (Gable) owns a business in which he hunts and sells big game while also taking the occasional adventurers out into the bush on safari. One day, a New York showgirl, Eloise Kelly (Gardner), who goes by the nickname “Honey Bear,” arrives to meet her friend, a maharajah from India who has invited her to go on safari. But by the time she arrives, the maharajah is gone, and she is frustrated to learn that she will have to wait another week before the boat returns to take her back to civilization.
Vic is no happier about the situation, but after an evening together, the two fall into an affair. But Vic seems to toss her over quickly once the boat arrives, infuriating Eloise, who has fallen in love with him. She boards the boat to leave as a young couple, the Nordleys, arrive to go on safari. Donald (Donald Sinden) and Linda (Kelly) want to go up the river to study gorillas, but Vic snaps that he will not take them on the treacherous journey up to that area. Soon after, Donald has a negative reaction to a tsetse fly vaccine, and as Vic and Linda minister over him, they discover a burning attraction.
Meanwhile, the boat becomes stranded on a mud bar, forcing Eloise to return to the camp to wait out a four-week repair job. Upon her arrival, she almost immediately recognizes that Vic is drawn to Linda, and when she encounters the other woman the next day, Eloise’s deliberate frankness makes Linda uncomfortable. Linda leaves to go on a walk, and when she’s cornered by a leopard, Vic arrives in time to rescue her. As they arrive back at camp in the midst of a terrible rainstorm, the two share an intensely electric moment on the porch, witnessed by Eloise, who is smoking nearby.
Eloise’s needling and pointed comments throughout dinner that night anger Vic, and he abruptly agrees to take the Nordleys upriver to see the gorillas. Eloise accompanies them in hopes of being able to catch a plane back home at one of the checkpoints. But along the way, Vic and Linda get caught up in their own passionate affair, and when Donald hears rumors of the liaison, the romantic tension ultimately threatens to boil over and create some seriously deadly trouble.
Mogambo utilizes its exotic setting quite well in setting up the action of the film. The wildness of the surroundings is reflected in the barely-tamed wantonness of the main characters themselves. And if only to drive that point home, Gardner’s character–arguably the most fascinating in the film–is even nicknamed after an animal. Though “Honey Bear” seems a term of endearment, it perfectly captures the dichotomy in the character, whose veneer of sweetness masks a decided sense of determination and leashed ferociousness. Eloise’s wildness is further highlighted when she initially boards the boat to leave; she stands next to a caged leopard, which paces alongside her as she fumes about Vic’s treatment of her. Interestingly, this outer wildness contrasts with her deeper self: when she takes confession with the missionary priest they encounter on safari, and subsequently tries to offer an olive branch to Linda, it’s the first indication that there is much more to her than the somewhat shallow portrait she’s painted up until then, and leads into the moving revelation of the “scars” she carries. Still, Eloise has a backbone of pure steel, and when Nordley warns that “even the smallest creatures in Africa are voracious,” he’s not just talking about the ants.
Though Eloise is not an educated woman (she mistakes a rhino for a kangaroo, and even blithely admits at one point that she was “educated at the York Club”), she is perhaps the most observant and wise character when it comes to understanding human nature. During her first night in the camp, when she hears a lion roar, she questions whether it’s hungry. When Vic explains that the lion probably senses a lioness lurking nearby, she murmurs, “I guess there’s all sorts of hunger in the world, isn’t there?” The offhand comment sets up the romantic triangle to come, as all three of the main characters eventually give in to their lustful appetites in one way or another.
The animals depicted throughout the film are constantly in flux, and their sounds (accompanied, at times, by native drums and singing) make up the majority of the movie’s soundtrack. There are continuous roars, grunts, and chirps playing in the background, underscoring the animalistic nature of the human interactions onscreen. The characters even refer to themselves in animalistic terms: Eloise calls herself a “champion of female Airedales” (obvious euphemism for “bitch”), and in the same conversation labels Vic a “two-legged boa constrictor.” The battles between the animals mirror the battles between the characters; for instance, as Vic and Linda watch a pair of rhinos fighting over a female, it foreshadows the inevitable showdown at the end of the film as Donald confronts Vic about his affair with his wife.
The effectiveness of the film rests on its aptly-chosen cast. Gable, though in his early 50s at the time of filming, still exudes the raw sexuality that marks some of his more appealing performances, making Vic yet another in the long line of goodhearted assholes that Gable excelled at playing over the years. Gardner is just plain fun as Eloise, her raw eroticism contrasting well with Kelly’s more buttoned-up, icy appeal. This was the first film that really highlighted Kelly’s strengths as a actress, showing the brimming sexuality underneath the patrician facade (something that director Alfred Hitchcock later would bring to full, glorious force in her three films for him).
The behind-the-scenes drama of the making of Mogambo is just about as entertaining as the film itself. Romantic travails ran rampant: Gable and Kelly reportedly embarked upon an affair (which ended once Gable realized Kelly had designs on marriage), while Gardner fought stridently with new husband Frank Sinatra, who traveled back and forth between Hollywood and the Kenyan set of the film. And to varying degrees, most of the stars had issues with their notoriously difficult director, John Ford, whose unpredictable behavior and roughshod manner tended to rub performers the wrong way.
But the end product was a smash hit for all involved. It revitalized Gable’s career after a several years-long slump, putting him back on top of the box office. The movie also scored Gardner her only Academy Award nomination (for Best Actress) and Kelly the first of her two Oscar nods (for Best Supporting Actress; she would win the Best Actress statue for the following year’s The Country Girl). Comparisons to Red Dust aside, Mogambo stands well on its own as a compelling romantic adventure, marked by engaging performances and some truly gorgeous African vistas.
This post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to hunka-hunka Clark Gable today.