Sometimes a movie is a custom fit for one character.
Gable stars a rugged American who organizes safaris and sells animals to zoos. He’s someone who stomps around, barks orders and speaks his mind.
He ain’t got time for long-term relationships or other niceties.
This is evident when Gardner, a New York party girl, suddenly appears at his compound, expecting to meet up with a boyfriend. Alas, her man left the week before, which means Gardner travelled halfway around the world to be Stood Up. Also: The next boat out ain’t coming for a week.
Well. Being the adaptable girl she is, Gardner stays, and she and Gable start a relationship that lasts just until Grace Kelly arrives with her husband (Donald Sinden). The pair are scientists who have hired Gable to take them to Gorilla Country so they can record gorilla noises.
Kelly and Sinden are both fragile souls in their own way. Inexplicably, Gable becomes attracted to Kelly’s primness, much to Gardner’s chagrin.
There couldn’t be greater differences between the two women. Kelly’s character is shrewish and unlikeable; Gardner is malleable and forgiving. Kelly believes herself to be morally superior, despite her extramarital affair with Gable. Gardner is no hypocrite.
The film feels like a western at times. It’s as though these two women are gearing up for a Big Showdown on the open plain where the Winner Takes All.
Kelly is unlikable, but that’s her job. Gardner, on the other hand, owns this film, and it’s not because her part was written that way.
Despite Gable’s top billing, Gardner is the Star here. She makes the everything fit around her character – the plot, her co-stars and, if it were possible, Kenya itself.
The key to Gardner’s character is her bravery.
No, really. Hear us out.
When she arrives, complete with designer luggage and cocktail dresses, we see she has No Clue what she’s up against – especially here in this remote Kenyan outpost. But she’ll make the best of it in her heels and A-line skirts.
Take the scene where one of Gable’s employees runs into the house with exciting news, prompting Gable and his men to Drop Everything and jump into the truck. Gardner, not one to miss out, jumps into the truck, too – in her heels.
(Well, if this is the only time you’ll be in Kenya, you’ve gotta get your money’s worth, no?)
Gardner’s character is a master of environmental adaptation: She eschews denial. She faces setbacks square on and pushes her way through, no matter how painful.
This gives her the fortitude to be a hero in the end.
If we were to draw a diagram of her decision-making process – which we did – it might look like this:
“Ford [coaxed] a relaxed, unexpectedly touching performance out of Ava Gardner,” writes Scott Eyman.¹
Eyman, the author of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, says the director grew fond of Gardner. He admired her quick wit and tenacity.
In one scene, Gardner was pushed into the mud, twice, as she tried to feed a baby elephant. “Gardner screamed, as did the crew,” writes Eyman, “but Ford yelled, ‘Shut up, keep it turning,’ and wouldn’t let anybody go in to help her. It was a moment of spontaneity in a canned script”.²
Mogambo is based on the unsuccessful 1928 Broadway play, Red Dust by Wilson Collison, which closed after eight performances. Red Dust was adapted for the big screen in 1932, starring Clark Gable in the same role he played in the later Mogambo.
The screenplay is Melodramatic (with a capital “M”), but the African scenery and wildlife are breathtaking. This film wouldn’t be nearly as engrossing if it weren’t shot on location.
Nor would it be half as good without Ava Gardner’s performance. She shows us we can all be a Hero in the end.
Eyeman, Scott. (1999) Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
¹ Ibid., p. 423
² Ibid., p. 422
This post is part of the THE AVA GARDNER BLOGATHON hosted by Maddy Loves her Classic Films.
Mogambo: starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly. Directed by John Ford. Written by John Lee Mahin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953, Technicolor, 116 mins.