Ava Gardner: Exploring Kenya in High Heels

Ava Gardner brings couture fashion to her African safari. Image: Movie Movie

Sometimes a movie is a custom fit for one character.

Look at the adventure drama Mogambo (1953), starring Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner. The film, directed by the legendary John Ford, is set in rural Kenya, for the most part.

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.

Kelly and Gardner make an uneasy truce. Image: California Herps

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.

Image: Giphy


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.



  1. What a super writeup! I love the diagram! Never thought about anything like this. You do Ava justice. It’s not the best movie in the world but Ava makes it work. Two problems though, Gable was great in Red Dust. 20 years later not so much. And I agree about Grace Kelly. I’m her biggest fan, but she’s just unpleasant her. And obviously dressed down a lot. Sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! You said it – this isn’t the best movie in the world, but Ava is wonderful. Gable isn’t at his best here – the first time I saw this film, I wondered what on earth Gardner’s character saw in him.


  2. Love it, Ruth! The diagram perfectly captures her character in this. Ava steals every scene she is in. She and her character are the highlight of this film for me. I never got how in this(or in Red Dust)that the other woman is supposed to be a serious rival for the heart of Clark over Ava or Jean.

    Thanks for joining me for this blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you. Gable’s attraction to the other woman is a bit of a head-scratcher. As for Ava, she’s the reason I keep watching this film. I wouldn’t give it a second thought if a lesser actress were in that role.

      Thanks for organizing this blogathon. I was so excited, I posted early!

      Liked by 1 person

    • True Story: I hadn’t seen Red Dust until I read your comment a couple of hours ago. I said to myself, “For pete sake, I’d better watch this thing for once and for all.” So I just finished it. I loved Jean Harlow, and I liked Mary Astor’s character much better than Grace Kelly’s. Plus, really terrific sets, and it was interesting to see the bits about making rubber. What do you think of it?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your diagram is perfect! I loved it!
    Gardner’s was always my favorite character in Mogambo -and now that you put it into words I can see why.
    Also, it’s interesting that such an unseccessful play was the origin of two iconic movies.
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is one of those movies that if you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you. For the males of the species, we get Grace Kelly AND Ava Gardner. Those two could be reading a Chinese take-out menu and I would be all over it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review!! And I love the visual graph – a very nice touch and one that makes sense, too! I loved this film when I first saw it as a kid and whilst Red Dust is loved by many and often quoted as a superior version, Ava is superb and Gable is still as tough as ever. Quite the feat to have two of the most gorgeous actresses to ever grace the screen as well! Thanks for a fantastic review!

    Liked by 1 person

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