Mogambo (1953) is a remake of the pre-code classic Red Dust 1932), and was originally supposed to be set in French Indochina as it’s predecessor had been. But by the early 1950s, French control of the region had begun to disintegrate and the film’s producers decided to set the film in another “exotic” location, this time choosing British ruled Kenya.
Grace Kelly was not the first choice for the second female lead, and was chosen after Gene Tierney left the project due to ill health. Mogambo was her third film overall and her first for MGM. She would go on to win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and be nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Ava Gardner would be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, and the film would also be nominated for best picture at the BAFTAs, and for the AFI’s 2002 100 Years…100 Passions list. All of these awards are well deserved, as the film is a well crafted tale of high adventure and romance, even if its depiction of Africans is rather limited and outdated.
Love on Safari
The film begins with Victor Marswell (played by Clark Gable) trying to catch an elusive black leopard. The sleek creature falls into the trap, but escapes due to the drunken incompetence of one of Victor’s employees, Boltchak (played by Eric Pohlmann).
Victor angrily returns to his house to find Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (played by Ava Gardner) showering. She has been stood up by the Maharaja (who she calls Bunny), and is now stranded at the station until the next boat arrives in a week’s time. Eloise and Victor do not like each other immediately after Victor makes it clear that Eloise is an unwanted distraction.
Victor and Eloise gradually become more civil to each other, and eventually begin an affair. But their dalliance is cut short when the boat to take Eloise back to “civilisation” arrives, and Victor easily dismisses their brief connection, causing her to be heartbroken and furious.
Linda (played by Grace Kelly) and Donald Nordley (played by Donald Sinden) arrive on the same boat in order to study gorillas, as Donald is an anthropologist. Victor is angered that the couple did not mention their intentions to study gorillas in their letter, and that it will be impossible for them to do so as gorillas are unpredictable animals, and Victor does not have the extensive time needed to even catch a glimpse of one. During this exchange, Donald has an excessive reaction to the tsetse fly inoculation he and Linda had an another station. Linda is hysterical and panicked, exacerbated by seeing one of Victor’s young Kenyan employees after he has been mauled by a lion, and slaps Victor when she thinks he isn’t doing enough to help Donald. She eventually calms down and apologises to Victor, who is already charmed by Linda’s beauty, inexperience and refinement.
Eloise returns after the river boat is stranded on a mud bank. Victor warns her against scandalising Linda, who he says has led a very sheltered life. Eloise is angered and hurt by his insinuations about her and how she will interact with Mrs Nordley. When Linda and Eloise do meet, they immediately do not get along because Linda thinks Eloise is improper, and she is also jealous of what she suspects has passed between Eloise and Victor.
Eloise and Victor have a fight over Linda, with Victor warning her to not tell Linda about he and Eloise’s dalliance, before he finds out, much to his horror, that Linda has gone for a walk in the bush. He saves her from being attacked by the same black leopard he was trying to catch by shooting the animal. Linda thanks him profusely, and apologises for her foolishness. They connect as they walk back to the station. When a bad storm starts to build, Victor carries Linda to the veranda, where they almost kiss. Eloise witnesses this and later makes a remark about it to Victor, but he denies that any such thing took place.
Brownie (played by Philip Stainton), Victor’s right hand man, holds a special dinner to mark the Nordley’s first night, but it is tense and uncomfortable, with Eloise getting drunk and singing “Comin’ thro’ the rye” with Donald and Brownie while Donald plays the old piano. Victor suddenly announces that he is willing to take the Nordleys to gorilla territory. Only Eloise is unsurprised by this news, and becomes truculent.
A few days later the party sets out on the safari, with Linda acting cold and dismissive towards Eloise, who is aware of the charged, but unconsummated, feelings between Linda and Victor. When they set up camp, Linda asks Victor to forget about her transgressions, but Victor refuses.
The party treks on until they arrive at Father Josef’s (played by Denis O’Dea) mission station. He warns them of the dangers of gorilla territory, but Victor is dismissive of this. He then informs Victor that he must once again undergo “The Ceremony of Courage” in order to get the local tribesmen to agree to row the canoes needed to traverse the river, and to guide the party, into gorilla territory. The men throw spears at Victor, with one man almost impaling Victor with his supposedly misjudged throw.
Linda becomes increasingly strained as the safari goes on, and snaps at Eloise when the older woman makes an overture of friendship and empathy, and offers advice regarding Linda’s involvement with Victor.
The party continues their journey up river to the District Station where Eloise is supposed to stay so that she can try to return home once again, but they find the station in a state of unrest. The District Commissioner has been badly wounded by the local tribesmen who attacked the station after the Commissioner discovered that they were illegally ivory poaching. With reserve police some days away, Victor manages to get his party and the Commissioner as well as two Kenyan station men, safely back to the boats before the tribesmen attack again en masse.
Once they have set up another camp near the gorilla territory, and Brownie offers to be a sympathetic ear, Linda tells him that her husband died in a bomber named Honey Bear over Berlin during the war. Brownie ascertains that Eloise has not loved anyone as much as her late husband until Victor.
Linda and Victor finally consummate their affair, causing Linda to reject Donald on what is later revealed to be their anniversary. Donald questions her loyalty, but is quickly convinced that Linda is still faithful to him when she protests against his insinuations. The Nordleys are able to study an entire settlement of gorillas in relatively close proximity much to Donald’s delight. During this time, Linda and Victor continue their affair, and Victor decides he must tell Donald what has come to pass between he and Linda.
Whilst studying the older gorillas, Donald is almost attacked and killed, necessitating that Victor shoot one of the mature “bulls”, which means he must both kill a valuable member of the gorilla troop and forgo capturing a baby gorilla that he can sell. Victor is further incensed when he realises how much Donald loves Linda, and that he is willing to give up his career for her, and therefore cannot bring himself to hurt the younger man by revealing he and Linda’s affair. Donald refuses to believe Boltchak when he intimates what has been going on between Mrs Nordley and Victor, and becomes upset enough to throw a cup of alcohol in Boltchak’s face.
Victor calls off the safari and begins to drink heavily in his tent. Eloise gathers that Victor has “gone noble” before joining him in a drink, causing Victor to pull her into his lap. Linda finds them together, and in a state of heartbreak and disgust, and using Victor’s gun, shoots him in the arm. Eloise covers for Linda by claiming that Victor has been making unwanted advances towards the younger woman, and that she shot him in order to stop him from forcing himself on her in his tent. Donald is happy to believe that Victor is a predator and his wife untouched, and he and Linda are reconciled when they leave the safari.
Victor tells Eloise that in order to make the trip profitable, he is staying in gorilla territory to try and catch the young gorilla that got away before. Eloise is initially angered by his lack of a romantic proposal towards her, and gets onto the boat to accompany the Nordleys. But her anger quickly evaporates when Victor calls to Brownie to look after her, and she dives off the canoe and makes her way back to Victor who is waiting, whilst grinning, on the shore.
Grace Kelly’s performance in Mogambo is a perfect counterbalance to Ava Gardner’s sultriness and Clark Gable’s machismo. Although the character of Linda Nordley is not held up as one of Grace’s great performances, such as Margo in Dial M for Murder and Georgie in The Country Girl, her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination were deserved, as she manages to not be completely subsumed by the powerhouse duo that is Gable and Gardner.
Grace’s capacity for playing the lady is well showcased here, with her beautifully annunciated voice and her simple, tasteful clothes, especially the lovely lilac dress she wears in the dinner scene. But her ability to instil something more in her character is also obvious. She is not excessive in her portrayal of disapproval during she and Ava’s character’s initial meeting, rather opting for staid tea sipping and a perfectly inflected line delivery. Her interactions with Ava, who is on top form in this film, also show her talent, as she clearly plays off of Ava’s portrayal of Eloise in order to give her own character’s reactions more believability.
Her compounding guilt over her actions towards her husband coupled with her desire to be with a man who is more experienced and exciting than anything she is accustomed to, are conveyed in a realistic manner that does not veer into the ridiculously melodramatic or swoon laden. There is also something almost knowing about her portrayal of Linda, as if Grace is giving the audience an insight into her own life, where she was expected to maintain the cool, refined image of the lady she would cultivate in Hitchcock’s films, in favour of “giving into” human desires such as impulsive and ill advised love.
Her interactions with Gable are particularly impressive, as she does not overact or disappear in her scenes with him. And despite the large age gap between them, Grace does not overplay her portrayal of the young ingenue in love with the “white hunter”, as Gable’s character refers to himself in one scene. Grace makes the audience buy into the fact that she could really be in love with a man who is so much older than her and who has been weathered by the trials of a hard life. She achieves this by making it quite clear that her character is torn between her settled, long standing love for her normal, kind husband, and her longing for a life untraversed with a man who is entirely opposite to her upper-crust English existence. While Grace could lapse into bodice ripper territory with her portrayal, she manages to make the audience understand her inner turmoil, rather than seeming one dimensional or as a mere foil to the worldly Eloise.
Ava may have the more “juicy” role that allows her to be funny and empathised with in her heartbreak and disappointment, but Grace is no less unforgettable. It’s difficult to believe that this was only her third film overall, and that she managed to be natural and memorable opposite two stars who had a combined acting experience of many decades and many films. While she would go onto really hone her craft in her films under Hitchcock’s direction, which would also contribute to her lasting image as the classically beautiful blonde of the silver screen, Mogambo pays testament to the fact that Grace gave memorable performances no matter her director or phase of her career.
Deciphering the animal cries of Mogambo
During filming, Grace and Gable were rumoured to have engaged in an affair. After the film’s release, the pair continued their affair, but Gable ended it when Grace’s mother began to push for a marriage proposal. Grace went to Ava for advice, and her one time co-star told her, “He likes to conquer, and when he’s done, he’s through with them, and he leaves them”.
While filming did take place in Kenya, much of the film was also shot at the MGM studio.
There was much unease during the on location shooting due to the Mau Mau uprising, and all cast and crew were issued with weapons to protect themselves in the event of an attack.
Other actresses who were considered for the roles of Linda and Eloise were Deborah Kerr, Maureen O’ Hara, Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall. Stewart Granger was also supposed to be cast in the Gable role. Granger was bitter about having lost out to the other actor, and wrote about Gable disparagingly in his memoirs.
The scene in which Ava falls into the mud whilst trying to feed the baby elephant and rhino was genuine. John Ford motioned for the crew to carry on filming when Ava cried for help.
The censors in Spain would not tolerate adultery being shown on screen, and so the Spanish dubbed version of the film has the Nordleys portrayed as siblings, although the fact that they share a bed at Marswell’s station was not removed from the film.
This is my first entry in The 4th Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and The Flapper Dame. Please check out their blogs for more details and to read everyone’s contributions.