Tuesday 22 December 2009

Mogambo (1953)

Director: John Ford
Stars: Clark Gable and Ava Gardner
Sometimes I really wish I'd started this blog in 2004 when I first set serious sail on my journey through the last hundred and some years of film. Some names I started catching up with really quickly and so even though I've worked most of my way through their filmographies I have precious few reviews here to point you to. One of the first names I found myself sadly lacking on was Clark Gable and while I'm down to only five more to find that were made after 1931, I did most of my discovery of his career before I started this blog, meaning that this makes a mere ten reviews available out of 61 of his films watched and rated. I guess I'll just have to watch them all again, like that's a hardship. When Gable made Red Dust in 1932 he was an up and coming name, just like his co-star Jean Harlow, but in 1953 when he was persuaded into making this remake he was a more than established star. In fact he had only ten more films to make in the next eight years before he died after completing The Misfits.

In Red Dust he was Dennis Carson, but here he's Victor Carswell, who runs a safari business collecting wild game for zoo and circuses worldwide. He also manages to collect Eloise 'Honey Bear' Kelly, a showgirl from New York, who turns up in his shower after the Maharajah she's come to visit returns to India early. Most people wouldn't complain about such a thing, given that she's played by Ava Gardner at the height of her appeal as a sex symbol, but Carswell would like her gone. Maybe it's because she's as dumb as they come, flying thousands of miles on a whim to join a safari without even a return fare in her pocket. 'Hey, a kangaroo!' she says when they pull up a baby rhino from a pit trap. However she soon turns out to be sweet and the dumb really translates to uneducated. She has plenty of smarts of a different kind.

You can be sure they end up in the sack pretty quick but he has her out of there on a boat within the week, the same boat that brings his next customers, the Nordleys. Donald Nordley is an anthropologist ('an anthro what?' asks Honey Bear) who's come to study the behaviour of gorillas to satisfy a pet theory. He's as quintessentially English as you could expect given that he's played by a young Donald Sinden in only his third film. His wife Linda is pretty English too, though she's played by Grace Kelly, in her biggest part at that time after making herself more than a little noticed in High Noon. When Honey Bear turns up again after being shipwrecked on the way out, the sparks really begin to fly, in a few different directions all at once, only Donald Nordley being blissfully unaware of what's going on.
The casting was a chore, apparently, but I think the end result was spot on. Stewart Granger was the original choice for Carswell, but they picked Gable instead. He's very different 21 years on from the original version, of course, but he was a man who matured rather than grew old, definitely showing his age but losing none of his virility. No wonder he was still popular with the ladies, Grace Kelly apparently ending up as another notch on his bedstead, an affair that was rekindled a year later while she was filming The Country Girl. He resisted the part but needed a hit and he got it, this being his best film since a strong patch in the late forties. The six films he made before this in the fifties were decent but nothing special. Here his gruff demeanour and weathered visage is perfect for a man who who hasn't been out of the jungle for a year.

Ava Gardner would seem to posterity to be far more appropriate as Kelly than either Maureen O'Hara or Lana Turner, but O'Hara was the first choice. Not getting her, director John Ford apparently treated Gardner very badly indeed during the shoot and at one point Gable even stormed off set in protest. She's voluptuous and wild, very much at home in her surroundings, and an obvious match for Gable, but she was busy off set with Frank Sinatra. In fact she became pregnant with his child and headed back to London at one point during fiming to have an abortion. Kelly got the part of Linda as a third choice after Gene Tierney and Deborah Kerr, and did a fine job, stuck up for the most part but with a vulnerable edge that of course gets played upon. When she lets her guard down she's very sexy indeed, probably more so than anywhere else in her short career. Donald Sinden of course was custom made for the role he gets.
Mogambo is a real mixed bag, in many ways. Obviously shot to a large degree in Africa, it's a picture of a colonial continent that's long gone, as could be fathomed from moment one by the names of the tribes that lent a good deal of assistance to the production. The names of the Samburu, Wagenia, Bahaya and M'Beti tribes may not mean much to westerners but the countries they come from are notably out of date: the Kenya Colony, the Belgian Congo, Tanganyika and French Equatorial Africa, none of which exist today. All this footage of the local tribes and the local wildlife is eye opening, not to mention the soundtrack which isn't scored but comprised entirely of tribal chants and drums. It feels very authentic because it is authentic.

Bizarrely though there's plenty that isn't location footage too, much of the picture being shot back in England at the MGM studios in Borehamwood, and the way these different tones are edited together is sometimes jarring. I'm sure some scenes were just too dangerous to shoot with the actors in the frame, though Ava Gardner seems more than game to play with any of the animals we see, but that doesn't excuse the rest. I keep coming up against fifties movies that would have been so much better for a little consistency that wouldn't seem to be much of a stretch. It's such a shame to see films brought down a little that deserved much better. To be fair, John Ford manages to keep some tension in scenes here that waver between location footage of gorillas and obvious studio shots of Gable and his co-stars, but mostly the tension is between the actors. That side of things is very well played out indeed.

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