Classic Film Reviews: Mogambo (1953)

mogambopg5

source: MGM

If you ever wanted to roam the savannas of Kenya with two gorgeous women and a very gray Clark Gable, then Mogambo may be the movie for you.

Directed by John Ford and filmed on location in Tanzania and Kenya, Mogambo is no one’s favorite movie, unless you ask me.

Kelly. Gable. Ford. Gardner in Africa

I can’t think of anything better.

The film starts off with Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly (played by Ava Gardner) taking a shower to cool off from the hot African sun. It appears that Eloise is in Africa hoping to meetup with a rich maharajah who promised her that he take care of her for the rest of her life. True to classic Hollywood form that doesn’t happen, so, Eloise is stuck in the middle of Kenya, with no money and no man.

Right after we get introduced to the raven haired beauty, we meet a very gray-looking Clark Gable who’s playing a big game hunter named Victor Marswell.

Ava and Clark

source: MGM

Victor Marswell is your typical 1950s male. Big, strong, brash, and attracted to women half his age. These characteristics are the most apparent in the scene where Victor stumbles upon Eloise scantily clad in a robe, just inches away from stepping out of the shower. The two trade jabs for a few moments until Eloise tells him why she’s really here.

Amused, but slightly annoyed, Victor, begrudgingly agrees to let Eloise stay on the reservation until the next boat to the airport swings by. During those few days, Victor and Eloise develop feelings for each other.

Here’s where things get a bit tricky.

Off to the horizon, a boat docks. In it brings a lovely pair named the Nordleys – Donald (played by Donald Sinden) and Linda (played by Grace Kelly.) The Nordleys are wealthy English couple who came to this Kenyan reservation with the hope of being able to go into gorilla country.

Victor, being the grumpy old man that he is, flat out refuses to re-adjust his schedule just to play tour guide to a couple of privileged Brits. Meanwhile, when all of this is happening, Eloise returns to the reservation due to a malfunction on the passenger boat that she intended to take out of Africa.

mogambo donald grace ava

source: MGM

The next morning, Eloise and Linda convene for some breakfast. For some reason, Eloise takes the liberty to tell Linda about all of her past sexual escapades. This, understandably, makes Linda uncomfortable, but, this interaction is a good indicator of what their relationship will look like as the film progresses.

Those brief exchange of words prompts Linda to take a stroll around the reservation to get her thoughts in order. While out on this walk, she stumbles upon a black leopard ready to pounce.

Unbeknownst to Linda, Victor was behind her the entire time, making sure that she doesn’t get killed. If it wasn’t for his heroics, Linda would’ve been a dead woman, and we couldn’t have that, can we? On their way back to the base, an unnatural wind-storm stirs up around them, which forces Victor to, literally, sweep Linda off her feet and carry her to safety.

This intense moment, obviously, causes Linda to see Victor in a different light – a romantic light.

Well, “oh, no!” you say, “Linda’s married!”

The conflict arises.

mogambo 1953

source: MGM

Later that night at dinner, Eloise notices that things are a little bit tense between Linda and Victor. She quickly catches the drift and starts subtly teasing the two during the entire meal. In order to ease tensions (or in my opinion, escalate them) Victor announces that he’s had a change of heart and will take the Nordleys to see the gorillas, albeit resentfully.

Eloise, pretty much sick of Africa, tags along on the trek so she could leave the group halfway to catch (another) flight back to the States. So, the group leaves the reservation in search of some gorillas, but, as everyone else is trying enjoy the scenery (mainly Linda’s husband) Eloise, Linda and Victor are stuck in a love triangle.

How about that?

Poor Donald Nordley, all he wanted to see were some gorillas, and all he got was his wife falling in love with a man who looks like Clark Gable.

It’s a pity.

Mogambo

source: MGM

Anyway.

On their way to gorilla country, the group takes a ‘pit stop’ at a mission run by a priest named Father Josef (played by Denis O’Dea) who agrees to lend Victor a few canoes so that he could, safely, cross a rather aggressive river. While Victor is retrieving those canoes, Eloise takes this opportunity to confess to Father Josef about the things that have been weighing heavily on her heart (aka let me tell someone that this lady has been cheating on her husband of 7 years.)

The Father suggests that Eloise should go and attempt to make a friend out of Mrs. Nordley. She takes him up on that offer and apologizes for everything she’s done, while simultaneously extending a hand of friendship. Linda rebuffs her advances, creating an even deeper divide between the two women.

After getting the canoes, the group continues on into the jungles of Kenya. They finally reach a checkpoint where Eloise would be dropped off. 

Upon landing on this territory, they find the station manager badly injured from what appears to be a native uprising the night before. This setback causes Eloise to miss her flight (again) and now, she’s stuck on this tour until they head back to the reservation.

As they’re escorting the man out they get attacked by the same tribe that injured him in the first place. Luckily, they manage to escape unscathed.

Clark and Grace

source: MGM

That night, the group finally reaches gorilla country. After a long day of traveling, everyone comfortably settles down into their campsites. Eloise is busy talking to a tour guide about her late ex-husband, Mr. Nordley is blissfully unaware about what’s happening to his wife, and Victor and Linda are nowhere to be found.

Actually, they’re out taking a moonlight stroll together, but, her husband doesn’t care! He’s out here to see some gorillas.

Tragic.

While out on their midnight walk, Victor and Linda fall into a very passionate embrace. We all knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when, I suppose under the moon in an African jungle sounds like the perfect time to do it.

Realizing what she’s done, Linda sprints back to base camp where she finds her husband fast asleep. He wakes up when she enters their tent and Mr. Nordley proceeds to embrace his wife. Ashamed and on the verge of tears she refuses his affections and promptly goes to bed.

The next morning, Victor takes the Nordleys to see the gorillas.

Clark&Ava Mogambo

source: MGM

The guilt of having kissed another man’s wife is weighing heavily on Victor, and he confronts Linda about it. He tells her that he’s going to tell her husband about their affair. Linda is not to content with this idea, but, Victor is going to do it anyway. While his helping hands are setting up the gorilla traps, Victor steps up to Mr. Nordley’s tent and is about to, basically, ruin the life a very decent man in Donald Nordley.

Donald greets him and begins to gush about how much he loves Linda and how he was pretty disappointed that she forgot their anniversary that happened the night before- the same night Victor and Linda were out frolicking in the African jungle. 

Overcome with guilt and anger, Victor storms back to his tent understanding that he can’t tell Mr. Nordley about his affair with Linda.

That evening, while the group is sitting around a campfire, an aide to Victor makes insinuations about his relationship with Mrs. Nordley. Donald takes offense to those remarks and leaves the outpost in a fit of rage.

Fast forward a couple of hours, Eloise saunters into Victor’s tent and realizes he’s drunk. She assumes that he went to confront Donald Nordley about his “extracurricular activities” with his wife, but ultimately failed.

Clark and Ava in Mogambo

source: MGM

Eloise then sits down on Victor’s lap, throws caution to the wind, and joins him for a night cap. About a few moments after this happens Linda walks into to the tent.

Oh, boy…

Victor, thinks quick, and plays up his ‘drunken’ attitude, seeing it as a way to end his fling with Linda. He drinks, he laughs, he pulls Eloise a little bit closer than he normally would, and all of this makes Linda hysterical to the point where she shoots Victor. Thanks to her horrible aim, she misses his chest and hits him in the arm. Funny enough, just as Linda was doing this, her husband returns to camp just in time to see this trainwreck.

Eloise, being the slick tongued woman that she is, improvises an excuse, claiming that Victor was making a pass at Linda, and she shot him in self defense.

The next morning, the Nordleys depart, leaving behind a flurry of emotions for both Eloise and Victor. The pair are left behind where they, finally, admit their feelings for each other which concludes with Victor proposing to Eloise.

Conclusion and The Crazy ‘Behind the Scenes’ Stories

Behind the Scenes of Mogambo

Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner & Donald Sinden on location while filming Mogambo (1953)

Mogambo is a good movie, not a great one. It has a great plot, an astonishing location shoot in Nairobi, and a great director in John Ford, but sometimes the acting was lackluster. As a matter of fact, even the lovely Grace Kelly is overshadowed by the remarkable acting performance that Ava Gardner puts on in this movie.

While most Kelly fans (including myself) went into this movie, hoping for another Kelly masterclass in acting, we actually got to see the acting talents of Gardner flourish a bit. Apparently, I’m not the only one to believe this. The Academy Awards also thought Ava put in a good performance and eventually awarded her with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1954.

Ava may have gotten nominated for an Academy Award, but it was Grace who took home some silverware in 1954, with a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

For whatever the film lacked in acting, certainly made up in the behind the scenes stories.

Grace Ava and Donald

Ava Gardner, Donald Sinden and Grace Kelly on the set of Mogambo (1953)

It all started when John Ford requested that the main cast spend a few weeks in the sun to make sure they got that “African sun tan look.” Well, his plan backfired when the pasty white skins of Gable, Kelly and Gardner got a little too dark, which was later lightened up by the makeup department.

This incident was only a sign of what was yet to come.

The real ‘fun’ started when Ava brought her then husband Frank Sinatra to the set in Kenya. At the time, their marriage was having a bit of trouble. Something, apparently, happened back in LA at house party, which caused Frank to freak out in a fit of anger. We don’t know exactly what happened, but whatever did, seemed to carry over into their flight over to Africa.

According to a letter written by Grace Kelly to a friend back in the States, she proclaims that Frank and Ava were constantly fighting, making up and breaking up, and that it particularly disturbed her because she had a tent right next to them and could hear everything.

The skirmishes only disappeared when Frank was able to rest easy about his faltering career when he landed the coveted part of ‘Maggio’ in the WWII epic From Here to Eternity in 1953.

Ava and Clark in Mogambo

Ava Gardner and Clark Gable during the filming of Mogambo (1953)

Speaking of Grace Kelly, she had her fair share of problems while working on this movie as well; and by problems, I mean Clark Gable. Gable being an ardent outdoorsman, was absolutely ecstatic about living in Africa for a couple of months. Conveniently enough, Grace also happened to be a huge fan of hunting.

Just like their characters on screen, Clark and Grace spent most of their time walking around Africa, just getting to know each other. Eventually, they end up falling into a May-December romance.

Grace would call him, “Ba”, which means father in Swahili, while Clark would be there just enjoying the company of a woman who was young enough to be his daughter.

Even actor Donald Sinden, who played Mr. Nordley,  has claimed to have seen Grace and Clark having an *ahem* “afternoon swim” together, hell she confirmed herself.

Grace and Clark

Grace Kelly and Clark Gable on the set of Mogambo (1953)

Heck! When the on location shoots in Nairobi were over, Kelly and Gable continued their romance in London where Clark rented out a hotel room specifically fitted with an ‘in and out way’ where they could discreetly have access to each other’s rooms without the rest of the cast knowing.

Unfortunately, the affair came to an end when Grace‘s mother, Margaret, came to stay with her 23 year old daughter in London.

Being your typical overbearing mother, Mama Kelly gave her daughter the ‘okay’ to marry Gable. This, naturally, scared off Gable who clearly didn’t want to. Consequently, Gable refused Grace‘s calls, stopped talking to her on re-shoot days, and basically ‘ghosted’ her. This left Grace heartbroken and she inevitably quit trying to reconcile with Gable.

Based on what happened on screen and off screen, Mogambo is certainly worth your time. If it isn’t for the actual movie, then it must definitely be for the crazy behind the scenes stories. It isn’t the best movie, but, it’s sure as heck one of my favorite movies.

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8 thoughts on “Classic Film Reviews: Mogambo (1953)

  1. Great review. I love this and the original version of this Red Dust( which also starred Gable in the same role) equally. I think I prefer Ava over Jean though ( although Jean is a riot.) I love the scene with Ava and the baby elephant 🙂 Aww! In both versions I found the character of the wife to be dull, it is clear to us that it is the Jean/Ava character Clark’s character is supposed to be with. Very enjoyable film.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great read. I never can get used to the fact that Grace Kelly is in there, because there are some other major stars present. I read somewhere that she was far from the first choice for her role, and that she got “lucky” she got it. Tierney was cast initially. Well.

    Like

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