Scenes of Africa: Mogambo (1953)

Africa has proved to be an intoxicating continent for film makers. Think Casablanca (1942), The African Queen (1951), and the controversial, Hemingway-esque Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dust (1932) . Originally released on October 9, 1953, it has been 60 years since audiences first saw the always-charming and roguish Clark Gable (also from the original Red Dust) caught in a lusty, tempestuous love triangle between the prim and proper blonde Linda (Grace Kelly), and the vivacious, fiery brunette Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly, or simply Kelly (Ava Gardner). Clark Gable plays Victor, a big-game hunter who prowls the African forests for gorillas. Victor and Kelly get off to a bad start, but share a pragmatic, somewhat world-weary bond. Enter Linda, who, along with her insipid husband Donald, arrives in Africa and accompanies the group on Safari. Soon Linda develops her own feelings for Victor, much to the frustration of Kelly, who subsequently tries to rock the boat with her flirtations with Linda’s husband. The women become rivals of sorts, both experiencing rising jealousy, Kelly for Victor and Linda’s eventual affair, and Linda for the familiarity and subtle intimacy between Kelly and Victor of which she feels she cannot compete.

Gable’s Victor boasts shades of his more darkly comic Rhett Butler from the MGM epic Gone with the Wind (1939), but with a more sombre outlook. Although he shares passionate kisses with the enamoured Linda, convincing her of his affections, his liaison with Kelly proves too irresistible, and he is caught in a compromising, drunken embrace with Kelly, causing a jealous Linda to fire her gun at Victor.

Juxtaposed against the women’s poise, beauty and rivalry is the exotic beauty of the African savanna and forests. The film was shot on location around Africa, including the French Congo and Kenya, and featured some of the greatest footage of African wildlife and scenery at the time of filming. The film also has a unique approach to music, featuring only African tribal music by the native tribes, rather than orchestral music (save for a scene with Ava Gardner singing alongside piano). Instead of a film score, common for films of the time, Mogambo features continuous, rhythmic drumming and native African chants. This makes Mogambo a particularly intriguing film for its unique use of the native, natural sounds of African locals and wildlife.

The film was directed by John Ford, whose notoriously difficult demeanor caused problems on set. He is said to have been particularly cruel to Donald Sinden (who played Linda’s husband), while he was pleased with Grace Kelly and her performance. Ford stated of Grace Kelly: “This dame has breeding, quality, class. I want to make a test of her-in colour- I bet she’ll knock us on our ass.” Film critics and theorists, however, argue that Ava Gardner as Kelly adds more depth and complexity to the role, in comparison to her earlier roles as the siren. Tag Gallagher even argues that Gardner’s Kelly plays the tragic figure in the film, given Kelly’s observation that she has “scars”. Nevertheless, the film was lucrative for both Grace Kelly and Clark Gable; Grace was snapped up by Alfred Hitchcock for Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954), films which downplayed Kelly’s complexity and made her more formulaic, while Gable’s career was given a boost after waning considerably, with Mogambo placing him back on top.  The film does not have the same epic and angst-ridden love of Casablanca, but boasts formidable acting and a sultry but simultaneously amusing love triangle, ending with Victor choosing the infinitely more complex brunette Kelly, who jumps out of the departing canoe and swims over to Victor who embraces her as the drum beat continues.


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