MGM, which had scored a box-office hit with King Solomon's Mines (1950), was eager to get another jungle adventure on the slate. Director John Ford didn't have the benefit of ever seeing what Victor Fleming had done with Red Dust, but was intrigued with the prospect of working in Africa. The director would make the most out of the location filming in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda, rendering vistas as striking as any he created of the American West. Scenarist John Lee Mahin, who had initially adapted Wilson Collison's Broadway play for the screen, was called upon again, and the action was shifted from an Indochinese rubber plantation to a Kenyan safari camp.
Though the trappings changed, the story essentially remained intact. Safari guide Gable has to deal with the unexpected arrival of two women at his remote, all-male encampment: a brassy, worldly-wise cookie who seems his ideal match (Ava Gardner, reprising the role first created by Jean Harlow) and a prim young married with whom he gets swept up in forbidden attraction (Grace Kelly in the original Mary Astor part).
One would think that some uber-male bonding might have occurred between Gable and the equally macho Ford during filming, but this was not the case. While the two had initially done some of their own off-hours big-game hunting at the Nairobi location, taskmaster Ford had diminishing patience with the retakes necessitated by Gable's bouts with palsy. After Gable requested a retake of a complex scene with Gardner, Ford stormed off the set. In Warren G. Harris' Clark Gable (Harmony Books), producer Sam Zimbalist's advice to his furious star was recounted: "Ford's a tyrant. Do what John Wayne always does with him. When you get in there, you just say, 'Yes, coach,' and everything will be okay." Egos were sufficiently salved to get through the production civilly, but Gable and Ford would never collaborate again.
Ironically, it seems that leading lady Gardner turned out to be a much greater beneficiary of Ford's instruction on Mogambo. Her work as HoneyBear Kelly is marked by an ease, even a playfulness, that would seldom if ever surface in her following projects. It's all the more remarkable considering that the production came in the course of her turbulent marriage to Frank Sinatra, who had accompanied her to the shoot. The cast and crew wound up with their own floor show of the couple's spats and make-ups; Sinatra took a hiatus to return to America to test for From Here to Eternity (1953), and his success made for eased tensions upon his return.
Mogambo also marked a career boost for Grace Kelly. The MGM brass, who were unimpressed with her work in High Noon (1952), wanted Deborah Kerr for the role; Ford remained insistent and declared, as quoted in Tag Gallagher's John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press): "[T]his dame has breeding, quality, class. I want to make a test of her -- in color -- I'll bet she'll knock us on our ass." Kelly delivered, of course, demonstrating for the first time the sexuality brimming beneath the cool surface that Hitchcock would exploit to good effect in films like To Catch a Thief (1955).
While Gable's manly allure was no less diminished here than in Red Dust, it seems that MGM wanted Mogambo to be more family-friendly fare. Harlow's B-girl gave way to Gardner's playgirl, and Gable's dalliance with Kelly is actually relatively chaste in comparison to that with Astor in the original. No one involved had any quibble with the bottom line. Mogambo's $5 million domestic gross was the best first-year return that any of Ford's films ever enjoyed; Gardner and Kelly received Oscar nominations for their efforts; and Gable's career enjoyed a resurgence that would sustain the actor until his death.
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Cinematography: Robert Surtees, Freddie Young
Editing: Frank Clarke
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Principal Cast: Clark Gable (Victor Marswell), Ava Gardner (Eloise Y. Kelly), Grace Kelly (Linda Nordley), Donald Sinden (Donald Nordley), Eric Pohlmann (Leon Boltchak), Philip Stainton (John Brown Pryce), Laurence Naismith (Skipper).
C-117m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Jay Steinberg