Program Notes: Mogambo (1953)
Mogambo was a very big deal when it was released in 1953.
Mogambo (“passion” in Swahili) revived the box office bankability of director John Ford after a major flop (The Sun Shines Bright). It gave a much-needed charge to the waning career of Gable (playing the same role he originated 20 years earlier), turned newcomer Grace Kelly into a major star, and gave good-time-gal Ava Gardner an opportunity to vent her not-inconsequential onscreen sexuality.
It’s got some nifty on-location Technicolor cinematography courtesy of Robert Surtees and offers a lovely travelogue of an exotic environment.
The problem, at least from the perspective of 60 years, is that Mogambo is so tightly wound up in its 1950s sense of screen morality that very little of its eroticism seeps through. Compared to the exuberantly raunchy Red Dust (made before the Production Code was implemented to ruin all our dirty fun), Mogambo seems forced, stiff, and unnatural.
Part of that may be the fault of Ford, a man rarely at ease with sexuality (let’s give him a break – he was the Irish American product of the Edwardian era). A couple of years earlier Ford had surprised everyone by delivering the achingingly romantic The Quiet Man, in which the erotic tension between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara nearly singed the screen. But there is little evidence of that in Mogambo, in which the characters go through the motions but we never feel the heat.
Vic Marswell (Gable) is a big-game hunter in Kenya – although he prefers capturing and selling wild animals to killing them. Sexual sparks fly when a New York party girl, Eloise (Gardner), shows up to rendezvous with an Indian rajah. Problem is, the prince has already decamped to India, leaving Eloise stranded in the African boonies.
She and Vic have a brief affair which is interrupted by the arrival of a British couple – an anthropologist (the colorless Donald Sinden) and his wife (Kelly), who have come to study gorillas.
The British gent is a thick twit who doesn’t realize his seemingly glacial wife is melting in the arms of the rugged outdoorsy Vic. Eloise, meanwhile, is left to pace like a frustrated lioness in heat.
In many regards Mogambo is more interesting for what was going on off screen than on.
Filming took place during the Mau Mau Rebellion, which meant that Ford and all the crew members wore side arms throughout the shoot. Units of the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Queen’s African Rifles guarded the set.
Ford contracted amoebic dysentery and to speed up shooting jettisoned pages of the screenplay – which may account for the hurried, incomplete feel of the movie’s final third. He left as soon a principal photography was completed, leaving it to second units to capture the footage of wildlife and native peoples.
Gardner wrote in her autobiography that her first few days on the set were miserable. Ford had wanted Maureen O’Hara for the role of Eloise, and his on-set cruelty to actors who irritated him was legendary.
Gradually, though, he recognized Gardner’s acting chops and she ended up calling Mogambo one of her best on-set experiences.
“I never felt looser or more comfortable in a part before or since.”
Ford went, in her estimation, from being “the meanest man on earth, thoroughly evil,” to being a beloved father figure. “By the time the picture ended, I adored him.”
Gardner’s husband, Frank Sinatra, spent some time on the Kenyan set, where Ford put him to work cooking Italian meals for the cast and crew. After Sinatra left to fly back to the Hollywood, where he was screen testing for a role in From Here to Eternity, Gardner discovered she was pregnant.
Her marriage already was coming apart, and she told Ford she would need a long weekend off to go to London for an abortion. Ford, a Catholic, tried to talk her out of it, saying that if she started to show, he’d find a way to shoot around it.
Gardner, though, was adamant. The MGM publicity department put out a story that she’d been bitten by a “virus germ” and was flown back to London to recuperate.
Meanwhile it was rumored (but never substantiated) that Gable and Kelly were having an affair.
Kelly, who had made only two movies before Mogambo, won a Golden Globe for supporting actress. Both she and Gardner were nominated for Oscars (Kelly as a supporting actress, Gardner as a lead) but neither won.
Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) Not rated
- March 12: Mogambo (1953) Not rated
- March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957) Not rated
- March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963) Not rated
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not rated
- March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941) Not rated
- March 17: They Were Expendable (1945) Not rated
- March 24: The Quiet Man (1952) Not rated
- March 31: Mister Roberts (1955) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.