29 March 2011


Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly): Feeling down darling? It must be those shots we took. The doctor said they sometimes cause a reaction.
Victor Marswell (Clark Gable): What shots?
Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden): Yesterday, at the settlement, the tsetse fly injections.
Victor: Tsetse fly? Your letter didn't say anything about going up into tsetse fly country.
Linda: We understood we had to go through that territory to get to the gorillas.
Victor: Not necessarily. And why gorillas?
Donald: It's a pet theory of mine. I want to study gorillas, their family life and so on. Even get some of their vocal sounds on a tape recorder I brought with me. It's a theory on the derivative evolution -
Victor (interrupting): I'm sorry, I wouldn't understand, and again, to be quite frank, it's a long and difficult safari. It doesn't fit in with my schedule.

Victor Marswell isn't interested in much more than his manliness, and Mogambo presumes that women, for example Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly, when confronted with this man, are unable to resist him. Contemporary social and cultural norms of manliness and man beauty are substituted for believable development of sexual tension, and a then-popular, widespread conception of Gable as attractive is necessary in order to understand the romantic triangle.

John Ford's Mogambo, 1953, is a remake of Victor Fleming's Red Dust, 1932; John Lee Mahin worked as a writer on both, from an earlier play by Wilson Collison. Clark Gable, somewhat ridiculously, stars in both films. Red Dust is a lean 83 minute film that still holds up, last time I checked, last year on my birthday for a rubber plantation double-feature with White Woman. Red Dust is pre-code and pre-manners, the kind of early Hollywood movie run by lunatics and preposterous behavior (the kind that's a lot of fun in my opinion).

Much of Mogambo has lost its flavor over time. For a number of reasons it was tough for me to think of Victor as heroically manly. First, he flirts with women using corny, transparent sexual innuendos. Coded sexual language is a familiar Hollywood device, but here the dialogue is strained and uninspired. It's just not sexy. Red Dust's famous Jean Harlow bath scene is fun, sexy, and surprising; in Mogambo, Ava Gardner's shower scene is pretend turn-on. Second, his Africa is both real and fake, on-set and on-location, a mixture of rear projections and cut-aways.
It's only real when it's safe, like when it's baby elephants. It feels like Victor lives in safety, which he does. Perhaps Mogambo's 116 min running time is a result of so much Africa documentary footage. Exciting on its own, it doesn't manage to add truthfulness to the movie's love story, and the worlds never converge, even when they're supposed to, for example when the gorilla charges. Third, the fiftyish Clark Gable did not win my heart, personally.

Ford's intention must have been to use the exotic as an intensifying backdrop. This would have worked if the love story itself had reached exotic heights. It remains standard love story fair, if not worse. I felt bad at the end, for everyone. Linda's husband's smartness and manners aren't enough to keep her, he isn't exciting enough, and when she wants to enjoy dirty hut sex with Victor she does. When Victor feels bad for Donald and gives Linda back, he decides to marry Eloise (Gardner), and Eloise is more than happy to be asked back.

There's a reality to the outcome that I respect Ford for observing, and the story and its consequences are basically the same as Red Dust. The difference is the bloated running time, and the visions and sounds of Africa (Ford used tribal music in place of a studio score). These are efforts to make the story something it's not, to transform it to a larger scale.
Overall it's a melodramatic vision of a standard drama, but maybe because it's Ford, there are also inspired moments. Like when Eloise first leaves on the boat, seen above, filled with nice little details, including the leopard in the box. In the next scene Eloise paces back and forth in front of the leopard, and the leopard paces along with her. That's charming. The moment Donald approaches Linda and wraps a scarf around her neck, clutching it, and the only noise is the wind, is a sexy thirty second scene. The shining moments are nice, and I wish there had been more.

No comments:

Post a Comment