Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ava Takes a Bath

Mogambo (1953), the remake of Red Dust is unique in that the same actor plays the lead over twenty years later.  And frankly, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it.  Victor Marswell (Gable) is a big-game hunter in Kenya.  Most of his work involves trapping animals for American zoos, though he will take on the occasional tourist or researcher.  But when  Eloise Y. (Honey Bear) Kelly (Ava Gardner) arrives, he is not prepared for the consequences.  She is there to meet the Maharajah of Bungalor, who it happens, canceled his trip without informing Honey Bear.  Since the next boat back isn't for a week, Honey Bear is stuck; a romance quickly develops between her and Vic.  But not for long, because when the boat arrives, Vic happily shoves her on it - he assumed a brief fling, she (unbeknownst to him) had other ideas.  The boat is also the bringer of business - Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) and his wife of 7 years, Linda (Grace Kelly) alight.   Donald plans on researching gorillas in the back country.  Vic is at first reluctant - he considers gorillas far too dangerous, but changes his mind as he becomes attracted to Linda.  Further complications ensue when Honey Bear returns - her boat broke down - the tension between the two women is palpable, as each makes her bid for Victor's affections.

Mogambo does not veer extensively from the story of Red Dust.  It changes character names,  the location of the action, and the reason for the visit of the Nordleys.  It also extends the story somewhat.  Much of this is in the nature of a travelogue.  We are treated to many shots of stunning African vistas, exotic animals, all in wide-screen and Technicolor.   Much of this is done to attract an audience that is dismissing film for their television -  TV is not really available in color, so the film entices audiences with the promise of excitement and beauty.  And viewes Clark Gable without his shirt (still a rather pleasant slight).  The film was shot on location, a huge incentive for hunters Gable and director John Ford, and for Grace Kelly, who was delighted at the idea of a trip to Africa.  Allegedly, Gable and Kelly also became romantically involved while there (at least according to Donald Sinden).  This series of TCM articles is worth a read for many tidbits about the film.

Other actors were considered before the cast was finalized:  Stewart Granger (as Victor - Granger actually suggested the remake, with himself in the lead.  Sam Zimbalist, however, wanted Gable); Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, and Gene Tierney (for the part of Linda) and Lana Turner (as Honey Bear).  And while some of our group members were not impressed with Kelly (her Linda is much harder than Astor's Barbara), there was overwhelming praise for Ava Gardner.  Her character has much more depth than that of Vantine - we learn a little about her past, and her gradual growth into acceptance is a  big plus in liking Honey Bear.  Gardner also get all the best lines.  One of my personal favorites is: "The only lions I ever want to see again are in front of the public library."  Spoken like a true New Yorker!

One thing that the character of Linda has that Barbara does not is more backstory.  Linda and Donald are childhood sweethearts (she's known him since she was five years old).  They've been married for 7 years, and she is only 27 (Barbara and Gary are newlyweds), and Linda has traipsed around the world with her husband, despite that fact that what she really wants is a set home and children.  The affair with Victor becomes all the more understandable when one has all this background information - that she's been trying to sustain the marriage for many years, has been a "good sport" about her husband's penchant for exotic travel, and that she is reaching an age where the call for a family is probably quite loud (a call that Donald doesn't hear).  Her husband's illness, and Victor's rescue of her from an animal trap make him Sir Galahad in her eyes.  Small wonder that she falls for him.

If Gable at times seems impatient, we wondered if it could have been the difficulties he was having with John Ford, who resented Gable's need for retakes (Gable - compromised by years of drinking -  now suffered occasional palsies, that would come unbidden.  He would need to reshoot scenes if they popped up onscreen).
The one problem with the remake is there seems less reason for Victor's attraction to Linda.  Certainly, Kelly is a beauty par excellence, but Gardner is no slouch in the looks department, and demonstrates a sense of humor and good fellowship that Linda sorely lacks.  Yet, Gable shows his to Kelly attraction immediately: Victor's eyes light up when he sees Linda, but there is a gentleness behind it, almost out of character for the rather gruff Victor.  Nevertheless, it does make Victor more attractive - he is not the "two-legged boa constrictor" Honey Bear describes in his relations with Linda.  And even 20+ years older, Gable is stunning - he mesmerizes on the screen, and it is perfectly understandable that Zimbalist would want him rather than Stewart Granger.  No one else could duplicate the role; Gable is too dynamic.
Stories abound concerning the difficulties of working with John Ford, and as noted above, this film was no exception.  Eventually, Gable came to terms with Ford, who had not, it seems, ever seen Gable in Red Dust.  But Gable was not the only one to suffer Ford's wrath - Donald Sinden was also a victim - the ultra-Irish Ford decided to blame the English Sinden for the troubles in Ireland! 

It was Ford who insisted on Grace Kelly for the part of Linda; and, both Kelly and Gardner were nominated for Oscars for their work on the film.  The film also - at Ford's insistence, does not have a soundtrack.  He wanted, and got - animal sounds and native music to be the background to his story. 

We'll close with the scene in which we meet Honey Bear - a scene "borrowed" from the original film.  Interestingly, according to this AFI article, the Censorship Board had problems with the scene; "the PCA believed the shower scene 'involved too much exposure' and demanded that some footage be eliminated"  The ruling was protested (and, it seems MGM's Robert Vogel won).  See if you agree: