52 Before 62 — #47 ½ Mogambo (1953)

Mogambo.jpgDirected by John Ford

Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based upon the play “Red Dust” by Wilson Collison

Starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and Donald Sinden

A confession to start – I did not finish Mogambo.  I know how it begins, but not how it ends.  Although, because it’s a remake of Red Dust, which I have seen, I can probably guess how it ends.  This is how it went: I started it, watched about 35 minutes in the first sitting,[1] then spent three weeks slogging through the next 25 minutes.  And then, at roughly the 1 hour mark, facing down the possibility of having to watch another hour of the movie, I gave up.  That’s why this entry is 47 ½ and not 48.  And is also the why the moral of this story is don’t be afraid to quit things that no longer give you pleasure.  How ever you define pleasure.

Still of Clark Gable and Grace Kelly in Mogambo (1953) | Grace ...

Kelly and Gable in the African wilds

Why Mogambo?

There were many reasons I was drawn to Mogambo.  The biggest being it’s a remake of Red Dust, which we previously covered as entry #32.  So, we could easily do a compare/contrast between original and remake, and the changes in Gable’s character from one film to the other, and how using the same actor at different points in his life brings a different sort of calculous to the role.  A different kind of take.

Other talking points could revolve around an early-career performance from Grace Kelly.  Or, how what seemed an early-career film for Kelly at the time ultimately proved to be a mid-career Kelly performance, owing to the fact that Kelly’s screen career was just 5 years – 1951 to 1956.  Plus, it might finally start to clear up an Ava Gardner blind spot for me.  Or, it could ne a chance to take in one of the lesser-known, or lesser-hailed, entries in the John Ford canon, a director I’ve basically resisted at nearly every turn – The Quiet Man and The Informer excepted.

All of these factors together paint Mogambo as being ideally made for this series.  Where, finally, we have a film that might inspire the sort of epic-length post in the style of the Best Picture Project or Also-Rans Project.  It’s pretty satisfying burning 4,000 to 5,000 words talking about a movie.


Except all of these talking points go straight out the window – more or less – when you can’t bring yourself to finish the film and the entry instead becomes a 47 ½ and not a 48.

Red Dust (1932)

Jean Harlowe and Clark Gable

What Went Wrong?

The short answer – pretty much everything.  Specifically?

Thinking back to Red Dust, I remember the film as boring.  If I remember it at all.  Sure, there are a couple of exciting scenes that jump to mind, like the tantalizingly-near-nude Jean Harlow in a bathtub, and that Gable plays the whole film sans moustache.  On the whole, though, the film left me indifferent.  It was simply a boring film about a rubber merchant first having an affair with a sleazy prostitute, then having one with a married woman, based on a boring play.[2]

But where the original was passively dull and hemmed in by ‘turgid’ source material, Mogambo was never so passive.  Rather, it seemed aggressively dull and unexciting.

And frankly, there’s no good reason it should be this way.  After all, Mogambo is not slavish to the source material, or the original film.  It is not interested in being a devoted, note-for-note cover version.  Certainly, it keeps the base elements – the love-quadrangle in a far-flung location – but varies them as needed.  So, rather than have the film play in southeast Asia, here it takes place in Africa.  And no longer is Gable in the rubber business, now he’s a big game capturer, supplying zoos around the world with exotic animals.  And where he was young and brash in the original, now he’s older and wizened and jaded.

Moreover, by adjusting the ages of the characters played by Gable and Harlowe in the original to the versions played by Gable and Gardener in Mogambo, the story should deepen and become more complex, as everything does when aged.  At least, it could create some new subtext about a fading man clinging to youth.  But rather than expanding the possibilities in the characters, it flattens them until they are non-sensical and one-dimensional.

Even worse, it seems the improved cast and the ‘improved’ director actually work against the material.  Where Red Dust seemed shot in a studio and was hemmed in by it, to its detriment, Mogambo was filmed on location, but in the blandest way possible.  John Ford has never been anything more to me than an unimaginative director, and when he made a good film that I adore – The Quiet Man – it almost seems accidental.  Simply, he lacks visual style and the ability to be anything more than ham-handed in his construction of a film.  At the end of the day, Ford just seems a director intent on repetition, going back to the same crutches he always relied upon, to increasingly decreasing returns.

Curiously, while Red Dust appears to have been shot in a studio, and Mogambo shot on location, Red Dust is the film that appears authentic.  After all, Red Dust is set in southeast Asia, during a rainy season, and it appears on film hot and sweaty.  The humidity is palpable and feels lived in.  Conversely, Mogambo is set in the wilds of Africa, which in this movie is a place where nobody sweats, where all hair is perfectly done, where nobody looks dusty ever, and where it’s common to have full black-tie dinners whenever you feel like it.  I can accept that movies don’t necessarily have to follow reality, and should be an escape from it.  But that escape at least needs to be in touch with some level of reality to avoid being ridiculous.[3]

Saddled as they are with lousy direction, the cast does what they can with the material.  For the most part, they are fine, but no matter how hard they try they simply cannot make any of the relationships, or their motivations, believable.

For instance, Gable is supposed to be some form of an irresistible man, that the women are just innately drawn to, and while Gable is certainly handsome – he always was – that’s about the only character trait he has.  Unless being an asshole is a character trait.  Perhaps I’m naïve, but I steadfastly refuse to believe that if the only thing you ever know about a person was he’s a handsome asshole, nobody would go for him.  Not in real life, not in the movies.  And especially not in a movie where chemistry between the leads is in short supply.

In the end, if the director is the author of the film, then the auteur responsible for making a hash of this one is John Ford.  Some might lionize him, but I do not.  Increasingly, I think I might not ever.

The Lesson

The lesson from this entry is simple: life is short and don’t do those things you don’t enjoy.  People might give you some nonsense about quitters never win, but life is not a game.  Life is…life.  And in the reality of life, quitting things is liberating.  It is exhilarating.  It increases the value of things you enjoy and do finish, and makes more time for you to do things you do enjoy, and to try new things you might enjoy.  So, no matter how much you’ve committed to a book or a movie or TV show, the second it stops giving you what you need from it, quit and move on.


You can follow 52 Before 62 here.

You can see the The Best Picture Project here.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.  It will not include this entry, for obvious reason.

Also see the Also Rans Project here.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project here: click on the link here.

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[1] A second confession?  I don’t actually watch most of these movies straight through in one sitting.  Some might view this as heresy but honestly, it probably improves the viewing experience.

[2] Well, I don’t know for certain it was boring.  However, while the body of the New York Times review the play is hidden behind a pay wall at this point, the headline is not, and they don’t bury the lead: “Red Dust: A Turgid Play of the Tropics”

[3] Unless ridiculous is the goal.

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